God and Country Music: The Really Attractive False Heaven of Small Town Living
I have written more than one God and Country Music column on the relationship between Nashville and Christianity. And really, you wouldn’t have present-day Nashville without American Christianity. From George Hay’s “strictly clean and decent” policy at the Grand Ole Opry to the chorus of Eric Church’s hit ”Like Jesus Does,” religious life has been an important aspect of country music. From an anthropological position, it’s fascinating how this type of popular culture has been a safe haven for religious conservatives who feel encroached on by the urbanization and liberalization of the world around them. But from a Christian perspective, I am worried that a lot of Christians are buying into a subtle yet attractive legalism: separatism.
Here’s the chorus to Craig Morgan’s “More Trucks Than Cars”:
We say hell ya and amen, yeehaw, and y’all come back again
And pray that our boys come home alive
And when Old Glory flies, we still hold our hands over our hearts
Where there’s more trucks than cars.
The song, especially the chorus, is indicative of the theological market of Nashville: patriotic, rural, conservative, Christian. It’s brilliant marketing, really. To offer a picture of life uncorrupted by the left-wing terrors of globalization, urbanization, liberalization, and secularism. Country songs like these (they have been a dime a dozen for the last three decades) offer a haven from change and “progress.”
And for an impressively large percentage of the population, the sort of daily life described in these songs is really appealing. Honestly, I love it. If I had the funds, I would be darn tempted to try to find the town that Morgan is talking about and buy a house there. It seems like it would satisfy my soul by removing me from the things that I am frustrated by socially and politically.
In a social climate like the United States that’s been rapidly changing since the 1960’s, it is natural for people who don’t welcome social change to insulate in their communities and block out the world. Country music provides a brief escape for people who, like me, are afraid of the uncertain future. It’s like a less extreme manifestation of the same longings and desires of the Russian Old Believers ( read this if you don’t know what I am talking about). This kind of separation seems great, except it simply isn’t Christian.
Jesus didn’t isolate himself from the world that he lived in. The moral teachings of Jesus and His church aren’t supposed to be cultural barricades. Morality is meant to protect our spiritual, emotional, and relational well being as Christians “have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 22) in the world around them. The more I work through all of this (which is completely against my nature), the more I realize that the ‘narrow path that leads to life’ tends to go right through the ‘wide path that leads to destruction.’
It’s okay to want to live an idyllic, Christian world. We were wired to want that. But we won’t find it in small-town America; we’ll find it in heaven. I love country music because it points me there. But in my enjoyment of it I have to be careful that I don’t go mistaking paradise for that home across the road and repent when I try to save myself in cultural nostalgia.
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The bizarre thing to me about this sort of country music is that it’s written, recorded and performed by people who live in Nashville.
Let me tell you what you already know–Nashville is hardly a rural American town.
Which makes me wonder: what town are these people really singing about it? My guess is that it’s the Platonic ideal of a town, more than the town itself. Or to put it more cynically: this is all just marketing.
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