White Soul: Country Music, The Church, And Working Americans by Tex Sample

It is important to see in country music a struggle, often covered with humor, to address this issue of basic trust Where the world is so often unresponsive to your efforts, but demeans you and your life in basic everyday encounters, then this issue of trust cannot be approached apart from the activity of life itself. Trust is not merely a psychological characteristic; it is the grounding base of one’s life and practice. It is not so much articulated as done. It is not so much the conscious makeup of one’s subjectivity as the very case of one’s bearing. It is what gets you up in the morning, what keeps you on the job, what enables you to hunker down, what keeps you finally in love with you family or leads you to leave it, it is what gets you through the night. It is a trust formed in some story of how the world is, sometimes a very latent and implicit narrative. Sometimes with working people it is a story of desperation and despair about a world where the best you can do is get by. Sometimes it is a story of going through the motions and living numb. An attempt to address the faith that does not come to terms with this struggle and the often unarticulated trust activated in it will not engage the lived live of working people. Such efforts will be abstract, irrelevant, and, worst of all, not seriously attempt to discern the redemptive work of the Spirit in their everyday activity. My deepest confidence in a country music as the embodiment of working-class life, with all of its limitations, is that it, indeed, addresses this dimension of the working world. – Tex Sample, White Soul: Country Music, The Church, And Working Americans, pp. 170-171

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Two of America's greatest songwriters and performers, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.

Two of America’s greatest songwriters and performers, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.

At Lisa’s first appointment in Jarratt, VA was a man named Billy Gordon. Billy was the poster-boy for good old boys. His neck was so red it glowed. He smoked, he drank, he hunted, he fished, and he cussed. He was also living with a cancer that was killing him so slowly I’m surprised he managed to get out of bed some days. Lisa would visit with Billy and his wife Mary Ellen and they’d talk about God. Billy wasn’t church-going at all. Still, he told Lisa, “Me and God, we got things worked out.”

I was there the last time Billy came home from the hospital. Always a big, burly man, I pushed a wasted frame, his face twisted by pain, in wheelchair. I lifted him in to bed and where once had been a hearty, friendly, laughing man was now nothing but skin and bones. Lisa, Mary Ellen, and me, we got Billy situated and as comfortable as we could. Leaving after that was hard. I’d never been through an experience like that before (I was 29 years old; what the hell did I know about anything?), and seeing what cancer had done to Billy, I hated it. I won’t say I loved Billy, because I didn’t know him well enough. I liked him an awful lot. He was all the things I would have thought I never could have liked – he was free with the “n” word when talking about African-Americans; his demeanor and person were rough, if I didn’t know him and saw him walking toward me, sure enough I’d be afraid – but knowing Billy you couldn’t help but like him. And now this is what was left after years of fighting and fighting and refusing to allow the cancer to define him, it seemed to snatch him all at once.

That was on a Friday. It was early on Sunday when Mary Ellen called Lisa and told her Billy was gone. Lisa did his funeral, a gathering of fellow working country folk for whom a funeral was probably one of only two reasons to cross the threshold of a church (the other being a wedding). There, surrounded by by people who probably were wondering why a lady was doing the preaching, Lisa told them a story about a God who loves us so much, that God will reach down to someone like Billy Gordon and work out an understanding. Lisa told them that Billy’s joy for living, his enjoyment of all the things that seemed to make his life worth living showed the Spirit was with him. That Spirit would carry Billy over and through, and Billy would rest with God. She also made the point they, too, all those folks there who were wondering what a preacher might say about Billy Gordon, had the opportunity to realize that God loved them, too. Not if they did better in life. God loved them, full stop.

A couple weeks later, I happened to be back at my Seminary alma mater and one of my former professors, James Logan, said to me, “So I hear Lisa did a redneck funeral a while back.” I looked at him. I knew Jim was deep inside Virginia Conference politics, but I honestly had no idea how he’d heard about this. It was just a funeral, after all. My curiosity got the better of me. “Where’d you hear that?” He smiled and said, “Oh, good news travels fast.”

In White Soul, United Methodist scholar Tex Sample traces the twin realities of working-class life and its depiction in and through the medium of country-western music. Refusing to ignore a source of rich theological potential, Sample mines the music that tells the story of a people who are, as he repeatedly notes, are living life so close to the edge they’re not sure if there’s anything but an edge. By showing how the music reflects the lives of those who love it – and let’s not kid ourselves, millions of people love this music – he also shows how it can be a useful tool both for ministry as well as theological reflection.

His is not an uncritical “baptism” of the music. It is also not a naive presentation of the lives of working people. On the contrary, Sample spends much of the book showing the inherent deficiencies and contradictions both within the music as well as the lives of working people. At the same time, he notes the equivocal nature of any statement one way or another about either. One theme that runs through the work is the place of “Saturday night versus Sunday morning” (something jazz and blues and soul performers also contended with), what he calls “being rowdy and loud at the twist and shout”, the name of the first chapter. On the one hand, sure, sometimes the “rowdy” business gets a bit out of control. At the same time, celebration is also something inherent in us as human beings, this need to let off steam, let our hair down, and kick up a ruckus. And, yes, that includes things like drinking and sex and saying naughty words. Sample also repeats that the church alienates itself from working-class folks when it spends more time whining about all that “immoral” activity than it does protesting the structural conditions of work and life that lead too many people to kick up a dickens on Saturday because that’s the only chance they get in the midst of a round of days filled with meaningless work that feels like no one appreciates.

That this last echoes so much of the thing I’ve been saying over the years is just one of the many reasons I love this book.

The whole presentation, which takes both the music and its taste-public seriously, offers opportunities for theological reflection on everything from the nature of the faith as opposed to the institutional Church to matters the spiritual nature of our structural evils:

One needs neither an angelology nor a demonology to account for the pervasive and systemic destruction wrought by distorted comitments, rapacious imbalances of power, the violative practices of dominant institutions, and dehumanizing impact of social inequalities in the common life. Indeed, we do no contend with flesh and blood alone but with elemental powers of the universe, powers so systemically embedded in the full rage of our lives that they take on an emergent reality larger than more pervasive than, their manifestation in individual acts alone.

That a music too often derided as less than meaningless actually carries within it a range of emotional meanings as well as semiotic clues to unpacking the relationships between it it and those who love it should be obvious enough. That it also offers a view of the American working class not so much as “conservative” but what Sample calls “traditionalist populist anarchist” also seems to make clear the too-often repeated dismissal of the working class as irretrievably antiquated, illiterate, racist, and stupid. Both the political and religious depth of country music, a depth to which its fans respond with enthusiasm, is cause for celebration, not mockery.

For the Church, this book offers both hope and a warning. The hope it offers is there are still opportunities for our churches to reach the working class – a group that is both too often denied access as well as self-segregates because, as one person I worked with at WalMart would say, “I know where I’m not wanted” – as long as the institutions of the church work from the ground up rather than impose something from the top down. Or worse, seem to pander without making any substantive changes that would make the working class feel more welcome. The warning, however, is even more clear: We need to be in ministry to the working class, and do so with love and openness and honesty and without any expectations. When Lisa preached at Billy Gordon’s funeral, she didn’t think any of those folks were suddenly going to flood Centenary UMC. All she hoped was they heard some Good News at a moment they might well have heard something else entirely. Rather than set conditions and judge the working class and the soundtrack of their lives, it might do our churches well to sit and listen both to the people and their music in order to hear their stories. Rather than worry about doctrinal niceties, perhaps giving pride of place to the semiotic links between the music and working class life as a gateway to hearing and seeing the Spirit move in and through places the Church just doesn’t want to go offers opportunities for ministry that might not exist otherwise.

Sample’s is a beautifully written, engaging, thoughtful, and prophetic book that should be studied by clergy and lay people alike. The word of judgement should be heard, and atonement for our class bias made. The opportunities for redemptive activity, for ministry with – not to or for but with – working class Americans are there. It only takes courage, thoughtfulness, and an openness to a Spirit that not only swoons to Bach but sings with Patsy Cline’s twang and plays banjo like Grandpa Jones.

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