“I like the Christian life”

Country singer-songwriter Charlie Louvin, who died today

I grew up listening to country music against my will. Mom’s radio station of choice was Atlanta’s WBIE FM, which we listened to in the car regularly, and we watched Hee Haw every Saturday night. To me it was all hopelessly corny. Even though country was, for better or worse, the music of my people. My people were all rural and southern. Country and southern gospel were the soundtrack of all family reunions, parties, cook-outs, and dinners.

But I was a mall-prowling suburban kid through and through. Unlike my parents—and their parents, siblings, cousins, and friends—I did not speak with a southern accent. And I did not like country music. And neither did my friends. Once, when I was 9 or 10, my friend Geoff was riding in our station wagon. He was unfamiliar with country music, to say the least. He said, “What’s that beow-beow sound? It’s in every song!” He was trying his best to imitate twang of pedal steel (the defining sound of country music). It embarrassed me.

My attitude toward country began to change when two events happened around the same time in 1987: I saw country songwriting duo Foster & Lloyd on Austin City Limits. They seemed like cool suburban kids who—for some reason—liked country music, which they sang (mostly) without an accent. They had a great hit song around that time called “Texas in 1880.”

The second event was my discovery of the Byrds’ 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It was a straight-up country album recorded in Nashville by a band whose hip West Coast rock credentials were beyond reproach. The album included two gospel songs: “I Am a Pilgrim,” whose version I play on guitar to this day, and the Louvin Brothers’ “The Christian Life.” Like the rest of the album, they played it completely straight. No irony. No winking at their audience.

The man who was impetus behind their change in direction, new Byrd member Gram Parsons, jumped ship not long after the album was finished, but Byrd leader Roger McGuinn continued to explore country for the rest of the band’s career. Although McGuinn, like every other rock star in the late-’60s, was exploring Eastern mysticism at the time, he later converted to Christianity, the faith he professes to this day.

One of the composers of “The Christian Life,” Charlie Louvin, died today at 83. I’m including a Byrds version of the song below. Unlike the album version, this one features Parsons on lead vocal. (The copyright holder makes you watch the video within YouTube.)

2 thoughts on ““I like the Christian life””

  1. Good morning. After reading your post about country music, I thought I would share with you my essays about the inspiration I have received from two country musicians.

    Pastor Roger Newton (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod)
    Philadelphia, PA

    First, Miranda Lambert. I am a husband, father, grandfather and semi-retired Lutheran pastor pushing age 70. I am also an alcoholic, sober for over twelve years but very aware of how my addiction weakened me physically, spiritually and emotionally to the point where I accomplished much less than hoped for in any of my callings.

    A young country singer makes me reconsider my approach to faith, life and preaching. Listening to her songs, I am learning to use my experience as a forgiven sinner to help others understand what hurting and being hurt, forgiving and being forgiven, being addicted and being freed from it, are all about. The singer’s name is Miranda Lambert.

    Miranda’s songs challenge me intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. Several of them, such as “Heart Like Mine,” “White Liar” and “Sin for a Sin” on her album REVOLUTION, should be studied in any seminary or other school which prepares men and women to minister to today’s young people.

    Miranda sings tough-girl songs and her theology (for it is indeed theology although Miranda probably wouldn’t call it that) is tough as well. “I ain’t the kind you take home to mama, I ain’t the kind to wear no ring,” “Here’s a bombshell just for you, Turns out that I’ve been lying too” and “I need to repent a sin for a sin,” Miranda confesses as she sings, respectively, the three songs mentioned above.

    At the end of “Heart Like Mine,” Miranda reminds us of something we wishy-washy sinners often forget. She reminds us that Jesus was tough, too. He hung out with sinners like the one Miranda portrays in her songs. “Jesus, He drank wine. And I bet we’d get along just fine. He could calm a storm and heal the blind. And I bet He’d understand a heart like mine.”

    Miranda trusts that “I’ll fly away from it all one day. I’ll fly away. These are the days that I will remember when my name’s called on the roll. He’ll meet me with two long-stemmed glasses and make a toast to me coming home.” Sounds like the son who loses his toughness along with his money and comes home to a banquet put on by his father in his honor in the most famous story that Jesus ever told (Luke 15:11-32).

    What a warm welcome Jesus will give Miranda because he knows her and loves her! She doesn’t need to apologize to Jesus as she had to apologize when she revisited her childhood home, “The House That Built Me,” with all its memories. “Ma’am,” she had to say to the house’s new owner then, “I know you don’t know me from Adam, but . . .” She won’t have to say that to Jesus. He knows her from Adam.

    “Heart Like Mine” reminds me of the old man who can see God’s face at the end of his suffering in Carrie Underwood’s “Temporary Home.” But that’s another side of God, the tender side, the Father. Just as true, but different. Miranda sings about Jesus the Son, tough enough to endure a cross. Carrie and Miranda give us two images of the heavenly welcome home. Is either of them (which one?) “only prettier” than the other?

    Jesus drank wine just like the lover in the Biblical Song of Songs, the lover whom Jews consider a symbol of God and Christians consider a symbol of Jesus. The lover welcomes his beloved into his garden with wine and sings, “I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride; I have gathered my myrrh with my spice. I have eaten my honeycomb and my honey; I have drunk my wine and my milk. (Song of Songs 5:1)

    Didn’t Jesus promise to drink wine with his friends in Heaven? At the Last Supper he took a cup of wine, gave thanks to His Father and gave it to his friends, saying “I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom” (Matthew 26:29)?

    Christian theologians have spilled a lot of ink trying to develop a theology of marriage that covers all of its spiritual and emotional aspects. Miranda covers the subject in a song as she creates a wonderful exchange of vows:

    Minister: “Blake, If you come in one morning and find Miranda standing there cryin’ in the kitchen, will you wrap your arms around her so that she doesn’t even have to say a thing?”

    Blake: “I will.”

    Minister: “Miranda, if Blake comes in, slams the door behind him and can’t hide the worry on his face, even though you’ve got a million things to tell him, will you accept that right now he just needs some space?”

    Miranda: “I will.”

    Minister: “That’s what makes it love. That’s what makes it a love song. Everybody always sings about it. Now you’re never gonna live without it. You don’t even have to talk about it ’cause you’re living it out. And because you have promised to live it out, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

    Until now I have perhaps made it seem that Miranda’s songs relate only to an individual’s emotions and personal relationships with Jesus and with other individuals. And it’s true that Miranda sings about one’s personal addiction to things and to people who make one feel good (“Me and Your Cigarettes”), about individual pain (“Maintain the Pain”), about protecting oneself against personal attacks (“Time to Get a Gun”), and about one’s desire not to be tied down (“Airstream Song”) .

    But the final song brings to light the community and ecological dimensions of any genuine faith. Jesus loved to compare heaven to growing things like a tiny mustard seed which grew into a tree so large that the birds could make a home in it. If Jesus had lived in America, he might have compared heaven to the tiny Virginia bluebell, which only requires that we give it “a sunny place to grow:”

    “Pretty little thing, sometimes you gotta look up and let the world see all the beauty that you’re made of. . . . Even through a stone a flower can bloom. . . . Put a little light in the darkest places. Put a little smile on the saddest faces.” It sounds like Jesus telling His followers not only that He is the light of the world (John 8:12 and 9:15) but also that “You are the light of the World. Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16)

    The light of the world shines from a tiny flower and from the most insignificant people. The greatest and biggest thoughts are expressed in the tiniest images. Otherwise, how could we ever grasp them?

    I’ll end with a note of whimsy which strikes me whenever I hear the refrain of “Only Prettier:” “So let’s shake hands and reach across those party lines. You’ve got your friends just like I’ve got mine. We might think a little differently, but we’ve got a lot in common you will see. We’re just like you, only prettier.” I always imagine Sarah Palin singing those words to Nancy Pelosi or perhaps vice versa. They and their friends might actually accomplish something worthwhile for humankind and for God if they did in fact “Shake hands and reach across those party lines.” Too much to hope for? And I must confess I haven’t figured out to which group of girls in the video Palin would belong and which group would be Pelosi’s.

    I hope Miranda continues to enjoy challenging us theologians with her songs. She does it so well.

    Second, Carrie Underwood

    As a pastor I have been preaching, teaching, baptizing, visiting and celebrating Holy Communion for believers and their families for many years. I have recently begun to understand that a pastor’s carefully prepared Biblical sermons can never strengthen people’s faith or change people’s lives or comfort the mourning as powerfully as the songs and poems of creative musicians can do.

    People want God to reach out and touch them in a way they can feel as they struggle through life. And, yes, even a preacher, despite his or her theological training and belief in Scriptural truth, wants to experience God that way. Singers and songwriters have more power than a preacher to make troubled people feel the touch of God. And so-called “secular” musicians can accomplish more than the explicitly religious artists. Their songs “hit people where they live.” And more people listen to them anyway.

    Carrie Underwood demonstrates this power in four songs on her album PLAY ON. I’ll concentrate on the lyrics and just briefly mention the musical elements. Carrie sings exquisitely and adapts her style to the feeling of each song. Some of the melodies remind me of other songs, but that is part of our shared musical heritage. And although the engineers tampered with the dynamics (loudness vs. softness), they could not diminish the power of the four songs.

    The four songs share the album with nine others about life, love, success, failure and their accompanying emotions. Carrie recorded wild (and delightful!) videos of a couple of them, “Cowboy Casanova” and “Undo It.” And that fact puts the four gems that I am about to describe into the setting of real life and adds to their depth and power. The four are:

    -“Temporary Home.” I first heard it as I was preparing my Trinity Sunday sermon. A country music TV channel was on in the background, but Carrie’s video captured my attention. The lyrics were so perfect for my message that I rushed right out and bought the CD. Carrie’s words helped me to talk about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a way that I knew would strike home for people like me.

    “Temporary Home” tells the tragic stories of three people. And in the refrain each of them trusts that his or her situation is just a temporary home. The little boy in the first stanza moves from foster home to foster home and desperately needs someone Father-like to adopt him. The single mother in the second stanza is down and out and desperately needs the guidance of someone Spirit-filled to enable her to care for her little girl. The old man in the hospital bed in the third stanza is about to die. His children are gathered around him like Jesus the Son and, sure enough, he can already see God’s face.

    I quoted Carrie’s song in my sermon. Afterward several people told me that her words helped them understand how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit reach out to hurting, troubled, desperate and sinful people. Someone found a CD player and we listened to Carrie sing as we shared coffee and snacks.

    – “Change.” I chuckle at the play on words between “change” as the 36 cents on the floor of the car and “change” as transformation. In three stanzas the poet expands the scope of change from (1) my immediate experience (I see a homeless woman shivering in the cold and debate whether to give her the 36 cents); to (2) my response to a TV ad asking me to contribute to save the life of a child whom I’ll never see; and finally to (3) my prayer in the dark for the whole huge world that breaks my heart. “Don’t listen to ’em,” Carrie sings in the refrain, “when they say you’re just a fool to believe you can change the world.”

    “Change” reminds me of something a seminary president recently wrote about so-called “postmodern” people who say, “Just don’t tell me what a friend I have in Jesus until I see what a friend I have in you.” Carrie’s song reminds me that a few cents, a few dollars and a few prayers can transform the world in ways I will never see.

    – “Mama’s Song.” This is a love song about two generations of mothers praying for their daughters. The daughters assure their Moms that they have found the answer to their prayers in the men they have chosen. In the first stanza the daughter is probably a teenager. In the second she is a bride, and in the third stanza she has become the praying mother being reassured that her little girl has found the answer to her prayers. (The beautiful wedding-day video which came out later seems to indicate that I am wrong about the two generations of mothers, but I heard the CD before I saw the video and the idea of the generations conveys a lot of power for me.)

    – “Play On.” Carrie concludes her album with encouragement to keep going through the darkest hours of life because “It’s always worth the sacrifice even when you think you’re wrong.”

    In all four songs prayer is mentioned a few times but God is mentioned by name only by the old man in “Temporary Home.” But He is present in all four songs just as powerfully as He is present in two “secular” books of the Bible which never mention Him: the history of Esther, which tells how the Jewish people “played on” during desperate times of captivity, and the passionate and erotic love poem called Song of Songs, which later Jews considered a symbol of God’s love for His people and which still later Christians considered a symbol of Jesus’ love for His church. Come to think of it, Song of Songs is an ancient forerunner of a wonderful American country love song, isn’t it?

    The postmodern perspective which the seminary president describes is actually very ancient. Even Jesus Himself desperately wanted to feel His Father’s touch as He faced death. “My God, my God,” Jesus cried out like the singer of Psalm 22, “why have you forsaken me?” We are in very good company.

    I hope that Carrie continues to enjoy inspiring people to live and to love and to serve others as Jesus would have them do.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing these thoughts, Roger! I’m going to post it as a new entry so more people can read it! I’ve thought about purchasing that Miranda Lambert CD in particular. Guess I have to now. What an endorsement!

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