Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.
His hands are tan; his cuffs have been upturned but not rolled, and the top three buttons of his black shirt hang open under his chin. His hair knifes out variously in a style best described as “subdued anime.”
He takes the stage and says a few words about the pastor’s message as he pulls a strap over his shoulder. The instrument hangs across his chest; the strings sparkle, and the light they catch shifts up the fret board as he depresses the first notes. He intercedes into the microphone with consummate extemporaneity. By the time we open our eyes, he has already traversed several chords.
Mobile, lightweight, and versatile, the acoustic guitar is contemporary evangelicalism’s favorite tool for facilitating musical worship. As the organ suits a stone church with stained glass windows, the guitar suits aluminum sheet siding, coffee in Styrofoam cups, and PowerPoint slide decks. In fact, it suits just about everything else, too.
Novices and masters alike find that God will establish the work of their hands when they are holding a guitar. Three or four chords can get an apprentice praise leader through a basic repertoire, and God will be glorified in her getting through. The same praise leader might learn in following years the key to a meandering style of finger plucking, and she will thereby become able to produce the soft cascade of sounds that carry the words of a pastor’s closing altar call. So might she move from glory to glory.
I have always understood the piecemeal sound of a guitar as yellow, like a pile of felled cornstalks. The association suggests the instrument’s earthy populism. An acoustic guitar is as comfortable on a bus as on a back porch as onstage in front of thousands. It has modulations to suit every environment in which it is called upon to produce its bundles of sounds, but always retains that folksy quality, that universal accessibility.
How like troubadours our worship leaders are, with their spiritual love songs and their willingness to travel. On Christian college campuses it is a familiar enough sight: the young man taking a seat in the lobby as the sun goes down outside, unboxing his guitar, and hosting a spontaneous worship sing-along. Men and women sit near him and sing, eyes fixed on his, which are closed with feeling. David sang and danced naked before God. A crooning 19-year-old in a dorm lobby is just as naked as David was, but he does not likely realize it.
These couch-sitters have secular cousins, of course, who trade Hillsong for Oasis, but sing for similar reasons. They are American boys; they wear leather bracelets on their wrists and dream of being loved like gods, or by gods.
When they dream such things they dream privately, lying on their backs under a lit window and singing to a cracked ceiling. The guitar is personal in a way that few instruments are. It quickly gains the trust of the player. While a violinist or pianist learns “Happy Birthday” or “Chopsticks,” a beginning guitarist starts on tunes cool enough to dispel his self-consciousness. These songs sound like regular songs, is all. They subject the player to no apparent indignity. Someone passing under the open window might think unkind thoughts, but for the budding guitarist, it sounds like any song you might hear over the radio. An emerging flautist or tuba player is the beneficiary of no such privilege.
The early successes build an important foundation. Basic chords become tools for expressing the player’s self. A relationship is born. Feelings are felt. To some degree, the guitar might become partly constitutive of the player’s identity.
This remains, too, in the person onstage with upturned cuffs, who now closes his eyes and noodles for the Lord. The audience waits with lips parted for the next verse, but this song has an instrumental bridge. So many of them do.
I see praise band leaders wielding guitars like wands to conjure deep feelings out of pining worshipers, and wonder whether there isn’t something very foolish about it all. I get tired of feelings; I want them to go slack, and to consider the cosmos with ice in my mind. I want an organ and two hymns with six verses each. I want to comb that man’s wild hair.
But, as Mary Szybist would suggest,
Just for this evening, let’s not mock them.
What is it that the person onstage has that we lack? What is it that is so easy to mock? Szybist’s poem “The Troubadours Etc.” asks this about roaming lovesick singers, awash in sentiment. It seems relevant, too, to those awash in spiritual feelings. Her eye is on the critic when she writes:
At least they had ideas about love.
Is it the sincerity, the absorption, the lack of self-awareness? I wonder whether nostalgia is at the root of my willingness to poke fun: a longing for an impossible time when everything was as simple as a person plying a fretboard and worshiping God, no matter what a back-pew sitter like myself might think of the display. Szybist continues:
The Puritans thought that we are granted the ability to love
only through miracle,
but the troubadours knew how to burn themselves through,
how to make themselves shrines to their own longing.
The spectacular was never behind them.
Perhaps I envy the person with the starburst hair and the leather cord bracelets; I see in their rapture a state that is inaccessible to me. It’s in the face of those onstage every Sunday morning: those who, in performing, are given back a purity of intention that eludes spectator participants who can hold themselves back and criticize. Whether bad faith is involved in these displays, I can’t say. I can say that I wish I knew how to burn myself through, how to be again in view of the spectacular. I wish I knew how to play the guitar.