Songs in the key of Lent: Gospel Music and the Desert

Image of Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir singers at BBC Maida Vale Studios

Gospel Music and the liturgical cycle

Gospel music, we are often told, is very good at exuberant praise, “making a joyful noise” (Psalm 100), but not so good at contemplative worship, “listening in the peace of your heart” (Psalm 37). If this is true, then the season of Lent, the Forty Days of repentance and purification by fasting, prayer, penance, and almsgiving which begin on Ash Wednesday today, is a challenge for gospel choirs attempting to follow the liturgical cycle.

There is a valid point here. Gospel music, with its melodies and harmonies soaked with jazz and soul, with its drums, electric basses, and rhythm guitars, is rhythmically compulsive and usually makes you get up and dance rather than kneel down and pray. Gospel choirs, the musical heavyweights of vocal harmony, are more often belting than murmuring. The great anthems beloved of gospel choirs over the years – Oh Happy Day, People Get Ready, What A Friend, How Great Thou Art, Total Praise, Jesus Is Lord, I Am Healed, etc. – are praise anthems in resolutely major keys, and their lyrics all seem to have the same underlying narrative: “I was down, but Lord, you lifted me up, and I praise and thank you for that”.

Furthermore, most gospel music, and almost all contemporary gospel music stems from Christian churches which do not follow the liturgical cycle. Thus there is no seasonal demand for variation in the theology of lyrics, and no times of the year in which worship is deliberately calmed.

But there are five reasons why gospel music is not only compatible with Lent but should be its centerpiece.

Revisiting the Lenten Journey

First, the destination of the Lenten journey is joy, even if the journey itself can involve misery. Unfortunately, many Christians get stuck on the misery, in the mortification and abstinence (“giving up chocolate”) aspect of Lent, and lose sight of the joy. Christ himself tells us that “when you are fasting do not put on a gloomy look…but when you fast, put scent on your head and wash your face…” (Matthew 6). Lent should be a time of preparation for the appearance of the Risen Lord, in which, through abstinence from comforts but through prayer and charity also, we are nudged towards repentance, turning towards the true comfort, the triune God, the God of peace, love and joy.

The Source of Gospel Music

Second, gospel music sprang, and springs, from suffering. One of the Holy Spirit’s greatest miracles on earth was surely the spread of Christianity amongst black American slaves, the fathers and mothers of gospel music, the victims of self-proclaimed white Christians. Even now, the churches and communities which are the home of contemporary gospel are more likely to be serving communities which are socially and economically disadvantaged (such churches are not just in the USA but throughout the Americas, Africa and the Far East). This provenance gives gospel music legitimacy to speak of struggle and the challenge of turning away from temptation towards God. And how fascinating and inspiring that Suffering’s Soundtrack should sound joyful, positive and encouraging.

Theological Nuance

Third, turn the volume down and read the lyrics and you will see that gospel music is theologically nuanced. This is obviously the case for the 25% or so whose lyrics are directly from scripture. Also for most of the traditional hymns which gospel has taken to its heart. Amazing Grace is probably gospel’s most popular song, and it’s difficult to think of a song more gut-wrenching, sin-laden and self-knowing, and yet grateful, hope-filled and triumphal. And poignant: it was written by a white English slave-trader reflecting on his evil doings. Now have another look at that underlying narrative, and fill it out in the way that most gospel anthems tend to: “I was lost, but Lord, you showed me your perfect love in Jesus’s death and resurrection, you overlooked my faults and lifted me up by filling me with your Spirit, and I praise and adore you for saving me.” Yes, this narrative appears within gospel songs with remarkable regularity, but as a prayer, it’s nuanced, comprehensive and beautiful. A mini-Creed for Lent!

Repentence Songs

Fourth, gospel has always had repentance songs. Its equivalent of Lord Jesus Think On Me, God Of Mercy And Compassion and Forty Days And Forty Nights. Two of which we are especially fond are both reworkings of Psalm 51, the original gut-wrencher, an exploration of remorse and the need for mercy, written not by a slave trader but by King David after the prophet Nathan had confronted him with his adultery. “Give Me A Clean Heart” was written in 1970 by West Coast gospel pioneer Dr Margaret Douroux in old-school 6/8 time and is musically luscious but also restrained, reflective, personal and moving (“Lord, fix my heart so that I may be used by thee”). Our current favourite amongst more recent compositions is Martha Munizzi’s stunning “Renew Me” (2006), which is sung quietly and with intensity until it suddenly explodes into a fortissimo plea for God’s mercy (“Don’t cast me away from your presence, renew a right spirit within me,/ for my heart is broken before you, I bow down before you in worship”).

Quieter Gospel Music

Fifth and finally, gospel choirs can and do sing quietly. Indeed, the music is often more powerful and moving when quiet than when loud: singers are more able to hear each other, and gospel’s characteristic dynamics and chest-based vocals become subtle shapes in sound. There’s not enough quiet gospel around. Perhaps gospel choirs looking for a Lenten resolution should resolve to sing at least one song very quietly every time they meet.