Who's calling who "gospel"?

JarsBigWe don't cover entertainment reviews very often, unless we're talking about a movie that is making news. But a friend of mine sent me some links that raise an interesting issue linked to the language that journalists use to describe music, and that has always been a subject that interests me. So here is the key question: What is "gospel" music?

If you look the term up online you'll find all kinds of definitions, but this Wiki one is pretty typical:

Gospel music may refer either to the religious music that first came out of African-American churches in the 1930s or, more loosely, to both black gospel music and to the religious music composed and sung by white southern Christian artists. While the separation between the two styles was never absolute -- both drew from the Methodist hymnal and artists in one tradition sometimes sang songs belonging to the other -- the sharp division between black and white America, particularly black and white churches, kept the two apart. While those divisions have lessened slightly in the past fifty years, the two traditions are still distinct.

Thus, the word "gospel" when combined with "music" is supposed to mean, oh, the Chicago Mass Choir or the Jordanaires. You could even say that Bob Dylan made a few solid records featuring gospel content, some gospel vocalists and some elements of gospel tradition -- but no one in his or her right mind would head to the local Best Buy and look for his classic Saved in that tiny, dusty "gospel" section back behind the ethnic folk dance discs.

So what do you do with a band called Jars of Clay -- forget U2, P.O.D., Switchfoot and a host of other bands -- that mixes some Christian content into its Beatlesque pop-rock? Is that "gospel" music?

It seems that it is at USA Today. It would also seem that, in this context, the term is being used as a bit of a slur. At least, that's what my friend Mark Joseph thinks, and he's been walking this beat forever.

Here's the somewhat positive review by Brian Mansfield of the new Jars album. The key is right there at the start:

Gospel: Jars of Clay, Good Monsters (* * * 1/2)

Unlike many of their Christian-rock peers, the members of Jars of Clay offer few pat answers. Sometimes, they even get the feeling they might be asking the wrong questions. On tracks such as Work and Light Gives Heat, they find their soul -- and their energy -- between the frustrations over their own shortcomings and the possibility of glorious mysteries, making their music as open-ended and unsettling as faith itself. -- Mansfield

Some readers quickly responded with online comments. Here's a pair that sums up the debate:

I appreciate the Jars of Clay review. I feel they are underrated -- possibly due to the "gospel" tag. Men and women who pursue and question faith exist in all genres. How many others are limited because of constricting labels? I can't help but think that this talented bunch would be enjoyed by more potential listeners if not bound by categorization.

Posted by: Dale Rinkenberger | Sep 5, 2006 7:07:46 AM

Just wanted to echo the sentiment so far regarding the Jars of Clay release. I'm a huge U2 fan and was intrigued when Bono named one of their songs as one of his favorites. A complete stranger to gospel music (other than knowing of Amy Grant) I bought a few CDs and I now own their entire collection. "Good Monsters" is an excellent recording -- gospel or otherwise. The songwriting, arrangements, and production is so good I don't notice the more overtly religious references.

Posted by: JNash | Sep 5, 2006 9:22:00 PM

Strangely enough, the band's previous disc didn't get labeled like this -- with a USA Today review posted right next to that of another band, the Indigo Girls, that tends to wave its unique spiritual point of view right out in the open. Also, as Joseph noted in a National Review Online piece, the Jars guys have done some email jawing with the USA Today folks about this issue. There may be some bad blood here.

Interesting. Does anyone think that this issue matters? Can newspapers just let music speak for itself, or does the public need to be warned in this manner?

Please respect our Commenting Policy