Hymns for people who don't like hymns

WernerSusan Stamberg of National Public Radio recently sent an audio valentine to singer-songwriter Susan Werner of Chicago. Werner's latest recording is The Gospel Truth, which NPR described as gospel music for agnostics and (in a less accurate headline for its website) "A Songwriter's View from the Pew." One of the key battles in churches' worship wars is over lyrical focus. Will today's would-be hymns and praise choruses extol the wonders of God, or will they be more about how knowing God makes us feel? Werner provides a new category: Songs that can be sung by believing and non-believing progressives alike -- sometimes addressing God, sometimes addressing other people -- that bash the theological right.

Consider the lyrics to "Our Father (The New, Revised Edition)":

Thy kingdom come to every nation Thy will be done in everything we do Lord lead us not into temptation But deliver us from those who think they're you

Or this from "Forgiveness":

How do you love those who never will love you? Who are so frightened of you They are calling for war How do you not hate those Who have loaded their Bibles And armed their disciples ’cause I don't know anymore

Stamberg is too much of a fan to raise any questions about the scorn Werner expresses in these lyrics. Even amid Stamberg's unctuous questions, some endearing and illuminating details emerge. Werner describes being imprinted by church music:

I grew up in a big Catholic family in rural Iowa. So, like many Americans, churchgoing was part of my childhood. As an adult, I don't go to church. What I can say is that if you grew up in the church and if you were a little baby in your mama's arms in the church, that was the first music you heard. You're tuned, I think, like a violin, and church music is always going to have an effect on you. And this album was a way of bringing my adult, secular life together with those musical experiences and memories.

The heart of the interview comes when Stamberg asks Werner if she's describing a journey of faith. She is, sort of:

I think I came to a point where I was happy with so many parts of my life, and wanted to -- or maybe was ready to -- look for a larger sense of purpose, a larger sense of being of service, and the church for many of us is the default setting for that. If you grew up in the church, then this would be a time you would go back to the church, and embrace those traditions that would help you live a larger kind of life. But to go back to the church for me, and for many people, seems to be, well, a mixed blessing, right? There's what the church inspires you to do that's good and what the church seems to inspire some people to do that is, well, not so good.

"Or maybe you mean not so embracing," Stamberg offers.

"Yeah, not quite so open," Werner says.

Werner's lyrics honestly express why a woman who grew up Catholic no longer feels at home in church, and her honesty is admirable. Her assumptions about the Theological Other are, well, not so admirable or charitable. The story that will be worth watching is whether her songs catch on in progressive church circles. I have no trouble thinking of congregations in which "(Why Is Your) Heaven So Small" would be an ideal song after a universalist sermon, or before a "wherever you are in your journey of faith" Communion. "Forgiveness" would be a memorable dirge for any anti-Bush rally. "Lost My Religion" would work for people who distance themselves from what they call organized religion. (Is there any other kind?)

I'm glad Werner felt comfortable enough about her roots to experiment with the sounds of traditional gospel music. I hope she'll eventually discover that the church -- even the conservative portions of it -- is not such a frightening place after all.

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