Doc, Gospel, and the Gospel

Last night, Rachel & I went to see May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers. I can’t commend this documentary enough, and not just because I’m an unashamed fan of this band. There is something on display in their music and this film that pushes back, gently but firmly, against so many cultural orthodoxies and idols.

I can’t quite name them all, but the desire to lean in to hard truths and deep pain (rather than fleeing them with all possible speed) is close to the core of it. At one point in the film, Scott Avett, describing the season when bassist Bob Crawford’s daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer and band members kept vigil with the family at the hospital, said, “That’s when we grew up as men.” It’s a tacit recognition that maturity only comes through suffering, and that the greatest joys in life lie on the other side of such experiences.

One other moment sticks out, as well. Seth Avett described his reintroduction to folk and bluegrass music through spending time with Doc Watson as a young adult. Doc is not a “nobody” by any stretch, but he is not as widely known as perhaps he should be. Quite a number of artists trace their career success back to his influence, and he is, in some measure responsible for the return of “Americana” music to mainstream consciousness. For me, Doc is an emblem of home, for reasons described below in some thoughts I wrote after learning of his death over five years ago.


May 30, 2012.

Growing up in Watauga County, North Carolina, you inevitably hear some really good folk and bluegrass music. It just seems like the natural soundtrack to green mountains and mist-filled valleys. In Watauga, especially, one name always epitomized the gold-standard of mountain music: hometown legend Arthel “Doc” Watson. Doc was a fixture on the nationwide folk circuit for the better part of 5 decades, winning 7 Grammy awards (plus a lifetime achievement award) and the National Arts Medal. He was completely blind from early childhood, but made his way in the world quite capably with his other senses.

Doc passed on yesterday at 89, still picking and singing joyfully in his old age. It feels close to home for me, as his family homestead was just across the highway from my parents’ “homestead” (since 2006) in the little farm community of Deep Gap. The few times I crossed paths with Doc (more often at the grocery store than any place music-related), he struck me as a genuinely humble and grateful man—the simple fact that he was still living on his family land in Deep Gap after his fame attests to that.

Like many of his folk, bluegrass, and country contemporaries, Doc wrote or recorded a lot of spiritually themed music, what could broadly be termed “gospel” songs. It’s difficult to separate the biblical content from those genres, even in songs not explicitly about Christian concepts. The music, is, as Flannery O’Connor might say, “Christ-haunted” because of the deeply Christian culture that birthed it. If the testimonies of those who knew him better and the frequency and passion with which he sang about Christ and the Church are any indication, Doc’s love for these themes was anything but cultural. If so, he’s now living what he said once at a concert: “When I leave this world…I’ll be able to see like you can, only maybe a bit more perfect.”

Can “gospel” music be simply a superficial nod to the Christian roots of our culture that doesn’t have anything to do with the true Gospel message? Of course, but I think it also can be an ember that keeps the cultural memory of God’s sovereign grace from fading completely. Satan loves to have nations relegate the truth of Scripture and the influence of the Church to their history or to certain subcultures. Even more, though, God wills to see nations transformed by His Gospel, and He uses even the histories and subcultures of those nations to plant seeds that can fan those embers into a flame once again.

I don’t want to be in the business of over-spiritualizing popular culture, but I do see a bright lining to the customarily dark clouds of American entertainment in the resurgence of traditional (or “Americana”) music over the past decade. Of course, the music itself doesn’t qualify as preaching. The seeds of the Gospel contained in that music won’t do much to change hearts and lives unless they are watered by clear, faithful teaching of Scripture and modeled in the faithful witness of believers.

If Doc was indeed a follower of Christ, I’m sure he could think of no better legacy than that his music would be used to stir the calloused soul of America to hope again. As he sang in a recording of an old hymn (below), so also we can know that our hope doesn’t depend on our culture or, mercifully, on our own merit.

“Uncloudy Day”
by Josiah K. Allwood, Public Domain

O they tell me of a home far beyond the skies,
O they tell me of a home far away;
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an uncloudy day.

Refrain
O the land of cloudless day,
O the land of an uncloudy day,
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an uncloudy day.

O they tell me of a home where my friends have gone,
O they tell me of that land far away,
Where the tree of life in eternal bloom
Sheds its fragrance through the uncloudy day.

O they tell me of a King in His beauty there,
And they tell me that mine eyes shall behold
Where He sits on the throne that is whiter than snow,
In the city that is made of gold.

O they tell me that He smiles on His children there,
And His smile drives their sorrows all away;
And they tell me that no tears ever come again
In that lovely land of uncloudy day.

Photo © Ken Ketchie, www.boonencinfo.com

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Keeping Your Head on Straight

A couple of unrelated experiences have lately oozed together in my mind to form something resembling an idea.

The first is the mundane recognition that I was tired of living with chronic low-level back & neck pain. This led to my visiting this week, for the first time, a chiropractor. I’ve had my skepticism about the more expansive claims of the discipline, but some research and lots of recommendations from friends leads me to think that it might actually be helpful in relieving muscle pain associated with spinal misalignment.

As the the lopsided ess of my should-be-straight backbone stared back at me on the x-ray screen, I was more than a little embarrassed that I’d refused to seek care for so long. Though there could be many causes for this situation, it’s likely that it’s the follow-on result of a bad fall on ice when I was seventeen that nearly dislocated my left hip. That’s 15 years ago, folks, and I’m just now dealing with it.

There’s another metaphor or two in all this (i.e. “Take better care of yourself; there is no glory in stoic suffering to save a few bucks.”), but what stood out is the fact that your body will go to great lengths to literally keep your head on straight. That hip trauma led to a minor twist between two lumbar vertebrae…which caused my left hip to sit slightly higher than the right…which caused me to lean almost imperceptibly to the right…which made me tilt my shoulders ever so slightly to the left so that my head stayed vertical. That series of tiny shifts, plus years of gravity, resulted in constant, nagging soreness—all for the sake of keeping the top level.

The second experience involved dropping in on a session of my boss‘s college course (Economic Development in the Majority World) this morning. Our staff does that from time to time to show our support for that side of his work (he might say it’s to keep him on his toes, but…). Today’s lesson looked at the differences between Development Economics, Neoclassical Economics, Behavioral Economics, and a Christian approach to economics. Key to this is recognizing a) certain institutions must be in place for the neoclassical approach to make sense, b) that institutions must come from somewhere, and c) that cultural realities must be reckoned with.

Culture BoxAs part of the discussion, he brought up the “Culture Box”, which describes the ways that institutions are shaped by worldview, values, and actions, as well as how they shape those in return (see my rudimentary diagram at right). In an economic context, this helps to explain why simply importing an institution (say, a reserve banking system or fair taxation of markets) on to a culture that lacks the values (rule of law, equal rights for all people, etc.) that would generate consistent actions necessary to sustain that institution does not result in meaningful positive change.

Here’s where things get weird these two thoughts converge into a notion. This culture box functions like a “spine” of sorts. In the same way that your head has to be properly supported by the rest of your bone structure, the visible institutions of a culture have to come from solid underpinnings of worldview, values, and actions. If your spine is out of line, your head (hopefully) won’t fall off, but holding it in place creates discomfort and dysfunction all the way down. If the way you see the world doesn’t match with the institutions attempting to govern your culture, either your culture will be squeezed to match the institutions or the institutions will come crashing down like so many philosophical Jenga blocks.

So how does positive change actually come about?

Chiropractic can’t be a cure-all because your spine and your head are not all there is to your body. Your muscles, your posture, your nutrition, and many other factors also play in to your overall health. The culture box model likewise assumes an overly rational approach to life, leaving out the critical dimension of our hearts and habits (and the sin nature of those hearts) that impacts all the rest. It leaves us vulnerable to what James K.A. Smith calls “Thinking-thing-ism” by giving undue credit to our minds alone to drive our flourishing.

What we need (which is where the Econ Development class wrapped up) is the fulness of Christ. Christ not only renews our minds, but he dwells within our hearts. He is not only the head of the Church, but is its animating spirit—enabling the very actions He commands of us. “For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17).

All things” means “all things,” and any view of life or cultural structure that refuses to come to terms with this Lord will not ultimately stand. The sin that so twists and distorts our lives and our systems cannot move Him from His place as the head. But rather than toppling or crushing us, He redeems and restores. In His grace, he chastens those He loves, cracking our weary backs into alignment with His righteousness, justice, and peace.

A Jurist’s Prudence

Born an only child, staking a fresh claim,
New life far from his father’s native land.
Freedom’s song echoed deep in him, a flame
Lighting the road appointed beforehand.

Justice called his name, from schoolyard to bench.
He turned his mind to law, memorizing
Line upon line, with thirst he could not quench;
In due time, kings and nations advising.

Anguished by cruel and raw philosophy,
Words that stand written wadded up, thrown down;
He spoke hard truth, quite nearly prophecy—
“Ad fontes!”—and was called out as a clown.

“Words truly live when documents are dead;
Meaning’s fixed mark is study’s only aim,
The woven past an ever-present thread.”
Classroom to courtroom, his refrain the same.

Truth and order drove his faith in the law,
Great leveler of heroes, villains, all
Ordinances grounded on rock not straw,
Flow from One Judge. He answered to that call.

Dissent became his firebrand, though not
For its own sake. Foolishness earned his wrath
Wherever righteousness was left unsought.
Few dared draw his ire on the warpath.

Even so, those he fought admired him,
Those flaming arrows a badge of honor,
His depth, wit, and gusto inspired them
To lose well when their case was a goner.

He has left today, old and full of years.
A republic mourns, a people fret, for
He was too often alone in his fears
That this great land had been struck to its core.

 

On Work

What is a person’s work worth?

We work to live. True, but there is more to the transaction than this crude equation points out. Should our work be sold to the highest bidder, a straight swap of services for compensation? Or does the act of employment itself create something greater than either party can produce alone?

A couple of weeks ago, as my wife and I wandered through a craft fair in North Carolina, I saw this sign on a booth.

wpid-wp-1444608907019.jpeg

Tempting though it was to dismiss this as so much salesmanship for hobbyists, it stuck with me. Sure, artists tend to self-importance (No, I’d never do that), but there is something of imago Dei dignity in this statement. Any craftsmanship or professional endeavor is art in the sense described here, and in whatever capacity we are employed, we are selling a piece of ourselves. It is the value created by our knowledge, experience, strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures that makes buying our labor worthwhile.

Of course, there is another side: If no one is buying what we are selling, the fault may not lie entirely with the purchaser. It is certainly not an easy task to turn some of the grimier and more mundane tasks of life into “art”, but excellence can be pursued in any endeavor. Surely this is what the Apostle had in mind when he told Christian slaves (encompassing by synecdoche all of us who work) to serve: “with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ; not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man” (Eph. 6:5-7).

Work runs deeper than paying the bills, and, difficult and stressful though it may be at times, it is not itself a curse (as many have pointed out before, God gave Adam work to do in the Garden before the Fall). Perhaps if we remembered that the work of our hands is an extension of our person, we could serve and be served with greater honor and love.