Every year I see something that reminds me of the divide. I call it the gospel bifurcation; people in American society use the word “gospel” in two distinct ways.
On the one hand, gospel means good news—specifically, the good news of the redemptive life and work of Christ. On the other hand, gospel also refers to a style of exuberant black music. These two meanings are related, yet distinct.
If you do a Google news search for the phrase “the gospel of,” you’ll find several stories connected to Christian orthodoxy, but you might also see a profile of Oprah, a documentary in Arkansas, or a story on corporate philanthropy.
In their own way, they all trumpet good news.
On the other hand, if you just input “gospel” in your search, your hits will be dominated by stories about musicians, mostly black. At the time of this writing, the biggest story is Snoop Dogg’s double CD release Bible of Love, but there’s also a fun nugget on Jonathan McReynolds dropping into WGN to sing the weather forecast. Stories like these really have little to do with the gospel in a direct sense—they’re more just trading on the viability of gospel music as a bankable form of auditory entertainment.
It’s taken me a while to notice the difference, because for me growing up, they were inseparable. My family was deeply steeped in the gospel music tradition. When we sang about Jesus, we clapped, swayed, grooved, and jammed. So I assumed that everyone who made music this way did so with the same intent and focus.
These bifurcated meanings of “gospel” are indicative of a nation divided across lines of class, culture, and race.
It wasn’t until I saw a clip from The Daily Show in 2010 that I realized how far apart from each other these two “gospel” meanings had drifted. Jon Stewart had been feuding with a Fox News personality, and he ended the segment by aiming an expletive in musical form. Clad in choir robes, a small vocal ensemble of black singers sang with great enthusiasm an up-tempo ditty telling that Fox News host to “go [bleep] yourself.”
Now, Jon Stewart is a comedian, and being crude is often what comedians do. But what offended me was how the media covered it. The next day I read story after story with variations on the same headline: “Jon Stewart Claps Back at Fox News Host with a Gospel Choir.”
Really—that’s what you think a gospel choir is?
His stunt illustrates how for certain unchurched people, their only connection to anything related to God is a passing familiarity with the stylistic contours of gospel music. For these folks, their appreciation of gospel music—limited or distorted as it is—serves as an extension of their solidarity with African Americans.
On the other hand, some believers in Christ have accepted a gospel message, but their understanding of the gospel and its implications for life on earth is distorted by their lack of connection with African Americans or other people of color. They live in racially segregated communities with racially isolated frames of reference and understanding.
Lacking fuller context, their concept of the gospel is stunted by a Western capitalist aesthetic. Some might have a passing familiarity with gospel music, but it’s not part of their regular lived experience. As a result, their church worship music has little of the vitality, innovation, or visceral authenticity that gospel music is known for—even though they know the gospel.
These bifurcated meanings are indicative of a nation divided across lines of class, culture, and race. What if we could bring these two understandings back together?
The word “evangelical” doesn’t retain the meaning it once had. It’s now saddled by cultural baggage that prevents too many people from identifying with the American church. What if after the crucifixion, Peter had been asked by an onlooker, “Hey, aren’t you one of those evangelicals for Jesus?” I say, let’s switch it up. Let’s make the gospel our brand.