The last couple of days have been an experiment in cross posting between my two blogs, this and World Without End. Over at World Without End, I have been exploring the eschatology of Johnny Cash...focusing on his last few records. Yesterday I wrote here about the influence of revivalism and the American Church. These seem like history lessons, but the singing of the late 19th and early 20th century determined our current theological landscape. Here are a few points from the previous post.
1. The Theology of Revivalism was focused on individual decision.
2. It was highly developed by gospel singing, songs different from hymns.
3. It existed across denominational lines.
When we look at Cash's record My Mother's Hymn Book (check out World Without End for a deeper look into this record), we see differences that are thematic across revivalism. They show a concern for an afterlife that is separated from a sinful body, the "otherness" of heaven, and a pretty hardcore sentimentality. The songs about death that were sung at these meetings (and crept their way into mainstream Sunday morning) weren't dark, but they were evangelistic songs about death. The mass religious culture that was being formed was simply trying to find a way to make sense of their lives, and dealing with mortality was a serious issue. Remember this is a generation that isn't that removed from the Civil War, and life was still very hard. This is a deconstructed formal religion that was rebuilt to make sense in the camp meetings.
These songs weren't about formal institutions, or a clerical structure, but a deeply personal relationship with God. One of the markers of the inner-denominational cooperation was the absence of distinct (and controversial) theology of the unified church. Often, the absence of many intense theological topics shows the common ground that people wanted to stand on.
Death was seen as the platform for the believer to meet with God in eternity. The fascination with earth and heaven began to draw a serious line and the celebrated the distance between the two. Even as this is sung, many of the songs have an attitude of the hope of the journey towards heaven. The Arminian influence is found in the stories of triumph over sin but the "real destination to be sought"(Marini).
This developed a very individual eschatology, that was focused not on the Church or restoration of earth-but upon each persons place in heaven. Again, we realize that these songs and meetings were not originally seen as official worship services, but evangelistic meetings with a specific goal of conversation. Just as the preachers words were evangelistic, the songs sung by the believer were designed to lead people towards Christ.
The greatest influences of these songs are slight, but important. It is in revivalism that the American church became fascinated with individual experience and thematic personal singing. We sang about relationship, faith and promise...and slowly lost songs describing Father, Son and Spirit. The songs found in many of the hymnals are also absent from anything regarding the nature of God as Triune, as well as the communal nature of the Church in relation to each other and to God.
The lesson to be learned here is that culture will influence worship, and the measures that we take now to better understand faith might become so crucial that we leave out assumed things for other generations. Meaning-things that we automatically believe and know might not be proclaimed in song that much, but after a generation or two they could be interpreted as not important or fundamental to faith. We are who we worship-and we need to remember the personal AND communal nature of our God.
2 works were great sources for these posts.
Honky-Tonk Gospel: The Story of Sin and Salvation in Country Music
Hymnody as history: early evangelical hymns and the recovery of American popular religion-Stephen Martini