If we had only 30 seconds to tell you what was most important, it would be this…
I’m fairly sure the message went longer than 30 seconds. How could it not?
Bookended by questioning my afterlife certainty percentage, and a phone number to call, the message centers around what it calls the “The Bible Way to Heaven.” This phrase, with its unintended implied qualifiers, encapsulates the things I love most about this part of the world.
My dad drove me through Indiana, back in 2003, on the way to my freshman year. We didn’t stop in Indiana, and we didn’t stop talking, so I didn’t realize the existence of this crossbar of Bible belt culture that shoots down from Michigan to St. Louis.
Here there is none of the beardy mystique of farmland in the southwest, with its wan sky and buildings weathered beyond reasonable functionality.
Here there is none of the terrifying planar monochrome of Kansas and Oklahoma.
There isn’t even the spruce utilitarian circumspection of Illinois.
Indiana and Ohio are friendly, its corn green bright like teeth fresh from the dentist, fringed with white flowers as fluffy as a bride’s chiffon. The fields remind me of the ladies’ lounges in the church where my mom grew up, where we would have to visit in the summertime–those anterooms to the actual toilets, with flowered chintz couches and flowered wallpaper and flowered caddies someone quilted to cover the kleenex box. I hated going to that church, when I was a child–we had to dress up a lot more than we did at home, which was all right except that it was so much hotter outside than it was at home, oppressive and humid in a way that I never remembered until we got there.Even as a kid, I disliked the pastor’s sermon, though of course that could have just been because he wasn’t my pastor and I wasn’t used to his style. But something about it felt so admonitory, even when he was smiling and being upbeat. I hated Sunday school, where I didn’t know anybody, and the kids behind me spent the whole hour kicking the back of my seat and then regarding me blankly when I’d finally turn around.
More than anything, I hated the music, its pompous quarter-time pace and the swinging arm and pursed cheeks of the music director. I always wanted to sing out of time just to show him how little I cared for his swinging arm.
This Sunday morning’s Power Hour is entirely comprised of that music, which is known as Southern gospel, which is a nice way of saying “white-people gospel.” Songs like “Keep Your Hand on the Gospel Plow” and “Jesus Included Me.” Songs sung by all male groups, with plunging lows and trembling highs, by precocious children with voices strong as marching bands, by teenage girls with voices somewhere between a Renaissance castrato and a lullaby. Songs whose unequivocal uniformity conjure the image of choirs where the women’s jumpers and the men’s neckties are made from the same fabric.
I resented that we had to attend this church when we visited Michigan, especially since my grandparents never came with us to our church when they visited California. If they couldn’t put up with the drums and the flipflops, why did we have to suffer the pipe organ and the itchy dress clothes? Beyond resenting, I couldn’t fathom why my parents sang along with this music, in obedience to the red-faced director’s swinging arm. Not only did they not keep silent–my dad would even join the four-part harmony, like he’d been practicing for it all his life. How, I wondered, could they capitulate to the legalism that they deplored from home?
(Seven years old, thinking this. What kind of monster am I?)
I’ve turned it on the low end of the dial, looking for NPR; now that I’ve found this station, I can’t turn it off. I’m absolutely charmed by it.
Behind the unyielding tempo and the strictly measured inflections, I hear the lusty earnestness of people who seldom get a chance to let loose. I hear it especially in the quartet tenor voice, whom I imagine looks forward fervently to choir practice as his one opportunity to release a Dionysian scream in the only place where it’s welcome. I love them for digging into this one channel of their passion, for embracing so zealously the one freedom they believe they have, for the sake of something they believe so fervently. When I know the words, I sing along with.
“The Key” WRTW 90.5 is broadcast from Crown Point, Indiana