Arts & Culture: Diversity Dialogue

Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts in New York State’s Southern Tier

The Gospel Truth

A friend of mine and I were talking about music and the friend happened to say, “And who doesn’t like gospel music?” At the time, I agreed that it is widely enjoyed. But I kept mulling over the conversation in my mind in the days to follow. I do like gospel music. Sometimes. I like the feeling of it, the sound of it, the sometimes abandon of letting it all out and singing it, like you mean it. But the problem for me is, I don’t mean it.

I am not a Christian, living in a town where it seems many are or many claim to be one form of Christian or another. I am not a Christian in a town where many don’t really understand why I object to an assumption that Christian practices and Christian ideas about God should be the norm for everyone. I often find myself in situations where I am having Christianity forced upon me or upon my family. It seems unavoidable at formal public gatherings, at public meals, in public schools, at public school concerts, at graduation ceremonies, in shopping districts, town parks, everywhere outside of my own house of worship with the exception of private homes. (If you invite me into your home, for a Christmas party, I expect you can be as religious as you want and it’s my choice to attend and share your traditions with you or not, but in a public gathering, diversity is a huge issue that needs to be addressed.)

Yes, there are enlightened people who understand diversity and they have helped some institutions change the name from a Christmas concert to a holiday concert in school or at the holiday party at the workplace. In some towns far away from here, that change actually means something. But around here, nothing seems to have changed except the name. The food served is still traditional Christmas fare, there are Christmas trees with Christmas decorations and the napkins and cookies are still red and green. For all intents and purposes, everything is still about Christmas. And if Santa comes, that makes it a Christmas party in my book. Don’t just call it a holiday party if it’s really a Christmas party – you are not fooling anyone. Don’t put dreidels on a Christmas tree at school to prove you are being diverse. It’s still a Christmas tree and putting Jewish symbols on it is still offensive, non-inclusive of some, and showing a lack of understanding about diversity. Leave the Christmas tree, the red and green decorations, the Christmas word puzzles, the Christmas cookies and songs, the Christmas films out of the school and stop complaining that you can’t get the students to concentrate on their school work just before the holidays. Duh!

I do comfort myself with knowing that some of the things people do at Christmas time are really adaptations from pre-Christian, Pagan traditions. But most people don’t see the trees and wreaths that way. It’s odd to think that really devout Christians are following pagan customs and might not even know it. But the leaders of old knew that people don’t like giving up the fun stuff, so they found ways to incorporate pagan ways into the Christian ways, to keep the people happy. Because many people then, as now, don’t like change, even when it comes to matters of diversity.

Do teachers really have to keep reminding children, in the classroom, about the upcoming holidays? Do you think they’d forget to tell their parents about Christmas coming and then the whole holiday would be ruined for hundreds of families because they always relied on the schools to remind the children? The local economy would suffer because without daily reminders in the classrooms of the children, the parents wouldn’t know to start Christmas shopping on time and stores would have unsold merchandize? C’mon.

I once had a discussion about Christmas music in the school concert with a local music teacher whom I respect very highly for that teacher’s teaching skills. When it came to Christmas music in the schools, though, we had to agree to disagree, as that teacher’s solution to me was for me to go back to school, get another master’s degree and become a music teacher myself and do things differently in my own classroom. What is so hard about leaving God and Christianity out of the music program at a public school? There is plenty of music for kids to sing, why is one whole concert, out of only two school concerts in a year, devoted to Christmas music? Granted, some teachers try to incorporate one or two Hanukkah songs or other non-Christian songs into the program, but why not just sing about winter or other non-religious subjects, and allow maybe just one Christmas song? Chanukah is a very minor Jewish festival, not even a holy day and not even a biblical holiday. If you were to ask any learned Jew what is the most important holiday, no one would answer Chanukah. The teacher politely argued that they have a tradition of singing these carols. Now I very much like to honor tradition in many ways, with some exceptions, like slavery, oppression of women, child labor, stoning people for their sins, etc, but that would be another blog entirely. My reply was that my people have singing traditions, too, but when I want to hear them, I go to my house of worship; why couldn’t all the Christian kids go to church to sing the traditional carols at Christmas time? That conversation was probably close to 10 years ago. I still would choose that same teacher for my kids, if I were able, because s/he is someone I admire; we just didn’t agree on this one issue.

This past year at a school concert, a retired public school teacher from our district, wrote a piece for an elementary school choir to sing. It was blatantly religious and inappropriate for a public school teacher to write for a public school. (Although musically, very lovely.) My child’s friends objected to the song’s words, but only to each other. None of the 4 girls practice Christianity at home, although two or three have Christmas for fun with trees and gifts, but not religiously. So if one teacher once made an argument to me for keeping tradition, then why are they introducing new Christian material into the schools? And what was that retired teaching thinking? Not about diversity.

When I play in a bluegrass band and my band mates want to include a few bluegrass gospel songs from the traditional bluegrass gospel repertoire I don’t completely object if we throw in a few, depending on the performance setting. But I am careful to limit the number and am very choosy about which verses I sing. For me to sing about someone I don’t believe in bleeding and dying on a cross for me is disingenuous. I don’t want to be seen to be “spreading the gospel” that I don’t believe. Nor do I want to be remembered for singing those songs particularly. My understanding of this music is that it tends to be from the white gospel tradition of hymns, straight from the old hymnals, adapted for bluegrass the way Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe used to do them, when sacred music was an everyday thing in some places and diversity was not such a hot topic.

I am also very keenly aware that not only are there people here who are near and dear to me who are not Christian, but many are not believers in God at all. They are a very silent minority. They are silent for fear of being ostracized by the believers, by those in charge, by people who give promotions, by those who have power over us or our children. That may sound silly, but it is the experience of some that questioning belief in God or religion is not something that one does in public in these parts. Not at a party, not in the lunchroom and certainly not at the water-cooler. So who doesn’t love gospel music? Who would admit to not liking it if they didn’t?

9 comments on “The Gospel Truth

  1. Louise Sullivan- Blum
    June 26, 2009

    This is a great blog. I am also not a Christian, & I appreciate how well you delineated the way that Christianity infiltrates public spaces. Thanks for writing this!

  2. Judy Cohen Stanton
    July 22, 2009

    Wow! What a timely (for me) post! I have begun playing my violin with a number of different groups, including a Klezmer band and an eclectic acoustic music quartet. I am Jewish. I finally got up the courage to tell the other three musicians that that I am not comfortable performing traditional tunes that are overtly Christian, in just the same way you wrote about it! Thanks for writing this. You may be familiar with the concept of “White Privilege;” now a professor at the University of Iowa and his students are researching and writing about “Christian Privilege.” If you are interested in learning more about this, here’s a link: http://www.iowastatedaily.com/articles/2009/02/17/news/local_news/doc499b19d20daa3478464064.txt

  3. dches
    July 23, 2009

    Thank you for your comments, Louise and Judy. Not surprisingly, I did get a few other comments of support from people who know me and my personal email. I had sent a link to people I know. But they only commented privately- maybe because that’s easier, maybe to keep their opinions private. I am familiar with the concept of “White Privilege” so the idea Judy mentions of “Christian Privilege” is one I totally “get” now that you mention it. I understood it from an early age without knowing the term. I had hoped that we, as a society, had grown up and educated ourselves about diversity issues such as this, but it seems not. My children encounter some of the same feelings I had as a child about this topic. The main difference seems to be that back then, it was accepted as the norm, in America and immigrant families such as my grandparents wanted to assimilate. Today, people are supposed to know better, yet they try to hide it (by changing the name of the party or concert to be more inclusive without really changing their behaviors at the party or concert.) I almost liked it better before when no one was pretending. We have not become a melting pot, more like just a mixing bowl where there is not one identity all coming together, but a salad with way too much iceburg lettuce and not enough dark greens and other veggies to keep us healthy and vitamin-rich.

    Once, when I was in the office of a school administrator (who is no longer in the district) trying to explain my complaint about diversity issues, she asked me what would I expect if I were in an Arab country in the middle east? My reply was a completely spontaneous version of saying that if I were a guest in another country (I have been a guest in another country.) I would have to put up with their customs and ways of doing things, as a guest. HOWEVER, I am not a guest here in America. All of my grandparents came over here in the early 1900’s as children with immigrant parents to escape oppression in various Eastern Europe countries, to work hard and make a good life here in this new country. My parents were not guests here- they were born citizens and so was I and so are my children. This is my country, too. Her reply to me was that I had obviously given the issue a great deal of thought to have come up with that. I hadn’t at the time- I had just blurted it out. Yes, it’s my country too. And I have every right to try to make it better for those of us who don’t follow the majority religion. American was founded on principles of Freedom “from” an imposed religion. Why don’t people understand that?

  4. Connie Sullivan-Blum
    July 23, 2009

    I like your point that you are not a guest in this country, but a citizen and, therefore, able to advocate for cultural change. I am glad that you articulated it. I have felt similarly as a lesbian in our society.

    I also think the question of assimilation is really important. One of the things that underlies assimilation is an assumption of power. Some group claims the right to be the norm and imposes their customs on other groups. In our country, we believe that the norm is established by the numerical majority – white Christians. But, that is open to scrutiny since neither “whiteness” nor “Christianity” are uniform. For instance, Italians were not considered “white” when they first immigrated to the U.S. The Irish weren’t considered white when they came to this country. Germans used to be targets of discrimination. During WWI, Germans could be arrested for speaking their language in public. I still know people who don’t consider Roman Catholics or Mormons to be Christians.

    I wonder how the so-called “new” immigrants feel about assimilation? I know South Asians (India, Bangladesh and Pakistan) who seem to have mixed feelings about it. They want their children to succeed in this society. They want to move away from practices from their home countries that they believe are out-dated or even damaging. On the other hand, they worry about their children losing their cultural heritage and identity. I suspect that many Mexican Americans feel the same way though, of course, they are not “new” immigrants – large portions of the U.S. used to be Mexican territory and Mexican people living in those states were citizens before my ancestors arrived here.

    The argument that we are all “Americans first” seems like a cop out to me. I think that some people imagine cultural/religious sensitivity is too inconvenient. It’s a pain to have to think of other perspectives that differ from our experience. It’s easier to imagine that everyone loves Gospel music simply because I do! While, it’s beneficial to have a national identity, I think a national identity that excludes or belittles diversity is damaging to individuals and to the larger society. We lose the richness of arts and language which come along with different perspectives. I liked Debra’s metaphor of the greens in the salad.

  5. Catherine
    July 23, 2009

    This is an interesting and thought-provoking post.
    My mother brought us up without any specific religion and encouraged us to explore, and make the decision for ourselves.
    Awhile back i was having a conversation with two co-workers – one of whom was a good friend to me, as well as the other person in our conversation. When the other person asked me if i believed in God, my friend jumped in and said “Of course, she does.”
    I didn’t say anything (Mostly because, i don’t know. I call myself a “spiritual” person with leanings more towards Eastern philosophy ie buddhism/taoism) but I remember feeling a bit resentful that she would a) speak for me, and b) assume that I was christian.

    It’s unfortunate that christian Americans seem to forget or disregard the first amendment of the Bill of Rights which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ….” And it’s sad that many Americans either aren’t familiar with the Constitution and Bill of Rights or don’t recognize the importance of those documents and the history of this country’s creation (and why that amendment, in particular, is so important).

    With regards to Christmas – I understand your point and I agree that the religious aspects of Christmas don’t belong in a public forum, etc. Christmas, in general, is about a jolly old man in a red suit that flies around the world bringing toys children. That’s the way it’s seen in the general public, and what’s practiced (or celebrated) at most holiday parties. I look at it as an extension of Thanksgiving – a time for people to come together, share gifts and good times, and celebrate the love of friends and family.
    I KNOW that Christmas is supposed to be about the birth of Christ, however, all those public or office gatherings, many of the songs, etc. are about Santa, Rudolph and sharing good cheer with your fellow humans. That’s why I think Christmas is a national/commercial holiday, and it would be nice if people could be me more open and honest about it. I take the practice of changing the name of events from Christmas to “holiday” party/sale, etc. to be an attempt to reflect the non-religious meaning of the ??season??
    Hope that makes sense (I’m not arguing with you, I’m just trying (badly) to offer my understanding of the mass practice of observing this holiday).

    Finally, with regards to gospel music – I’ll be honest, I like some gospel music and especially Negro spirituals. However, i like those forms of music for the artistic and cultural aspects. Negro spirituals remind me of the blues. It’s a spiritual or soulful connection. The same goes for gospel music. It’s music that makes you feel something moreso, because of the way folks sing them. I think that there is a definite artistic value because I haven’t heard a christian song that I like.

    To finish up, have you seen Bill Maher’s “Religulous”? I think it’s well done, informative and thought-provoking. As is your column.

  6. dches
    July 23, 2009

    Thank you for adding your perspective Catherine. I can imagine how that must have been to have your friend “speak” for you. The one thing that confuses me is, are you saying that by assuming you believed in God, was the same thing as assuming you were Christian? I wouldn’t necessarily equate the two, but I wonder if that’s a common assumption, that when people mention God, they are only referring to the Christian idea of God?

    I like your articulation of the Bill of Rights. 🙂

    You bring up a good point about Christmas things and them not being religious for many. I do wonder if the people who feel that way come from originally Christian backgrounds and take Christianity for granted as the norm, even if they have taken much of the deeper religion out? I do comfort myself when I hear certain Christmas songs like the “White Christmas” and “Silver Bells”, knowing that they were written by Jewish men and the songs have more to do with people’s feelings about the season, rather than any deep religious Christian thoughts. Here is an article about the composers of popular holiday songs. (Sorry, I don’t know how to do a tiny url so you will have a lot of cutting and pasting) http://www.interfaithfamily.com/arts_and_entertainment/popular_culture/The_Jews_Who_Wrote_Christmas_Songs.shtml?rd=2

    With regards to Thanksgiving and Christmas having a blurred line in your experience, in my family background and in most of the Jewish families I grew up with and meet today, there is a firm and defintie line. Thanksgiving is a holiday all the Americans share in our diverse family. We don’t happen to have any Native American family, who might view Thansgiving day differently, but we do have people who are not Americans or who have dual citizenships. Only the Americans and the American residents celebrate it, althogh some of the others have been with us to enjoy the holiday out of curiosity, but its not their holiday and they don’t try to come to America for it. What we like about Thanksgiving is, that it doesn’t matter what religion you have, (we have several and also atheists) it’s a national holiday for gathering family and friends. While we generally eat the traditional thanksgivng fare, in generations past there might have been a bowl of chopped liver or some other ethnic Jewish specialty food that also made it’s way onto the holiday table. We make a bigger deal of Thanksgiving than any other American holiday and it’s the one we are most likely to use as a holiday to gather all the people. But Christmas was not celebrated at all. We didn’t gather. It was just the most boring day of the year. Nothing was open. Friends were all busy. Some people took the opportunity to volunteer or trade shifts so that Christians could have a night off, but it was not a time of celebration for Jews. If you are lucky, you might live in an area where there is a non-Christian ethnic group of immigrants so you might go out to dinner, say for Chinese food that night, just to have something to do, but it was not to celebrate Christmas at all.

    I will certainly keep your comment in mind next December to see if the names “holiday” sale/party are meant to be a less religious way to state things, to reflect a less religious view of things today. That’s something to think about. The reason it all came to my attention is that I hear Christian people resenting the fact that they are not allowed to have a “Christmas” party at work/school. Yet I see them go ahead and plan it the same way as ever. I don’t hear people saying they are glad they are making the effort to be inclusive and trying to make non-Christains feel more welcome. But I guess it’s not uncommon to hear more complaints than praise for things.

    I do like the same things about the Gospel music that you like. And I agree with everything you wrote. Jews and African Americans share an historical link with being enslaved so there is alot in common. But where the lyrics of some songs have verses about Jesus bleeding and dying on the cross for me (there is a verse in the song Angel Band I don’t sing, for instance) or really any song about Jesus, that’s where I really don’t relate to the song and don’t usually want to sing it. I have also sung some Black Gospel music when I used to do more choral singing, but could not pick and choose like I can in a small bluegrass group where it’s usually White Gospel music and I am not just one tiny voice in a big choir- I can ask my few bandmates to consider my feelings about certain songs and verses. But larger jam sessions are not places to start getting picky about these things.

    I have not seen the movie you mention, but it is one that I have noticed. I have a long mental list of movies I will get around to seeing someday (I am so glad we can rent them later) and the list got pushed back in favor of taking a child to the movies who coudn’t wait to see Harry Potter.

  7. Catherine
    July 23, 2009

    Thanks for your comments, dches.
    This is a really interesting “conversation” to me, as well.
    I think that because I wasn’t really brought up with any strong religious ties, I tend to overlook or just not notice some of the exclusionary practices of religion in society.
    As I mentioned above, I wasn’t really brought up with any religion. I mean, I had a Children’s Bible, read the stories and had my favorite’s growing up. And we’ve always practiced Christmas, although it really wasn’t about Christianity, but about an awesome dude who brought gifts if we were good. and family getting together, etc. (And I’ve had several Jewish friends who celebrated Chanukah around the same time, so i just assumed (bad to do, I know) that the celebration-aspect was the same, even though it was celebrating something different. If that makes sense).
    However, I’ve never thought about it from the aspect of practicing another religion and not participating at all in Christmas, and how that would make someone feel.
    I guess, my not growing up practicing a religion has allowed me a certain freedom. I participate in everything.
    In high school I was good friends with a catholic and would accompany her family to midnight mass on Christmas eve. I’ve also attended temple for several events with another friend of mine. And, while I haven’t attended any Muslim ceremonies, I would like to.

    I also see your point about singing gospel music and sacred Christmas tunes, and how that might make one who doesn’t practice christianity uncomfortable. I’ve just never looked at it that way in the past.

    Thanks for giving me a new perspective.

  8. dches
    July 23, 2009

    Catherine, I thank you for this wonderful exchange of ideas and honest sharing of perceptions, which are perfectly understandable. I think we have a great deal in common. I, too have been to midnight mass and other religious services with friends growing up and they with me. I have no problem going to someone’s house for their Christmas celebration. In fact, I know the words, tunes and harmonies to an embarrassingly high number of Christmas carols to have come from a Jewish home. And it has come in handy when with the parts of my extended family who become more and more diverse with every marriage. But we don’t see them for every Christmas, since Christmas is not a priority for me and my immediate family. But I do make a distinction between singing these songs with friends and family in their homes and places of worship and being forced to sing them all the time as part of the public school concerts and in community choirs that are not part of a church. That’s where I feel more inclusiveness is needed or more separation of church and state. If I want to join the community chorus, I don’t really want half of all the rehearsal time in one year devoted to Christmas, especially every year.

    To tie in with what Judy said above that is summed up by the term “Christian Privilege”, I find it interesting to hear that although you don’t identify with growing up with Christian religion, you even had Christian bible stories. I wonder if they were old or new testament, or both? I seriously doubt my declared atheist friends have that sort of thing for their children. I don’t mean the ones who practice a religion despite not believing in God, I mean the atheists who don’t want to belong to any organized religion and don’t want assumptions of religion to take such a strong significance in daily lives. Like, why does every Presidential inauguration extravaganza have so much church-going in it?

    Anyway, my friends in Israel tell me that to live in Israel, they did not feel very religious and everything was already Jewish. They did not have to go out of their way to just be Jewish like everyone else. The shops were closed early on Friday night and for the rest of the Sabbath until Sundown Saturday night. There was Kosher food everywhere. It wasn’t something they had to decide to be or not. But when they moved to England, where we met when I lived there, they had to decide which Jewish practices they could continue, which ones were not easily possible and to what extent would they go to do these things. They had to prioritize their Judaism for the first time and be able to teach their child about their choices. I guess they had lived with “Jewish Privilege” in Israel and then no longer in England. I lost touch with them after they moved a few times, but I suspect I’ll find them on facebook someday. Maybe I’ll ask them if they gave a sigh of relief when they returned to Israel several years and 2 more children later.

    Shalom. Salaam. Peace.

  9. dches
    April 1, 2011

    Guess what I just heard? There is a concert being planned in Elmira of Jewish Gospel music. I don’t know the details, but I believe it’s scheduled for the autumn. Then perhaps I will be able to say “Oy, who doesn’t like gospel music?” and “What’s not to like”?

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