What happens when an agnostic from Iowa writes a Gospel album? Well, you get some pretty cool music. Susan Werner has written an album, The Gospel Truth, that features progressive Christian lyrics set to old time Gospel music. It's got slide guitar, upbeat choirs, foot stomping, and everything else you'd expect out of tent-revival-meets-healthcare-reform-rally music.
(Why Is Your) Heaven So Small features slide guitar and a sultry voice as the lyrics explore the problems of judgmentalism. One of the powerful phrases says: "Well I know you'd damn me if you could / but my friend, that's simply not your call / If God is great and God is good / Why is your heaven so small." It seems like human nature to confuse our perspective with God's perspective. The people that don't think like us are wrong and are going to hell. The people that think like us are right and get to go to heaven. This kind of thinking makes God sound just like oneself. To this theological offense, author Anne Lamott says, "You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." So, Lamont and Werner seem to be trying to remind us that maybe the Heaven of God of the Universe isn't as small as the "heaven" of the "god" we make in our image. To drive this idea home, part of Werner's last verse reads: "But my friend, imagine this if you would / a love much mightier than us all."
Help Somebody is hand-clappin', continually building explosion of Gospel music. Ya just gotta stand up and dance by the end. Lyrically it's an ode to missional, social justice minded Christianity. It's about realizing we have enough stuff in life and then deciding to share those resources with others. One line reads: "I got supper on the table / What do I do / I go out and help somebody / Get supper on the table too." This song is about doing the work of the Church. Therefore the lyrics are in line with popular quote from St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” It'd be a great song for congregations to use during stewardship or fund-raising drives.
Forgiveness is one of the few slow songs on the album. And it's also one of the heaviest songs lyrically. It's about exploring the perennial question of how we can love and forgive people who hurt us. It's hard to summarize the power of this song in a brief review. It's one that has to be heard and felt. So let me just quote one of the verses and let it stand on its own: "How do you love those / Who never will love you / I think only God knows / And He is not taking sides / I hope one day He shows us / How we can love those / Who never will love us / But who still we must love."
Did Trouble Me offers a mid-tempo reflection on times when God challenges us to move, grow, and act. Werner opens the song with: "When I close my eyes so I would not see / My Lord did trouble me / When I let things stand that should not be / My Lord did trouble me." It's refreshing to hear a song about God encouraging us to see the things we'd rather not see, and address the things that need to be addressed. For example, global poverty kills 30,000 children every single day. That should trouble us. And when God troubles us with these kinds of things, God also calls us to act. We're invited to join in on God's mission of changing the world for the better. Perhaps the first step is to be troubled. Then to be empowered to act.
Sunday Morning is Werner's own autobiographical story about being former-church-goer-turned-agnostic who, in some ways, still longs to go to church on Sunday mornings. But, for her, church is not a place that was or is a safe place for her questions. In the last line she sings: "And I went back the other day / closed my eyes and tried to pray / but a voice spoke loud and clear / 'You ask too many questions, dear' / And I said, 'You ask too few' / that's why I still don't know quite what to do on Sunday mornings." Too few churches welcome real questions and authentic wrestling with theological ideas. But, as Ann Lamott reminds us, "The opposite of faith is not doubt, it's certainty." It's okay to have questions and doubts. But it's absurd to think we have all the "right" answers. As Apostle Paul reminds us, "We see through a glass dimly" and "know only in part" (1 Corinthians 13:12). Mystery is part of faith.
Our Father (The New, Revised Edition) sounds like something off the Old Time Gospel Hour. In a good way. Especially since the lyrics are so fun-yet-prophetic. Here is a great example: "Lord send us forth to bring compassion / to every corner of the world. / And please allow for women in the Catholic priesthood / And remind the pope that he could have been a girl." Ya gotta love the serious lyrics about bringing compassion mixed together with the edgy reminder of just how inconsequential gender is to the ability to do ministry.
Lost My Religion is another autobiographical song about being a convert to agnosticism. The lyrics lament about the things that push someone out of their faith in organized religion. In the second verse Werner laments: "Lost my religion / in the holy Church / Preacher told me girls like you / Are more trouble than they're worth / Lost my religion / I guess it had to be / Lost my religion / or my religion lost me." Many people will be able to relate to the story of outgrowing a part of organized religion. It's tough to be part of organized religion when you study things like evolution, slavery, the Salem Witch Trials, the Spanish Inquisition, Women's Studies, etc. Religion can be a powerful force for justifying war, oppression, and other evils. Hopefully we can lose bad religion and replace it with something better.
Don't Explain It Away is an ode to the beauty of mystery. While it's interesting to read how science and religion attempt to label, classify, and explain everything, Werner reminds us of the importance of enjoying the deeper truths that can't and shouldn't be explained. For example , a doctor can describe the process of childbirth in scientific terms, but nobody can explain the beauty of such miraculous moment. It has to be felt. In the last verse Werner sings: "If you find yourself at the water's edge / And you're listening as the waves break on the shore / While a sea of stars rolls above your head / And you realize you're part of so much more / And you're struck dumb with wonder / Can't find the words to say / Don't break the spell you're under / Don't explain it away." Some things in life are just too special to be explained.
I Will Have My Portion is a song about the belief that everybody deserves good things to happen in life. Despite setbacks, we're meant to have joys also. The first verse talks about the naysayers: "And some would say / That time has passed me by / And some would say / That the wells have all run dry." But the rest of the song talks about the resilient faith in good fortune coming despite the naysayers' doom and gloom. in the last verse, Werner sings about the vision of hope she sees for herself: "Somewhere there's a blessing and it bears my name / And soon or late, it's coming to me just the same / Can't wait to see / What's set aside for me / With every new sunrise / I'm gonna keep my eyes wide open." We all need a vision of hope to get us through life. And for those who are Christian, Jesus gave us a vision for our lives that includes "complete joy" (John 15:11) and "abundant life" (John 10:10). We all deserve our share of joy.
Probably Not is a piano infused Gospel rocker. And it's funny. It's not meant to be taken too seriously. The lyrics are about an agnostic who does think there is a God but also doesn't think she'd turn down eternal life with God if it was offered. Okay, that idea may not sound humorous, but the way Werner writes the plot of the song is quite witty. The best line of the song has got to be this: "Saint Tom was the grooviest apostle of all." Sung like a true agnostic! Yet the song ends with an affirmation of God. Ya just gotta hear the song to appreciate its wit.
Together closes out the album. And she saves a good one for last. The lyrics are about our need to come together as a human family. In the first verse, Werner sings, "If there is a God / With a human face / I'm sure He'd want us all to come together/ And get beyond these bolted doors / Get beyond these awful bloody wars." We don't all need to think the same and vote the same. But we need to appreciate the dignity of our differences. And find a way to be united. As the old maxim goes: "We need unity, not uniformity." After all, the God with a human face prayed, through Jesus: "That they all be one" (John 17:21). This song is a beautiful prayer for that oneness.
To hear more about Werner's album or her spiritual journey, click here.