Fellas, is This Worship Song Gay?

Fellas, is This Worship Song Gay? March 9, 2024

This just in: Sovereign Grace music is gay now. Thus declares Pastor Armen Thomassian, who I’d never heard of until everyone started dunking on a tweet where he complained about the “weird effeminate vibe” during worship at the recent Shepherds Conference. Yes, the Shepherds Conference. The one hosted at John MacArthur’s church, featuring keynote addresses from guys like Phil Johnson and Steve Lawson. Really.

Worship leader Bob Kauflin was the chief culprit here, according to Thomassian, though he went on to say this vibe broadly pervades “much of the modern attempts to write corporate worship music.” When people complained, he offered a short clip from the conference to illustrate. It’s about two minutes of Kauflin leading the song “Jesus, Thank You,” which just as an aside, Kauflin himself didn’t actually write. It was written by some guy I’ve also never heard of named Pat Szebel in 2003. Frankly, I would have been a little surprised if Kauflin wrote it, because Kauflin generally writes much better tunes. I’d never heard this song myself, even though it’s apparently been around for 20 years, and it was easy to see why. The clip was definitely a little awkward as the room full of pastors earnestly tried to latch onto the uninspired melody and repeated chorus of “Jesus, thank you.” But effeminate? Not particularly. Just kind of boring.

Nevertheless, Thomassian persisted. “Compare it to this,” he said, posting a clip of men being led in “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” “The music is different, the use of the voice is different. One sounds delicate, the other sounds robust. One sounds like a ballad, the other sounds like an anthem.”

Wait, what? Fellas, are [checks notes] ballads gay now?

While most people gave Pastor Armen two thumbs way down, a few jumped in to agree, including one guy who said even the way Kauflin played the piano was “very effeminate.” “This right here,” Thomassian enthusiastically agreed. “If you can’t see this, you’ve been conditioned.”

This is absurd. I speak as a musician who happens to be a pianist, with musical male relatives who also happen to like playing piano in the style Kauflin is using here. It’s a style I’m very comfortably familiar with—just your standard pop-inflected, easy listening piano. It’s not everyone’s preference, obviously. But that’s a purely aesthetic judgement. There’s nothing gendered about it. As I joked later, back in college I did a home project including an instrumental piano version of “There is a Fountain” which unintentionally evoked Elton John (I wasn’t a fan at the time). If only I’d known I was playing gay piano! Why did no one tell me? In fact, I’m layering together a few different styles in that arrangement, including some pop, some gospel, and a little country. My most immediate inspiration was actually the piano hook for the 90s country-pop ballad “Little Rock.” It’s really good, not to toot my horn.

Anyway, back to Bob Kauflin and Pastor Armen, who elaborated a little more in a couple tweets complaining that Sovereign Grace Music has been “the contemporary equivalent of Ira Sankey.” I think this is incredibly unfair to Sankey, who was nothing if not a strong tunesmith, but the comparison was still illuminating for me. As a quick refresher, Sankey was a 19th-century musician whose music accompanied the revival meetings of Dwight L. Moody. He specialized in simple melodies inspired by the popular music of the time which would lend themselves to congregational singing. One of his most famous compositions is “The Ninety and Nine,” which set a poem by Elizabeth Clephane to a melody he wrote literally at the organ on tour in Scotland. “I had nothing suitable in mind,” he recalled later, but he “seemed to hear a voice” telling him to sing the Clephane poem he had just read on the train. “I lifted my heart in prayer, asking God to help me so to sing that the people might hear and understand. Laying my hands upon the organ I struck the chord of A flat and began to sing. Note by note the tune was given, which has not changed from that day to this. As the singing ceased a great sigh seemed to go up from the meeting, and I knew that my song had reached the hearts of my Scottish audience.”

Again, there’s nothing especially “effeminate” about any of this. Here’s a cover I randomly pulled up of “The Ninety and Nine” by a very talented fellow who records himself singing all four parts in a spirited acapella rendition. Pretty manly, I’d have thought.

However, I can see why Sankey’s oeuvre might irritate someone with a general allergy to the revivalist spirit, which historically accompanied the intentional wedding of popular music with church music. Fanny Crosby is another iconic writer from this era who wrote with a similar intention, and who, I’m guessing, would similarly irritate Pastor A. It’s not that Pastor A is against congregational singing. He seems to approve of the manly singalong for “A Mighty Fortress.” What he dislikes is music that has any whiff of the tent meeting or the altar call about it. It probably doesn’t help if it’s in 6/8 time. Something tells me he would break into hives at the first few chords of “In the Garden.” (A song which, incidentally, according to the writer’s great-granddaughter, “was written on a cold, dreary day in a cold, dreary and leaky basement in New Jersey that didn’t even have a window in it let alone a view of a garden. I guess you could say it is a tribute to my great-grandfather’s faith that he believed it existed, at least in his heart.” See the comments section here for this remarkable little historical footnote.)

I’m a bit more confused as to why Sovereign Grace in particular would attract Pastor A’s irritation in modern times. I don’t follow them all that closely, but my gestalt impression has always been that if anything, they were trying to counter-balance hyper-emotional, repetitive worship music trends with songs that had a more hymn-like structure. One personal favorite of mine is “Before the Throne of God Above,” which marries a strong 19th-century text by Charitie Lees Smith with a singable new tune by Vikki Cook. I always liked this version recorded by the Haven of Rest Quartet. Not sure what Pastor A would make of it. There’s a solo verse for a high tenor. Perhaps that would be a bit effeminate for his tastes. I joked that nobody should ever introduce this man to the Gaither Vocal Band. What might befall Pastor A if he watched this rendition of “He Touched Me,” I shudder to even think.

Bill and Gloria Gaither were, of course, the king and queen of gospel schmaltz in their own day, with timeless classics like “Because He Lives,” “Something About That Name,” and “I Believe in a Hill Called Mount Calvary.” I have sweet memories of gathering around a piano to sing songs like this with an Assemblies of God family I grew up with—very charismatic, very demonstrative in their worship. Their father, a naturally gifted pianist, incorporated what in hindsight I now recognize as elements of black gospel in his singing and playing. White boy had soul, as they say. Recently, I discovered a young black piano prodigy named Jude Kofie who brought back these memories for me with startling poignancy. Here he is riffing on the hymn “Pass Me Not.” Doesn’t sound very effeminate to me, but maybe I’m just conditioned.

Now, I grant that there are some who will try to appropriate or hijack sentimental gospel music for their own, well, queer purposes. Way back in the day when I was a little whippersnapper of a writer, I encountered some of this while blogging about white southern gospel, which believe it or not was my first beat (all my archives are preserved on this very blog—browse at your peril). At the time, a postmodern gay academic named Douglas Harrison was doing some of his own blogging on the same beat, which eventually turned into a book called Then Sings My Soul. Harrison wrote as someone who had been steeped in the music and culture of southern gospel as a boy and still found himself drawn to it, but also wanted to analyze it through a queer lens. He hypothesized that something about the genre would always have an emotional pull for him as a gay man, and for gay men in general, even as the culture around it was strongly heteronormative. The heightened sentimentality of the music, combined with the sometimes campy nature of the showmanship, further combined with a robust culture of homosocial male bonding (sometimes quite physical as men freely embraced and flung arms around each other), all converged to allow gay men to find their secret places in the industry—sometimes even hiding in plain sight. One singer-songwriter, Kirk Talley, was blackmailed in a gay chatroom and subsequently went through an excruciating attempted “rehabilitation” process. His song “Intimacy With Jesus” was written in this era. (I link this sad artifact for reference purposes only. Do not click unless you are prepared to inflict physical pain on yourself.) But Talley was far from alone, by Harrison’s account. By night, he claims all the industry’s closeted professionals would gather for “Pink Parties” at a bar in Nashville, where they sometimes covered songs sung by their very own “gay icon,” Vestal Goodman—a brassy, larger-than-life diva who commanded a stage like Judy Garland or Bette Midler of old.

At one point, Harrison quotes an essay by fellow gay critic and queer theorist Michael Warner, on his own childhood growing up Pentecostal. Warner writes that whenever his congregation sang “In the Garden,” he “would look around to make sure no one noticed that these words were coming, rather too pleasurably, from my mouth.” “Jesus was my first boyfriend,” he goes on coyly. “He loved me, personally, and he told me I was his own. This was very thrilling, especially when he was portrayed by Jeffrey Hunter.” Of course we have no reason to think the hymnwriter himself would ever have intended or foreseen this. If anything, the lyrics are childlike, with some of the same quality as certain Victorian literary depictions of the beauty of little children. This in itself might annoy some people, but it’s not sexual, however Warner wants to misappropriate it now.

All of this is so much grist for Pastor A’s mill. But that’s my point. There’s a kind of horseshoe effect where gay writers like this, paradoxically, actually wrap around and meet Pastor A. By that, I don’t mean to insinuate anything about Pastor A, to imply that he’s projecting, etc. I mean that both he and they are inclined to declare certain kinds of music as, in some meaningful sense, intrinsically “gay-coded.” Not that I think Harrison’s queer soul would have sung along to “Jesus, Thank You” with any great verve. Whatever else he was, he was still a real musician, and I think like me he would simply have dismissed the tune as a dull throwaway not worth a second listen. He was much more stirred by songs like “Look For Me at Jesus’ Feet,” which also happens to be one of my personal favorites. I remember actually enjoying one piece of concert writing where he described just how deeply he had been moved by this number when the Booth Brothers sang it. At the time, to be fair, I don’t remember his applying a “queer lens” specifically to that song, or speculating about the sexuality of the performers (who I can personally attest were some of the classiest guys in the business). But the central thesis of his book is that in some sense, all transcendent moments like this could serve as a kind of fleeting integration of the gay man he is today and the gospel-loving boy he used to be. I favor a simpler thesis: that music like this speaks to the heart, and to whatever degree Harrison’s heart remains restless, it still longs for the rest of which that music speaks.

Can Christian music still be written, led, or delivered in a hyper-emotive way, a way that could maybe accurately be described as “effeminate” or unmanly? It could, and to some degree I share Pastor A’s annoyance with contemporary worship trends in that direction. But it is also possible to be so unreasonably hyper-vigilant about whether something is “gay-coded” that one ironically meets one’s cultural enemies halfway. Such exercises are, in general, a postmodernist’s errand. May I suggest we not run it for the postmodernists?

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