“Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees.”
As theologians such as James Cone and musicologists like Alan Lomax have observed, various traditions of American music (here we think especially of blues, and then later country ) have ambiguous relationships to Church-based piety in general, and hymnody in particular. The blues was widely considered in its heyday to be “devil’s music” even as its deep roots in gospel were transparent, and country music – particularly in the hands of such late-20th century giants as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and now Iris Dement – is perhaps the most God-haunted genre in contemporary music even as much of its pathos derives from perceived distance between the singer and holiness. Elise’s decision to emphasize the Americana strains already present within the compositional pedigree of “What Wondrous Love is This”– the anonymous text was presented as a traditional American folk song in 1811 and made popular by Sacred Harp shape singers in 1844 – thus takes on particular significance when the traditional marks of authenticity associated both with music and with religion have become less compelling to many in the 21st century.
We might call this the “Beck”-ification of these strands. Beck’s particular musical genius, present already in the aggressive slide guitar riff that marked his first radio hit, was to sample in alternating analog and electronic patterns the various aesthetic signifiers of classic country music – “Rocking the plastic like a man from the Catskills!” – in a manner that traded on the postmodern irony of their reference point for his largely alt-rock audience raised more in the trajectory of “oh well, whatever, nevermind.” The association of countrified musical flourishes with wink and nod indie rock irony continues with varying levels of commitment to the authenticity side of the register (e.g. Jack White) and/or evacuation of sincerity to the point of nihilism (e.g. Ween). Quotation of previous sincerity forms Internet communities of lonely insiders, pretending that winking consumption is community. And the middle-aged indie set sucks in its gut and goes shopping.
I certainly don’t want to claim that this is the only story to tell about the fate of slide guitar and relaxed tempos outside of Nashville in the 21st century, but it is a sub-story that takes on particular poignancy when we follow Elise in juxtaposing these strands with a hymn whose text hits all the theological notes whose authenticity might be said to have suffered a similar fate in late modernity. “Love,” when even much contemporary Christian music can only portray love in terms largely indistinguishable from secular soft rock. “Soul,” when what begins as salutary Christian embrace of the goodness of immanence (Bonhoeffer) becomes a flattened imagination that can only weakly exhort the disenchanted brain to love “justice.” “Dreadful curse,” when the only God comprehended by much of the popular imagination has been reduced to a sad Simpsons character in the sky. Surely such vocabulary is only good for sampling, not proclamation, right? Surely no one would take these terms out naked, without deconstructed weapons with which to charm.
The Americana flourishes, the signifiers of authenticity hearkening back to a time when soul and love and seemingly incalculable distances to holiness could be taken at face value and sounded for depths (“I’ve got your drinking money, tune up your Dobro”)– it could either be an ironic wink, or a helplessly retrograde stance. Both of which are, of course, live ecclesiological options today. But what saves the track – and the church – from this fate is what Elise offers us at the core of her performance: plain beauty. Here the noun and the modifier are both important – the beauty of Elise’s voice in this setting is a given, but plain beauty here is to refuse to wink, or embellish, or to give irony-jaded souls like my own even the slightest sonic justification to evade the gospels under layers of meta. The slightest vocal fry, the mere whiff of retro cool, would give up the game in the song just as much as it does in worship, but it is not here.
It is a well-established truth at this point that Johnny Cash was every bit as punk rock, if not more so, than the Ramones. How punk rock is it, how rebellious is it, to still believe that at the heart of gospel proclamation can be a kind of simple beauty, a beauty that offers no pastiche of half-digested religious sentiment? What odd gamble is this, oh church? Beauty probably will not save the world, but God probably will not choose to save the world without beauty.
Rob Saler is Research Professor of Lutheran Studies at Christian Theological Seminary, and serves as the Executive Director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence. He is author, most recently, of Between Magisterium and Marketplace: A Constructive Account of Theology and the Church.