What Hath Jerusalem to Do with Hank Williams? Country Music and Evangelical Theology

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When the typical American thinks of Nashville, he is more likely to think of the Grand Ole Opry than the LifeWay Christian Resources headquarters. And yet, sociologically speaking, the multi-billion dollar country music industry shares some common roots with the various streams of southern religion. Thus, the worldview assumptions behind southern folk music and southern folk religion are sometimes bewildering, even to those familiar with both. How can artists like Willie Nelson end a concert by moving, without comment, from crooning “Whiskey River, Take My Mind” to softly singing “Amazing Grace”? The authors of a must-read book contend that such is not as contradictory as it seems, since the popular music and the popular religion of the American south feed off of a common understanding of theological questions such as the relationship between sin and grace.

Honky Tonk Gospel: The Story of Sin and Salvation in Country Music by Gene
Edward Veith and Thomas L. Wilmeth suggests that country music is explanatory of southern pop theology largely because this art form, unlike many others, “has a way of acknowledging the sinfulness of sin.” With such the case, the authors, both English professors and noted evangelical worldview analysts, set the stage by rooting southern folk music in the revivalist worship of frontier Baptists and Methodists, for whom “the line between the camp meeting and the church service began to blur” in the nineteenth century. Since country music has represented a kind of “secularized testimony,” the authors contend, it is of little surprise that this music can focus so much attention, simultaneously, to themes such as drunkenness, infidelity, marital love, and Christian conversion. Using country music as a test case for the cultural context of southern religion, Veith and Wilmeth explore the theological assumptions behind the lyrics of country musicians, assumptions that resonate in the regions pulpits as well as its radio airwaves.

In this project of worldview analysis, the authors have identified some surprising-but deeply pervasive-theological underpinnings present in both southern music and southern religion. This is seen for Veith and Wilmeth in, for instance, a complex view of gender and sexuality. While southern folk culture, and especially southern religion, have been caricatured as reflexively misogynist and patriarchal, this volume argues that the lyrics of country music songs reflect a much more complicated tension. Female singers such as Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn sing about the need for respect for women, but they do so from the vantage point not of secular feminism, but of a Christian tradition of husbands honoring their wives and families by refusing to abandon them for the neighborhood bar-or the woman on the next barstool. Similarly, the authors pinpoint a conflicted view of sexuality. While a country music song might be as sexually explicit as its “Top 40” counterpart on the radio dial, the romantic overtures are more often in country music directed toward one’s spouse, not to an illicit lover. Again, Veith and Wilmeth attribute this to a residual, cultural nod toward Christian themes of the goodness of marriage.

At the same time, Veith and Wilmeth diagnose a trend in country music toward a postmodern rejection of universal truth claims or any overarching meta-narrative capable of explaining history and morality. The fact that postmodern lingo can find its way into the most conservative and tradition-laden of American popular art forms is, for Veith and Wilmeth, a warning signal to the churches of a growing epistemological nihilism. But this nihilism was preceded by an even more longstanding antinomianism in southern popular culture, fed by the preaching of southern churches, regarding the doctrine of salvation. Country music often illustrates in full-color the kinds of “carnal Christian” soteriological concepts that are almost cultural givens in the American South. Thus, pastors who are familiar with what is being sung from Nashville should not be completely surprised to see the funeral of the town drunk feature the singing of “I Saw the Light.” After all, the writer of the song, Hank Williams, was himself an unrepentant alcoholic and adulterer-and a very public professing evangelical Christian.

Veith and Wilmeth also very helpfully utilize country music lyrics to expose the culture’s love/hate relationship with the local congregation. They argue compellingly that southern culture has adopted an unbiblical, individualistic view of human spirituality that is the direct result of a truncated evangelical ecclesiology. Country music lyrics, therefore, speak incessantly of the church, but it is always the abandoned little country church in which the repentant sinner bows and prays-alone. As Veith and Wilmeth conclude, “In contemporary country music, the church as the place of salvation has all but disappeared.” It can be argued that these lyrics simply reflect what southern evangelicalism itself embraced for too long-namely, a gospel in which “Jesus saves” the individual soul rather than the biblical message in which Jesus purchases individuals and calls them together as a church (Eph 5:25-30). The cultural pervasiveness of this notion should spur Southern Baptists and other evangelicals toward the project of emphasizing the need for a biblical and theological understanding of the church as the Body of Christ and the focal point of personal salvation.

Veith and Wilmeth model a helpful method of cultural analysis. Unlike some contemporary evangelicals, most particularly Stanley Grenz, this book’s authors do not treat popular culture as in any way revelatory. Thus, the Spirit is not seen to be speaking through the lyrics of George Jones or the Dixie Chicks. Cultural analysis thus serves as a missiological exercise rather than an epistemological one. This book, therefore, is a helpful tool for evangelicals seeking to navigate a region that Flannery O’Connor famously called “Christ-haunted.” So, while country music enthusiasts have hailed this book across the country for its thoughtful treatment of the art form, the volume may prove even more valuable for Southern Baptist pastors and theologians as they seek to diagnose the sometimes hidden theologies in the pews of southern churches.

In so doing, this volume helps to remind us that the world is made up of theologians-those who acknowledge the Creator and those who do not (Rom 1). Therefore, evangelicals indeed must pay attention to the writings of John Calvin and John Wesley. But, if we are going to engage a confused culture, we must also pay attention to the lyrics of Johnny Cash.

The culture is changing but it can be good news for the church.


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About Russell Moore

Russell Moore

Russell Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the moral and public policy agency 
of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

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