My friend Wilson told a story about a Church of Christ minister whose selected video curriculum – I think a Tony Campolo series – took some heat from a member of his congregation. Apparently, it was from a source that didn’t seem C of C kosher. “There are plenty of resources in the Brotherhood you could draw from,” suggested the critic. “Perhaps Brother Walling, or Brother Lucado [CoC Retired], or Brother Dobson have something you can use.”
“Brother” James Dobson, whose media curriculum was familiar to me growing up (as was Campolo’s), is not affiliated with the Churches of Christ. But it is not unusual that we would consider someone in the family because of some level of comfort that makes us think, surely, they’re one of us. Or that we would give someone a pass because they have the right membership card, regardless of whether we really have much common ground politically, theologically, socially, etc.
Ideally, we develop the Christian orientation that no historical, cultural, or sense-able qualifier determines “who is my neighbor.” But one of the more dependable, lovely, subversive tools for staying neighborly is the canon of congregational songs and hymns. Often policed and redacted to be sure things don’t get too doctrinally out of hand, it’s still a pretty inclusive collection. I’d love to go through an old hymnal and count up the number of contributors sharing a binding who might never have imagined they’d sit in the pew together, whose words are the corporate confession of whole churches that might be quite confident they’re on the right side of the street for being on the opposite side from the author’s faith family.
Today many Christians take a moment to remember a 19th Century American Methodist woman who, I’ll guess, has had her words pronounced from more church pulpits than there are men ordained to ministry: Fanny J. Crosby, American poet and author, who wrote over 8000 hymns, including “Church of Christ, O Sleep No More,” which we did not sing growing up.
Crosby was blind from infancy, and was reported to say “I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me.”
“Love in that story so tender,” we sing one of her lines, “Clearer than ever I see.”
I’ve been thinking today about a few folks who did share my denominational identity, but found something in the mix intolerable enough to leave the faith entire. I’ve also been thinking of Daniel Johnston, for whom Lipscomb University hosted a concert and held an exhibition and symposium this week. I had forgotten, if I’d known, that Johnston, a complex iconoclast always near the heart of the most vital music that emerged in the late 80s and early 90s, grew up among my tribe. I’ve been listening to Patti Smith the last few days, who started out life with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and brought about some of the most spiritually dynamic and socially effective rock in my lifetime. I’ve been thinking about an artist I was in a mixed-media class with in college, who said he came to Pepperdine despite having a strongly different political and religious conviction than the majority here, because he felt that the tension brought about the best art in him.
I’ve been writing about the music most prevalent in evangelical worship today, which is all well and good, and God is using it fine, but we’re more and more committed to an increasingly narrowed spectrum of composers, styles, and themes in it. To spin it positively, I wonder what kind of tensions we’re brewing to birth all kinds of creative work.
I hope and pray it’ll emerge through folks who feel there’s a place for them to stay and create. Like senior A.J. Hawks reminded many of us last Wednesday, there are more of us than not who have a story to tell from the margins, who suffer with a story we have not heard told and long to have the sense we are not out of place. I don’t think we have to lose our specificity as Christian, or a certain tribe of Christians, to make room for all the stories that might be told to and about the members of our family. In telling them, we may spark the sense in some, lonely among us, that they can stick around to live out their story with us.
Knowing Fanny J’s story changes what it feels like to sing her song. It doesn’t make me more of a blind Methodist woman, and doesn’t make her less of one, but reminds me that, in my particulars, I’m a part of something bigger than me. For that matter, participating in the incarnation doesn’t make us all First Century Palestinian males. In some sense of place and history, my story is no more than a marginal one; yet no story is not God’s story.
Maybe even the incarnation tells us that the restraint of marginalization or particularity generates more creativity. Fanny J seemed to think her blindness spurred her imagination towards what was not yet. What poured out of her particularity was a meantime music, a hope to sing until the fullness comes, where “the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Savior.” In that kind of shared, honest, yearning space, it’s easier to mistake one another for neighbors.
We don’t sing Fanny much now, but her lyrics are part of my spiritual DNA. Here’s one of my favorites, performed by a Quaker follower of St. Francis whose version was sung by a Baptist at my Church of Christ wedding: