In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing.
Because I grew up in the kind of fundamentalist Christian church that’s easy to badmouth and blame for any number of problems, I frequently get asked if I still believe in God. The truth is, I’m never sure how to answer that question. I can’t technically call myself a believer, because at best, I think God is a distant, unknowable concept that we couldn’t even begin to comprehend. But I also can’t call myself a nonbeliever, because I find it difficult to deal with the idea of letting go of this last rung of who I once was. I can’t definitively believe in God, but I believe in the residues of God, in the great things that believing in Him can inspire in others.
It’s why I listen to a lot of gospel music, the more traditional—i.e., a soloist and a church choir—the better. Compared to, say, Christian rock, gospel is light years better in terms of musicality and authenticity, largely because it’s its own thing, its own movement, instead of a diluted version of something else. (My other favorite genre of religious music is Shaker songs, which share some weird similarities to gospel, for being almost completely different.) At its best, gospel captures an unalloyed joy, a religious ecstasy I can remember experiencing as a child but have felt far too infrequently since adolescence. The heart of almost every gospel song is the same: I am a horrifying, imperfect sinner, but I have been taken up by God and transformed. I am not good, but I am made good by His beneficence. And that’s a beautiful thing to believe in, an idea that can change lives and change the world. It’s driven a lot of great art, and it drives almost all great gospel.
Maybe my favorite gospel song of the last couple of decades is the Rev. Clay Evans and the AARC Mass Choir performing “I’ve Got A Testimony,” from the album of the same name. Like many gospel songs, “I’ve Got A Testimony” is a call-and-response between a soloist and the choir, largely focused around the chorus: “As I look back over my life/ and I think things over / I can truly say/ that I’ve been blessed / I’ve got a testimony.” The 11-minute-plus version of this song features this chorus over and over and over and over. What’s more, the actual testimony part of the testimony is incredibly generic. God picked the soloist’s feet up and set them on higher ground. He turned the soloist around. And so on and so on.
The idea of the “testimony”—the story told by someone to explain how he or she went from a life of sin to a life in Christ—is a powerful one in the Christian church. (The language of the testimony actually crept into the mainstream discourse in terms of George W. Bush’s story of overcoming alcoholism through Christianity.) The church I went to as a child had testimonies from congregation members all the time, and I was always slightly jealous that I, as kind of a goody-two-shoes kid, didn’t have a story of my own. But as I got older, I realized that all of the stories were the same, as generic and unspecific as the soloist in the song. Somebody was down; now, they were up, thanks to God’s help.
But the true secret of what gives religion its power is buried in “I’ve Got A Testimony,” too. The lyrics may be generic, but the music—and the rapture from the singers—transcends. The feeling in the voices, the sense that things have never been as good as they are now, thanks to the Lord’s help, is all the testimony one needs. To feel that way, to feel so good, that would be quite a thing. And in the end, that’s why I trust in residues, why I keep going to church. To sit with a group of people and contemplate the larger mysteries of the universe together in quietude or joyousness is all the testimony I need.