7 Protestant Songs with Surprisingly Good Theology

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No altar in sight, but boy can they sing. (Source)

Flannery O’Connor once famously remarked that conservative Catholics had more in common with fundamentalist Protestants than they did with liberal Catholics…hence the many strange prophets and preachers she raises up in her Southern Gothic fiction. While we could probably contest her claim in some ways, she is indisputably right in other respects. Protestants, particularly those of the deep South, have preserved a sense of sin and grace lost in many churches. And their powerful hymnodic tradition has helped foster American music for generations.

As an ecumenical gesture à la O’Connor, I thought I’d review a few Protestant songs that contain important and salutary theological insights. In doing so, I want to get beyond the well-known classics like “Amazing Grace,” “Come Thou Fount,” and “The Old Rugged Cross,” and look instead at songs that may not be as familiar among Catholics. I am also excluding Anglican and Wesleyan hymns, since most Catholics (at least, English-speaking ones) will be well aware of them from their parish Masses.

One thing that I hope will be clear in this list is how different all of these songs are from the kind of music current in Evangelical (and some Catholic) circles today. Unlike so much Praise and Worship music, it’s impossible to reduce these songs to a subjective, emotivist, “Jesus is my boyfriend” spirituality. I don’t mean to suggest that they keep clear of deeply personal, even existential, questions of faith and morals. They live and breathe in a world where those issues are deeply present. But even among the loopier ones (see numbers 4 and 7 below), we are dealing with a faith that lies in objective, concrete beliefs. Consequently, the lyrical form those beliefs take is highly articulate. Protestant music has suffered immeasurably by the loss of the King James Bible as the translation of choice throughout American Christendom. Many of these songs, all of which come from a period of attachment to King James, more or less reflect that hieratic idiom.

I. George Jones, “The Cup of Loneliness”

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George Jones was known for his religious songs, particularly in his early career. (Source)

One of the masters of Country Music, George Jones will no doubt be familiar to many of my readers. But his early song, “The Cup of Loneliness,” may not be. Catholics in particular should take note of this offering. Here are the lyrics in toto:

I say Christian pilgrim so redeemed from sin
Hauled out of darkness, a new life to begin
Were you ever in the valley where the way is dark and dim?
Did you ever drink the cup of loneliness with him?

Did you ever have them laugh at you and say it was a fake?
The stand that you so boldly for the Lord did take
Did they ever mock at you and laugh in ways quite grim?
Did you ever drink the cup of loneliness with him?

Did you ever try to preach, then hold fast and pray?
And even when you did it, there did not seem a way
And you lost all courage, then lost all you vim
Did you ever drink the cup of loneliness with him?

Oh my friends ’tis bitter sweet while here on earthly sod
To follow in the footsteps that our dear Savior trod
To suffer with the savior and when the way is dark and dim
The drink of the bitter cup of loneliness with him…

This is simply good ascetic theology, delivered in the spiritual context of mid-century American Evangelicalism. In the last stanza, when we are exhorted “To suffer with the savior,” we must remember the theology of suffering passed on to us by so many saints through the ages, from the Martyrs and Confessors forward. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church 618, we read:

The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the “one mediator between God and men”.452 But because in his incarnate divine person he has in some way united himself to every man, “the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery” is offered to all men.453 He calls his disciples to “take up [their] cross and follow (him)”,454 for “Christ also suffered for (us), leaving (us) an example so that (we) should follow in his steps.”455 In fact Jesus desires to associate with his redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first beneficiaries.456 This is achieved supremely in the case of his mother, who was associated more intimately than any other person in the mystery of his redemptive suffering.457 Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.458

And how do we unite our sufferings with Christ? Through prayer, through fasting, and above all, through the Eucharist. The literal “cup of loneliness.”

II. Traditional, “This World is Not My Home”/”Can’t Feel at Home”

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The cover art for Ben Babbitt’s album, Kentucky Route Zero – Act III. (Source).

A Bluegrass favorite. I first encountered it in a magnificent video-game, Kentucky Route Zero. As a side-note, let me strongly recommend that game to anyone who likes David Lynch, Flannery O’Connor, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, film noir, science fiction, or bourbon. The artfully written story about several strange characters moves through hauntingly beautiful minimalist landscapes. It is, in short, a work of art. If you have the time, play it.

More to the point, the music is excellent. The deep and delicate cover of “This World is Not My Home” by Ben Babbitt in Act IV of KR0 is my personal favorite rendition of the song, though I also appreciate the old version the creators used in their original Kickstarter trailer. And the Carter Family produced a classic cover.

Consider the lyrics:

This world is not my home; I’m just a passing through.
My treasures and my hopes are placed beyond the blue.
Many friends and kin have gone on before
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

Oh Lord, you know I have no friend like you
If heaven’s not my home then lord what will I do?
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

Here in miniature is the homo viator, a spirituality that calls us to renunciation and subsequent embrace of “the one thing necessary.” The 47th Instrument of Good Works according to St. Benedict is “To keep death daily before one’s eyes.” The song’s narrator is a man who does precisely that. As in “The Cup of Loneliness,” we encounter a basically sound ascetic theology, only this time coming from the very depths of Appalachia.

And that’s not all. In a later verse, we hear:

I have a loving mother up in gloryland
And I don’t expect to stop until I shake her hand.
She’s waiting now for me in heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

There are two ways to read this verse. Given its Protestant origin, it almost certainly refers to a literal, biological mother. Anyone who has lost their mother can relate to the feelings the verse expresses. But Catholics know that we all “have a loving mother up in gloryland.” One of the reasons I love this song is that, by drawing upon universal experiences, it can bear a number of equally legitimate spiritual meanings.

III. The Whites, “Keep on the Sunny Side”

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Texas-based country group, The Whites. They’re famous for performing regularly at the Grand Ole Opry, often alongside their frequent collaborator (and family member), bluegrass artist Ricky Skaggs (Source).

I know that this cheery song is considerably older than its famous rendition by The Whites, as heard in O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000). But I enjoy that version more than any other, and I recommend it to you.

We could easily dismiss this song as an expression of Joel Osteen-style naive optimism. But that would do a great disservice to the spiritual vision presented therein. The very first line takes a more realistic view of things than Osteen ever has:

Well there’s a dark and a troubled side of life
There’s a bright and a sunny side too
But if you meet with the darkness and strife,
The sunny side we also may view.

At no point does the song ever swerve from considering the felt reality of evil. Bad things do happen, and to good people. But the song refuses to linger on the sorrow of “this valley of tears.” Instead, it calls us to rejoice:

Let us greet with a song of hope each day
Though the moments be cloudy or fair.
Let us trust in our Savior always,
To keep us, every one, in His care.

A hope that does not take the possibility of despair seriously will falter. But a supernatural hope that stares despair in the eye and does not blink – that’s what the Holy Spirit seeks to create in us over the course of a lifetime. “Keep on the Sunny Side” is preeminently about that stronger sort of hope, a trust in God’s Providence founded on the singular sacrifice of Calvary.

IV. The Louvin Brothers, “Satan is Real”

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There’s a lot going on here. (Source)

I unironically like this one by the Louvin Brothers, even with (or because of?) its dated, somewhat campy ethos. I mean, just look at that cover art. And while the long monologue that makes up the bulk of the song is *just a little much,* it’s a good snapshot of what a certain kind of American Christianity looked and sounded like in 1960.

The refrain is where the song’s theological merit can be seen – or, rather heard.

Satan is real, working in spirit
You can see him and hear him in this world every day
Satan is real, working with power
He can tempt you and lead you astray

From the perspective of Catholic demonology, the Louvin Brothers are not wrong. St. Anthony the Great would certainly agree with their diagnosis.

Admittedly, they may have had a little bit of an unhealthy obsession with the question of demonic influence (the album includes another Satanic-themed song, and on another album they dramatize a dialogue between “Satan and the Saint“). Fair enough. Nevertheless, given that so much of our own hymnody is so obsessed with a false, flimsy, feel-good image of Christ and the demands of the spiritual life, something as overtly anti-demonic as “Satan is Real” strikes me as a good, if somewhat ridiculous, corrective.

V. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “Up Above My Head”

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It is perhaps spiritually significant that in nearly all her famous photos, Sister Rosetta can be seen looking up – as if she can see the very angels above her. (Source)

I mentioned at the start of this essay that Protestant music has had an enormous influence on the development of American music as such. Two particular communities, broadly construed, have made especially important contributions to that tradition: Appalachian churches, and the Black church. I have already drawn out some of the fruits of that former school. I would be remiss if I did not mention the latter.

I mention all this here because my fifth artist, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, is unusually important in the history of music. A pioneer of at least four different genres – Country, Rock and Roll, R&B, and Gospel – she has tragically been forgotten by most people today. Virtually all of her joyful songs could fit in this selection, but for the sake of brevity, I’d like to offer her signature piece, “Up Above My Head.” The message is simple enough:

Up above my head
(Up above my head)
I hear music in the air
(I hear music in the air)

And I really do believe
(Yeah) I really do believe
There’s a Heaven somewhere
(There’s a Heaven somewhere)

There’s not much else in the lyrics. Simply reading the text won’t give you the full depth of the spiritual message Sister Rosetta is trying to communicate. But once you listen, you’ll understand why I chose it. “Up Above My Head” is one of the best, most affectively sound expressions of hope in Heaven that I know of.

VI. The Harmonizing Four, “His Eye is on the Sparrow”

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This whole album is very good. (Source)

This old Negro Spiritual, as recorded by The Harmonizing Four and many other artists over the years, features unadorned by theologically powerful lyrics. Take a look:

I sing because I’m happy
I sing because I’m free
Oh, His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me

Why should I feel discouraged?
And why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely
And long for Heaven and home?

When Jesus is my captain
My constant friend is He
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me

I sing because I’m happy
I sing because I’m free
Oh, His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me
He watches me

Here, the simple lyrics concisely present one of the key doctrines of Christianity – the omniscience of God. The fact that God is all-knowing, however, should not fill us with dread, but with peace and joy. There is a tremendous existential point here. We are never alone. We never face life and the myriad questions of our being as atomized individuals. Rather, we are seen, we are recognized, and we are loved absolutely. We need not surrender to “the shadows” of discouragement and loneliness, as the second verse relates.

The hymn tells us quite a lot about the relation between God, His creation, and ourselves. It is a little spiritual masterpiece.

VII. The Louvin Brothers, “The Great Atomic Power”

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Once again, there’s just a lot going on here. (Source)

Alright, I’m mainly throwing in this one for fun. It has a specious, somewhat rapture-based eschatology. But given current events, its central message may be worth pondering.

Are you, are you ready
For that great atomic power?
Will you rise and meet your savior in the air?
Will you shout or will you cry
When the fire rains from on high?
Are you ready for that great atomic power?

Strange to think that only a year ago, these lyrics would have been a simple and somewhat overwrought remnant of Cold War anxieties. Wonder of wonders, everything old is new again!

 

A Theological Primer on Emblems

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“I Live,” from the Emblemata Sacra (1618)

Of all the myriad forms of visual theology that draw upon the Western traditions of art history, perhaps no medium is quite as neglected as the emblem. The books that contained these small, symbolically rich images constituted a prolific genre in the early modern period. They had a fairly standard format. Usually, the emblems sat alongside a few moral or sacred verses in Latin, Greek, or a European language. Daniel Cramer’s Emblemata Sacra (1618), from which the image above was taken, is a good example of this polyglot tendency. On the verso, one can find a quatrain in Latin, German, French, and Italian, always connecting the symbolism of the emblem with a French and Italian verse of the Scriptures. On the recto, the emblem sits under the same verse, this time in Latin and German. The page concludes with an epigrammatic prayer in Latin.

It seems that emblem books were popular in early modern Europe. Mara R. Wade of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign writes, “In the preface to his Companion to Emblem Studies (2006) Peter Daly estimates that ca. 6,500 emblem books were published during the Renaissance, with an individual volume containing anywhere from 15 to 1,500 emblems.” Wikipedia lists no fewer than 54 representative titles, though there were certainly many more produced between 1500 and 1800 (as any cursory review of UIUC’s  Emblematica Online or the French Emblems at Glasgow archives can show). The fact that these books were often printed with multiple languages of text side by side suggests that they were documents with cross-cultural appeal. They were meant to speak not only to the elites who knew Latin, but also to the literate bourgeoisie. All of that makes their emergence as a genre at a time of religious strife even more remarkable.

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“Le Monde est L’Image de Dieu,” one of the more explicit expressions of esoteric philosophy, in Boissard’s Emblemes latins […] avec l’interpretation Francoise (1588). It anticipates Boehme’s De Signatura Rerum by nearly 40 years.

Of course, not all emblem books were targeted for mass appeal. Occult works often made rich use of emblems. The chief virtue of the emblem is its capacity of succinct complexity. It can communicate a lot by saying very little. It obscures by revealing; it hides by manifestation. As one source puts it, “Emblems are concise yet potent combinations of texts and images that invite, and require, decoding.” This makes the emblem the perfect vehicle for the esoteric proliferation of ideas. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” says the Lord. If He had come in the age of Gutenberg, perhaps He would have delivered His parables in emblem books. Of course, to say so is to implicitly claim Christ as a Protestant. Catholics did produce emblem books; indeed, one of the latest examples I have found is the 1780 French reprint of Dom Bonifaz Gallner’s earlier Regula Emblematica Sancti Benedicti. However, it would seem that the majority of important emblem books flowed from Protestant presses.

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Emblem XXI from the alchemical text Atalanta Fugiens (1617), by the Lutheran Rosicrucian Michael Maier

There is a good historical and aesthetic reason for this. The emblem functions by setting up a symbol or a system of symbols independent of any text. While text was sometimes used to elucidate the meaning of those symbolic networks, it was always secondary to the image itself. The emblem book is one of the last gasps of the primacy of image over text in European thought. Along with the Wunderzeichenbuchen, the emblem book is one of the main genres mobilized by Continental Protestants to rediscover a non-iconographic (and, to their mind, a non-idolatrous) use of image in moral and spiritual development. Instead of an image asserting its “auratic” power to the exclusion of text, the emblem book suggests a way that text and image can mutually illuminate each other. As Mara Wade writes, the emblem books engendered “a process of reciprocal reading of texts and images, whereby the back and forth between the words and the pictures creates meaning. The picture presents the reader with a recognizable scene or symbolic collage, and the text then reorients the reader’s understanding of that scene to present a new and unexpected message.” In this sense, the emblem book clearly partakes of a distinctly Humanist and Protestant heritage. Note again that emblem books were very often the chosen medium for the quasi-scientific magical teachings of the Rosicrucians and alchemists. Those strange laborers were also, in their own quixotic way, seeking to reclaim something of the sacramental worldview thrown away by the iconoclastic Reformers (see Henry 2015).

The triumph of discursive reason over image in the Enlightenment led to the decline of the emblem book as a genre (there are surely other reasons tied to shifting book markets, but my capacities to do research into textual history are limited at this time). After that, the record has been rather sparse. Hamann occasionally used emblems in his philosophical works. More recent theologians have largely overlooked the emblem book as a theological genre. The single counterexample I can readily think of is Valentin Tomberg’s Meditations on the Tarot, which can only count as an emblem book when we ignore its departures from the traditional form. Yet the renewal of esoteric Catholicism by reliably orthodox publishing houses like Angelico Press suggests that the emblem book may have a place in the theology of the future.

Its revival seems particularly apropos in an age when memes have become topics of serious political discourse, when visual self-representation has been amplified through various social media, and when new norms of communication emphasize brevity over detail. An epoch is defined, in large part, by the relation of its people to their media. The development of the printing press launched early modernity by helping to bring about new conceptions of subjectivity, as well as new questions about the relationship of text and image. Consequently, the emblem book arose to grapple with some of those questions. The next great civilizational step in communication arrived with the internet, accompanying nascent postmodernity. Perhaps we shall see a revival of the emblem book for theologians to navigate this “brave new world.”