Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Saved!—by Rock'n'Roll?

I've been watching bits of the Oscar-winning 2014 documentary 20 Feet from Stardom. About half an hour in, we hear about Merry Clayton's duet with Mick Jagger on Gimme Shelter; you can see an excerpt on youtube.

Gloria Jones, who was a gospel singer and also sang with Joe Cocker and T. Rex, spoke on the film about this: "What I liked was that she could sing. She was able—to be Merry. She didn't have to (gesturing) bring it down." I found her next comments (not in the youtube excerpt) remarkable: "Everybody was telling us we had to 'bring everything down,' so when the rock'n'roll world came and said, 'No, we want you to sing, it saved us. Saved us. Saved our lives."

Why would Jones say that gospel singers like herself and Merry Clayton needed saving? (According to this openculture story and others, Clayton was the daughter of a Baptist minister and sang in her father's church.) This put me in mind of two other quotes. The first is from Barbara Brown Taylor:

The problem is, many of the people in need of saving are in churches, and at least part of what they need saving from is the idea that God sees the world the same way they do.
― Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith
downloaded from goodreads July 2015

The second is from Kent Haruf's lovely novel, Eventide. In an earlier volume, we meet the McPherson brothers, bachelor farmers who take in a homeless pregnant teen-ager. As Eventide begins, Victoria is leaving for college with her little girl, and the brothers are helping her move into her apartment. The manager wonders if they're her grandfathers or uncles:

We're not related that way, Victoria said. They saved me two years ago when I needed help so badly. That's why they're here.

They're preachers, you mean.

No. They're not preachers. But they did save me. I don't know what I would've done without them. And nobody better say a word against them.

I've been saved too, the girl said. I praise Jesus every day of my life.

That's not what I meant, Victoria said. I wasn't talking about that at all.

Victoria was saved from homelessness and poverty. And from alienation. "I don't know what I would've done without them," she said.

The apartment manager was saved from… eternal death? I assume she means her sins have been forgiven and that she will be made perfect in the world to come. She has what we in the church call "assurance of salvation," the promise of eternal life. This is no small thing, but somehow she comes off as faintly ridiculous.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes about being saved from a wrong notion about God. This is huge, actually. If our ideas about God are far enough away from the truth, we'll find ourselves worshiping and obeying some other god. This is not good.

The salvation Gloria Jones speaks about is somehow not quite as serious—but maybe it is: she, and Merry Clayton and the others, were saved from a life of not being able to really express themselves—of feeling in some way unacceptable, unapproved, not cherished for who they really are.

I'm sorry to say that we in the church sometimes treat women this way; some congregations don't accept the idea of women as elders; some won't listen to a woman teach. In the churches where Jones and Clayton worshiped, they didn't even want women to really sing.

But rather than go on a rant here, I want to say that in this world we all have our blind spots. As Curt Thompson notes in The Anatomy of the Soul, many of us are simply doing the best with what we have. Or something close to it anyway.

Imagine if you will a group, a community, a congregation, where we all think the only thing we need saving from is a set of things we call "sins," and maybe something unpleasant after this present life. We don't think we need to be saved from illusions about God, we don't think we need to be saved from distraction or folly that lead us to live futile lives.

If I were in a congregation like that, how introspective might I be, or not be? How willing might I be to question the status quo? And if the status quo meant that women in our group, my sisters in the Lord, should be told to sing [or not] in a certain way, how likely would I—or anyone—be to try to change things? It would take some sort of awakening, probably the intrusion of the Spirit of God, perhaps in the voice of a prophet; and a willingness in the congregation to hear and accept something that makes them feel uncomfortable.

So the McPherson brothers saved Victoria Roubidoux from poverty and alienation and homelessness. Reflection and self-examination and openness to the Spirit of God can save us from folly and oppression. And if we encourage someone to truly be themselves, to be the person God meant them to be, we can prevent [maybe even relieve] a sense of shame about who they are—and save ourselves from being oppressors as well.

And we do need to be saved from becoming one of the oppressors, one of those people who put others down and lord it over them. Even the early disciples needed saving from that:

25Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Matthew 20:25-28 NIV

We all need saving, and I don't just mean we need to hear and believe the good news of Jesus. We also need to think correctly about who God is and how he sees things. And for goodness's sake, we need to be saved from being part of the oppressive congregation/gang/culture that denies dignity to our fellow human beings.

Which means we need—I need—to be open to the possibility that I'm part of the problem; I need to be willing to examine myself and to be willing to change my mind (or to repent, to use the jargon). So help me God.

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