Gospel Gestalt

Paul Harvey

Pretty soon here at the blog we're going to feature an author interview with prominent sociologist, blogger, and occasional blog contributor Gerardo Marti, whose book (published last year by Oxford) Worship Across the Racial Divide I recently had the pleasure of reading. The link in the preceding sentence takes you to Gerardo's own summary of the work together with a series of reactions to the book from three worship leader practitioners. Unlike (most) historians, sociologists get to meet their subjects, and the subjects get to talk back -- scary! More on Gerardo's  book soon.

Until then, a much shorter, but really lively and insightful, piece to send your way: Douglas Harrison's "The Gospel Gestalt: From Joyful Noise to Whitney Houston," published at Religion Dispatches. If any of ya'll (and there can't be very many, as the movie disappeared from the theaters about two seconds after it first appeared) actually saw Joyful Noise, you are probably wondering how a pretty awful movie could provoke a serious post on the meaning of gospel in American culture. Read it and find out. A little excerpt:

At this late date of postmodern no-brow mass-market American culture, the gospel sensibility is as likely to show up in “Didn’t We Almost Have it All” (my favorite Houston song) as it is in a church-choir musical comedy directed by an openly gay Jewish guy from Queens who saw in Queen Latifah’s character a way to reanimate childhood memories of his mother drilling him to rehearse for Hadassah choir.
Indeed, the gospel sensibility can be found just about anywhere music summons the solitary voice embedded in social struggle, places it in musical conversation as part of a community of concern united in song, and—at least when it’s good—thereby transforms a range of idiosyncratic identities and life experiences into a heaven of harmony.
Personally I couldn't, and can't, stand "Didn't We Almost Have It All," but the larger point of the piece still compels. I've noted in a couple of things I've written (with considerable impatience) how gospel styles have become standard everywhere, from McDonald's commercials to every wannabe (and the occasional real) singer on all the singing competition shows from American Idol on. But I've not done much more than just note it; Harrison explains something about the meaning of its ubiquity, and helps me understand and be less exasperated with the treacly "pop" side of a transcendent talent as was Houston in her prime.

The author, Douglas Harrison, has his own book coming out very soon, with the University of Illinois Press: Then Sings My Soul: The Culture of Southern Gospel Music. Our own resident blogger and American religious music scholar David Stowe has a nice endorsement for the book, and I can also recommend the piece by the same author in a recent edition of the journal Religion and American Culture, one which, I assume, more or less previews the book. The historical and anthropological analysis in this work should nicely complement and reflect upon the contemporary manifestations of the meaning of gospel in worship which Gerardo explores in his book. 


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

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