Listening to Critics: When Musicians Raise Questions About Faith (I)

Music not only nurtures our souls it speaks to the deepest issues of life. “I have my own particular sorrows, loves, delights; and you have yours,” H. A. Overstreet wrote. “But sorrow, gladness, yearning, hope, love, belong to all of us, in all times and in all places. Music is the only means whereby we feel these emotions in their universality.” When I share someone’s music I not only hear some of what they are thinking, but gain at least a little sense, a brief glimpse of its significance to the deepest corners of their heart. And that level of communication is a precious gift.

So, it is not surprising that in music we hear, among a host of other things, echoes of faith, doubt, questions, challenges, disillusionment, discovery, healing, hurt—all the myriad components of a spiritual pilgrimage.

With this piece I am beginning an occasional series in which we will pay special attention to musical critics of Christian faith. We will listen to their music not to criticize them or their ideas but to learn and to engage, winsomely and thoughtfully. To appreciate their creativity, and to honestly hear what they have to say about why the faith I accept as true and satisfying seems to them to be implausible, or questionable, or untrue, or whatever. As we go, I’ll also mention why this exercise is important for people of faith to engage in regularly.

I plan to reflect on songs such as “The God that Failed” (Metallica), “God’s Love” & “Live Again (The Fall of Man)” (Bad Religion), “Teen for God” (Dar Williams), “God” (Tori Amos), and “God Shuffled His Feet” (Crash Test Dummies). And since I am only one listener, I invite you, my readers to participate in this series (see the box at the end for details).

For the first song, though, let’s go back a bit in time, all the way to the Thirties.

Critic song #1: “It Ain’t Necessarily So”

I love the music of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Ella’s voice, so flawlessly charged with expression, Louis’ trumpet as clear and bright as his voice is gravelly. Listening to them always makes me smile, their infectious love of life and beauty, merged with mischievous artistry to distill joy from a broken world. On the album, Red Hot on Gershwin (1998) they cover a song from George and Ira Gershwin’s classic American opera Porgy & Bess (1935).

Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald Porgy & Bess (Polygram Records, 1957)

It ain’t necessarily so
The t’ings dat yo’ li’ble
To read in de Bible,
It ain’t necessarily so.

Li’l David was small, but oh my!
He fought Big Goliath
Who lay down an’ dieth!
Li’l David was small, but oh my!

Wadoo, zim bam boddle-oo,
Hoodle ah da wa da,
Scatty wah! / Oh yeah!…

Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale,
Fo’ he made his home in
Dat fish’s abdomen.
Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale.

Li’l Moses was found in a stream.
He floated on water
Till Ol’ Pharaoh’s daughter,
She fished him, she said, from dat stream.

Well, it ain’t necessarily so
Dey tells all you chillun
De debble’s a villun,
But it ain’t necessarily so!

To get into Hebben
Don’ snap for a sebben!
Live clean! Don’ have no fault!
Oh, I takes dat gospel
Whenever it’s pos’ble,
But wid a grain of salt.

Methus’lah lived nine hundred years,
But who calls dat livin’
When no gal will give in
To no man what’s nine hundred years?

I’m preachin’ dis sermon to show,
It ain’t nece… ain’t nece
Ain’t necessarily… so!

In Porgy & Bess “It Ain’t Necessarily So” was sung by a drug dealer named Sportin’ Life. The Gershwin’s Jewish heritage brought familiarity with the Old Testament. The song was written as the Depression was ending and Germany’s power was rising in Europe, a time of great uncertainty when the old sureties seemed far less certain than they had a decade earlier.

The song raises questions about some of the stories found in the Bible: Jonah swallowed by a fish, Methuselah living 969 years. They are good questions, too because the stories seem highly implausible to any thoughtful reader in the modern West. Christians shouldn’t find such questions offensive but be willing to think such objections through carefully. Honest questions deserve honest answers. After all, if such stories are passed off in the Bible as factual but can’t be trusted to be true or historical, why believe the rest of what Scripture says?

The song also raises questions about the central message of Christian faith, the gospel: to get into heaven, Sportin’ Life says, he’s been told to be moral, be faultless, don’t gamble. It’s advice that Sportin’ Life accepts “whenever it’s pos’ble, but wid a grain of salt.” I agree: this bit of moralism may capture a bit of wisdom about life, but it doesn’t come close to capturing the message of the Christian gospel. The gospel of Jesus is the opposite of this, a story of grace for all those (like me) who may want to live clean but find that they simply can’t and don’t.

I hear questions here, not rebellion. Honesty not anger. An asking not shouting. A wariness about Christians who make believing the Bible seem effortless, simple, obvious, as if every text and story were equally plausible. Thoughtful questions about some biblical stories that seem impossible to believe. And a disbelief in a so-called gospel that points to righteous living but remains hopelessly out of reach for all of us who know we fall short. And all accomplished with fine creativity and wit.

Music, like all good art, is communication. This song begins a conversation worth having.

An invitation to my readers: I will happily include material from you in future articles in this series. Send me by email the name of the song, the artist(s), album title, the full lyrics, and a brief reflection (max 500 words) on what you hear. Are questions being raised, or a challenge issued, or disillusionment explored, or an alternative belief proposed, or anger expressed? What should Christians hear in, appreciate, learn and take from the song? Write so that both Christians and non-Christians can enter the conversation comfortably. Though you will retain the copyright, submitting grants me the right to edit, publish, and post your submission on Ransom’s web site.

Reader Submissions
To the editor:

In reading “When Musicians Raise Questions About Faith (part 1)” [Critique #4-2009], the first thing that popped into my mind was “Context! Context! Context!” As Critique has taught in the past, it is critical to understand a work of art in its context!

The song comes from the opera Porgy and Bess. George Gershwin composed the music and his brother, Ira Gershwin, and DuBose Heyward collaborated on the lyrics for the opera.

Porgy and Bess is set in Catfish Row of Charleston, South Carolina during the 1930’s. Bess is the kept woman of a local stevedore, Crown. After a craps game, Crown picks a fight with Robbins, and kills him. Crown flees, but lets Bess know that he will come back for her. Bess is stunned, buys some happy dust from Sportin’ Life, the local drug dealer, and then is shunned by everyone except Porgy, a cripple. Bess is finally included in the community because of Porgy’s love for her. Sportin’ Life tries to woo Bess away from Porgy with offers of happy dust and an exciting life in New York.

A picnic day arrives and everyone heads over to Kittiwah Island except Porgy. The picnickers celebrate by dancing and singing “I Ain’t Got No Shame.” Sportin’ Life joins the group, contributing to the wild atmosphere by singing “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” The drunk picnickers agree with Sportin’ Life’s assumed skeptical attitude about rules and regulations in the Bible, but are chastised by Serena, Robbins’ widow, when she sings “Shame on All You Sinners.”

Bess has wandered away from the crowd and is approached by Crown, who has been hiding on the island. He asks her for happy dust then insists she stay with him. She tries to resist, but she is left behind when everyone else leaves.

Two days later she is found unconscious and brought back to Porgy. Serena prays and sings over the delirious Bess in “Oh, Doctor Jesus” and then promises Porgy that Bess will be well by 5 o’clock. The fever leaves Bess, Porgy forgives her, and assures her of his love for her.

A hurricane rises, and all the residents gather in Serena’s room for shelter. All the “whole men” leave to rescue a capsized boat. Crown returns for Bess while the men are out, but is killed by Porgy. After the storm, authorities come to investigate Crown’s murder. They take Porgy away. While Porgy is gone, Sportin’ Life tells Bess that Porgy will be locked up forever, but that he will take care of her. Bess is confused and afraid, but accepts the happy dust and Sportin’ Life’s offer.

The next day Porgy is released. He returns only to be informed of Bess and Sportin’ Life’s departure. Porgy sets off to find Bess in New York, singing “Oh, Lawd, I’m on my way”.

This synopsis answers many of the questions raised in “When Musicians Raise Questions About Faith”.

Does the fact that George and Ira Gershwin were Jewish indicate anything about their view of the Bible as it relates to Porgy and Bess? No. The Gershwin’s were professional musicians and they knew how to bring reality into the music and the lyrics. George even lived in Charleston during the summer of 1934 so that he would understand the area and the people.

Does Sportin’ Life speak for the Gershwins or Heyward in “It Ain’t Necessarily So”? From the context of the opera, no—Sportin’ Life is interested in drumming up more business, and so he eggs on the already rowdy picnickers on the island. He knows the way to do this is to suggest perhaps (like Satan) that not everything in the Bible is exactly true. The implication is “oh yes, some is true, but not all of it is true.” His reasoning about Methuselah is hilarious, because he casts doubt that a man could live to be that old because no woman would “give in to no man what’s 900 years”! This is not a serious theological question! Sportin’ Life speaks for the character created for the opera. There are many other characters in the opera who sing songs that are contrary to the idea behind “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Examine Serena’s sermon in “Shame on All You Sinners,” as one example.

Are the questions raised in the song honest questions that question the Bible? Again, from the context of the opera, the answer is no. These questions are sung as a way to indicate the power of Sportin’ Life in whipping up desire for “doing things my way” and thus getting more business for selling drugs.

Be careful about listening to music from compilations! I would encourage you to watch the opera if you can, read about it and how it came to be, and for a bare minimum listen to a series of songs all from Porgy and Bess. I can personally recommend the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Dorian recording “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess Concert Suite” arranged by Andrew Litton.

In closing I would like to suggest perhaps some additional questions for discernment to be included in the “An Invitation to Critique Readers”.

To what genre does the song being examined belong? Categories might include—opera, rock-opera, classical, baroque, requiem, oratorio, jazz, hymns, spirituals, blues, etc. [Another question would be added if you listen to music that has no lyrics.] Who composed the music for the song?
Who wrote the lyrics?
Who is performing or singing the song?
What did the composer intend for the music?
What did the lyricist intend for the lyrics?
What did the musician intend in performing the song?
Who is singing the song?
Are they words from the lyricist?
Or are they words from a character?
To whom is the song being sung, and why?
Do research on the composer, on the lyricist, and on the musicians performing the work. Based on your findings, do you think that the composer / lyricist / musician personally believes what the song is saying? Why or why not?
What is the setting that the composer intended for the music to be performed in? Categories might include concert hall, church, anywhere, your car, your iPod, etc.

Melinda Brown
(Via email)

Denis Haack responds:
Thank you for such a thoughtful response to my piece, Melinda.

I did not mean to imply that I thought the lyrics of the song reflected the beliefs of the Gershwins or Heyward. Nor did I intend to suggest that the lyrics of the song were somehow a reflection of their Jewish heritage. Having seen Porgy and Bess, I realize the song is from an opera and thus reflects the beliefs of the character who sang the piece, in this case, Sportin’ Life. Nor did I mean to suggest that “It Ain’t Necessarily So” summarizes a view of Christian faith taken by all the characters in the opera.

I would not agree, however, that Sportin’ Life’s intentions (to seduce his listeners to sin) means that he was not raising theological questions. He was not engaging in theological discussion, true, but the questions he poses are inextricably theological. Nor do I see any reason to conclude that Sportin’ Life’s was not raising honest questions in his song. To the contrary, taking the story seriously means taking what the characters say seriously.

Even in the context of the opera, this song raises issues that are perennial challenges to the integrity of Christian faith by raising doubts concerning the veracity of the Scriptures. I am sorry I did not communicate as clearly as I had hoped in the piece, but I would still conclude this song is worthy of inclusion in this series.

Denis Haack