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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God, the Ruler of All the Earth: Psalm 46

Many Psalms look inward at our personal righteousness in the face of God’s holiness (like Psalm 1), Others, such as the one we turn to now, focus outwardly on God’s strength and power and His dealings with the nations of the earth.

One of the great themes of the book that emerges very clearly in Psalm 46 is God’s power over and desire for praise from every nation, not just the Israelites.

Looking back from the perspective of the modern West, as inheritors of the work of faithful believers through the centuries to bring the Gospel to far shores, it is easy to see such messages in the words of the psalmists and “connect the dots” to the New Testament reality of God’s love poured out for all people. When we read a passage like Psalm 67:3-4, “Let the peoples praise You, O God; let all the peoples praise You. Let the nations be glad and sing for joy; for You will judge the peoples with uprightness and guide the nations on the earth,” it is for us wrapped in the warm joy of the Church around the world praising God and yearning for the day when we will do so together in His presence.

For the Israelites under the Old Covenant, however, the notion of God’s love for the nations would have sounded like a haunting prophecy, a departure from the status quo, and (for some, at least) a threat to their special status with God. Of course, God’s plan was always for redemption of the whole world through Israel (as we see in the promise to Abram in Genesis 12, Solomon’s dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 8, and many other places), but most of the Israelites were blind to this truth. It was not until after the death and resurrection of Christ that this message broke forth under the influence of the Holy Spirit (as we see in Acts 2) and spread like wildfire.

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The Way of the Righteous: Psalm 1

In 2011, I wrote a short series on selected Psalms for Disciple Magazine. A few of these are now showing back up here with slight updates.

My goal in writing and teaching on Scripture is usually explore it expositionally with an eye toward application. That is, opening the Bible, and seeing what the text in its context has to say about our belief and practice as Christians. This is in contrast to what I’ll call exploring the Word prescriptively—approaching selected texts in answer to a question or problem. Both expositional and topical Bible studies can be valuable in shaping our understanding the Word, but I try to stick to exposition to keep myself grounded.

Why Psalms?
Expositing the Psalms is not as clear-cut as studying the more logically structured, largely straightforward style of a New Testament epistle or a book of history. This is a book of songs and poetry meant to stir the people of God to worship and contemplation of the Lord and His Law, not necessarily of narrative or instruction. It does not lend itself easily to a verse-by-verse study; in fact, to break it down that far often distracts from the important themes and imagery the Psalmists develop through poetic structure and musical cadence.

These difficulties, however, should not discourage us from studying the Psalms. Rather, they should draw us in and guide our approach to the book. Here are a few suggested “ground rules” for interpreting and applying these hymns of worship.

1) Psalms are lyrical, not always literal. This does not mean that the poetry here is somehow exempt from inerrancy, but that it is filled with word pictures and illustrations that should be read as such. Over-analyzing the wording in a metaphor (instead of its message) misses its power to move us to worship and repentance, and will almost certainly lead to an interpretation that ventures far afield from what the author intended.

2) Most Psalms focus primarily on God’s character and our response to Him. In short, they’re about worship. When we approach the Psalms for insights into God’s character, man’s sinfulness, and what a repentant and righteous heart looks like, we find a treasure-trove. Specific commands, specific behaviors, specific prophecies, and specific history, though present, make up far less of the content here. They are more often implied and alluded to than explicitly stated.

3) Psalms (like all Scripture) need to be studied in context. To read the Psalms without ever having read the history of Creation, the people of Israel, and their covenantal relationship with God (i.e. the rest of the Old Testament) will breed confusion and frustration. Sometimes, even specific Psalms cannot be fully understood without a background of their specific history (such as Ps. 51 in light of the narrative of 2 Sam. 11-12). Even though they are rooted in the old sacrificial system and a world before Christ, the Psalms teach us about the unchanging character of God. There is a reason He has preserved them for us today, and the truths He reveals through these songs are not for one time and one people only. 
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