In a Different Voice of God

Editor's note: If you're like me, you're feeling exhausted after an awful week of financial meltdown, bogus political accusations about who's patriotic and who isn't, fatuous punditry on talk radio, George Wallace-like hate rallies, and the like. So, I'm giving everyone an extended weekend away from this dispiriting stupidity by keeping the next several posts on other subjects more at the heart of this blog's raison d'etre. We'll start with Ed's reflections on music, gender, teaching, and scholarship below. Ya'll have a good weekend, and take some time off from punditry and chatter and enjoy the beautiful fall. Listen to some good new music while you're at it.

In a Different Voice of God: Reflections on Music, Faith, Teaching, and Scholarship

by Ed Blum

If you are reading this, then you already know: I have terrible taste in music. My undergraduate students have become fully aware of this. When discussing Matt Sutton’s biography of Aimee Semple McPherson, one of them mentioned Sister Aimee’s opposition to “science.” I, of course, blurted out “she blinded with me science… SCIENCE!” Someone from the class should have echoed me with “SCIENCE,” but instead I got silence. Unnerving silence. Not a whisper; not a chuckle. Nothing.

Perhaps this is what Simon and Garfunkel meant. I asked if any knew the song, and a few sheepishly informed me that they had no idea what I was doing or talking about. They seemed embarrassed to know me. But if the courage to teach results primarily from sharing ourselves with our students (as Parker Palmer would have us believe), then my students need to know that I love terrible 80s music, that I watch youtube videos of other people playing World of Warcraft, that I’m tired of talking politics, and that if another writer for the History News Network plays politico, rather than historian, I might try to get the NSA involved (or at least the beautiful cryptographer from Dan Brown’s fictional Digital Fortress; and yes Gil Troy, I’m angry-blogging in your direction).

My students may also want to know that I’m going through a spiritual renaissance. The fingers and voice of a man who once professed that he “hated Christianity” is helping to change my soul. He’s a white boy who sings gospel and the blues. He’s a kid from North Dakota who sounds like he’s a son of the South. His name is Jon Gordon Langseth, Jr., (or at least that’s what wikipedia tells me) but he goes by Jonny Lang. I was turned on to Lang by a woman who (get this fun combination) served in the navy, works as a financial planner, and plays competitive Dodgeball (and yes, I implore her and her teammates to remember the five Ds of Dodgeball: “dodge, dip, duck, dive, and dodge”). Born in 1981, Lang released his first album in 1995. He played with “The Big Bang,” who selected their name either from scientific theory or from a really great hook up.

Lang’s combination of blues, rustic country, Motown funk, and jazzy funk (this description is almost completely stolen from his webpage has won him enormous praise. In 2007, he won the Grammy for best Rock or Rap Gospel Album. That album was titled “Turn Around,” and it’s the album that is speaking to my religious core.

One song in particular has called to me. “Only a Man” is much more than only a song for my soul. It is a beautiful evocation of the transformation many faiths promise to believers. Lang begins by wailing about how he “used to live” his “life in fear,” that he was “worried all the time.” In need perhaps of the serenity prayer (whether written by Reinhold Niebuhr or not), Lang continues, “I had no peace of mind.” This angst, this dissatisfaction, this trepidation – all of it leads Lang to realize that he is “only a man.” The solution is faith in God and Jesus. Lang “fell down and cried, Dear Jesus, rescue me again.”

At this point you may be asking yourself (not, as the Talking Heads sang in “Once In a Lifetime, “Where is that large automobile?” or “Where does that highway go to?” or “My God, what have I done”), why is Blum posting about this song? Is Blum such a narcissist that he merely writes about the songs he’s listening to and expects us to read about them on this public blog? Who the hell does Blum think he is? But wait, there’s an intellectual message here.

At the midpoint of Lang’s “Only a Man,” it gets emotionally and intellectually fascinating. God sings back to Lang. God – identified as “He” – chimes in: “What will it be now? / Will you choose me or keep swimming up stream now? / I’ve been in side your head hearing you scream out. / Well here I am, just take my hand and I’ll take out / All of the pain and all of the fear.” Pretty traditional Protestant Christian stuff here.

But if you listen to the track, the voice of God is a woman. It is a female presence that comes to save the day, to utter the words of God. Lang’s partner – Hailey – sings to him with the sweet and comforting words of God. And here we have another powerful paradox of American religious history, the gender bending, mixing and matching understanding of God. American religious patriarchy has functioned with a God who’s referred to as a “mother hen.” Protestant churches dominated numerically by women have praised pretty much all-male characters.

What we find with Lang’s “Just a Man” is God “in another voice.” Just as psychologist Carol Gilligan revised Freudian theory by showing that if we include women’s voices, then the paradigms of human development are distinctly different, Lang undermines religious patriarchy with God singing as a woman. And this is part of my own spiritual renaissance, the reckoning with the ways patriarchal thinking invades my scholarship, my teaching, my work, and my life.

Readers of my work will know that, just as Lang hated a form of Christianity, I hate the white God. I detest the ways modern society has racialized God, the divine, Jesus, and angels. The conflation of whiteness and godliness, I think, is one of the West’s worst sins. My first spiritual questions at the university, however, revolved around questions of gender and religion. It was Susan Juster who taught me to listen in religious history for different voices, particularly for gendered voices. So when I heard “Only a Man,” my misogynistic core was once again shaken, just as it had been by the powerful female voices in my undergraduate years (Michigan was the place to be in the 1990s if you wanted a change in your gendered worldview: Carol Karlsen, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Maria Montoya, and a host of others were there).

So back to the original question, how does my own spiritual journey impact my career? How would hearing God in a female voice in my own religious life change my teaching and scholarship? Perhaps it would lead me to acknowledge openly and honestly that I pay far more attention to race than I do gender and in so doing privilege a masculinist approach to scholarship and education. Perhaps it would lead me to admit that I minimized some of the gendered aspects of W. E. B. Du Bois’s life (his marital infidelity and his silencing of Ida B. Wells at moments) because it presents Du Bois as an imperfect prophet.

Perhaps I would have to acknowledge that I am more sensitive to cultural destructivity of some religious forms in the United States and not to others, and perhaps this bespeaks a latent form of inequality that creates a gendered hierarchy that has men on top and women on bottom (no sexual pun meant here, Paul Harvey; get your mind out of the gutter). Mostly, perhaps it means that I still need to be aware of how my cultural and social background and position continues to influence my teaching and my scholarship. Was this too much information? Perhaps. But it’s all part of my own efforts to, as Jonny Lang sang it and named Grammy-award winning album, “Turn Around.”


I'm with you on the political thing. I've tried repeatedly to get my name off the HNN mailing list, but to no avail.
Anonymous said…
Correction, it was 1995 that Lang's first album came out. (not 1985; he would have been 4 years old!). - Ed
John G. Turner said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
John G. Turner said…
Ed, thanks for the self-revelations, on your faith and work. I found "Only a Man" on the internet (I'm really out of touch), and the lyrics are beautiful.
Phil said…
I like the idea of Religion in American History as an e-confessional.

The questions you raise are important, profound, and complex, and a little postmodern transparency gets the conversation moving along.

Since you've been getting visions and hearing new voices, it sounds like there's been some kind of revival or great awakening going on.

Thanks for the honesty and for challenging us again.

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