Published June 4, 2013

Paul's Epistle...
"Southern Gospel Music - Part 2"

Two weeks ago in this space I wrote an answer – certainly not "the" answer – to the question, "What is Southern Gospel music?" (If you missed it, you can find it here.) It was not – and was not intended to be – an academic discussion of the genre's roots and development or even a "music theory" discussion of its style. It simply provided one way to delineate what today is called Southern Gospel music.

Here are a few brief excerpts from reader responses:

That last point – the solid Scriptural base in Southern Gospel music – was expressed in many other responses as well.

Daniel Mount is one of Southern Gospel's best-known and most astute bloggers (you can find his blog at http://www.southerngospelblog.com). Recently he did a post about the rich theology in Southern Gospel songs. He's graciously assented to a reprint (below), slightly edited for space:
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Several years ago, I was listening to a message where a very well-known preacher, for whom I have the highest respect, said that Southern Gospel songs were theologically shallow, all about streets of gold and not about God.

This genre's roots lie in the American South during and before the Great Depression. The worse things get around us, the more vivid and real Heaven becomes, and the more meaningful the promises of Heaven are to us. So, yes, Southern Gospel has always had a fair number of Heaven songs. But equating Heaven songs with weak theology is a false dichotomy. Just because a song is about Heaven doesn't mean it has weak theology! We could name examples of Heaven songs with deep theology all day; I'll just mention two comparatively recent songs recorded by Southern Gospel artists, "A Pile of Crowns" and "A Higher Throne." Granted, Southern Gospel has always had a fair number of Heaven songs. Provided the focus is where it needs to be — on Heaven's King — that's hardly a bad thing.

Perhaps the preacher's only exposure to our genre was the Southern Gospel of the 1950s and 1960s. It would be a fair self-critique of our genre's history to admit that our genre's songwriters' attempts to employ the popular idioms and catch-phrases of those decades did produce a fair number of shallow "man-in-the-sky" songs. (If some of them seem absurdly dated now, let that stand as a warning to any of today's Christian songwriters who are trying a little too hard to be cool!) Of course, numerous richly theological classics also came from those decades and endure to this day.

I believe a major shift in Southern Gospel songwriting occurred after the rise of contemporary praise and worship music in the 1970s and 1980s. While I will try to avoid committing the same error that prompted this post, painting other genres with inaccurate over-generalizations, it would be fair to say that there have been some repetitive praise choruses and some double entendre CCM songs that could be taken either about human love or God's love. I believe that Southern Gospel artists and songwriters reacted to these trends by steadily moving in the direction of deeper and more solid theology.

From a standpoint of theology in lyrics, I believe that Southern Gospel is now the strongest it has ever been. There are still theologically shallow songs; I collect hymnals, and have several hundred from over the last several hundred years, and regrettably, every generation of Christian music has had its weak songs. But a rising number of writers and artists care deeply about rich theology in their lyrics.

I would make the case that the crux of our genre lies in understanding life today, with its blessings and its trials, through two lenses — looking back to Calvary to understand life today in light of the Cross, and looking forward to understand today's trials in the light of Heaven.

As with every other genre of Christian music, Southern Gospel has its weaknesses. It has its songs with bad theology and its hypocrites. Yet, today more than ever, it has songs with rich theology. In fact, I grew up on CCM and Praise & Worship; it Southern Gospel's richly theological songs that drew me in becoming a fan of the genre nine years ago.

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That's encouraging. Just as preachers need to stick to the fundamentals of the faith, so does Southern Gospel music. And if that is done, both will be blessed, souls will be reached with the Gospel – and God will be glorified.

- Paul

PS:  You can find Daniel Mount's series on Scriptural messages in Southern Gospel music from each book of the Bible (an ongoing project) here.

Comments on this? paul@thegospelgreats.com

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