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The recent passing of the well-known Gospel singer Andraé Crouch offers an opportunity to reflect further on the way in which Christianity continues to shape culture through the creation of new cultural forms of music, art, etc. This is all the more relevant in light of the current discussion about Christianity and culture First Things has stimulated. Crouch’s life reflects a different model of the relationship between Christianity and culture than the activist approach that tends to define Christian engagement in terms of its social impact.

Within modern American Christianity the dominant way to understand the cultural impact of Christianity has been largely in terms of social action on a range of issues. This was the result of a relatively unified Protestant vision in the nineteenth century, even if this vision had fractured into various wings over a number of issues beginning with the question of abolition. Social-Gospel advocates in the early twentieth century and their mainline children continued to view Christianity’s role in the project of American civil religion in terms of the social impact of its moral vision. Such a view was strengthened by the challenge of two world wars and the Civil Rights movement.

While this social-activist approach was (and is) the dominant model, it was by no means the only one. There was also the impact of American Christianity on the forms of culture. One might see this as less social and more artistic, insofar as the Christian vision inspired the creation of American artifacts that comprised its cultural contribution to human life. This occurred at the level of folk and high culture. To borrow a British example, one could say that the Orthodox composer Sir John Tavener’s classical compositions represent high culture while the Gospel songs and other compositions of Andraé Crouch embodied folk culture.

Others have written eloquently of the way in which Andraé Crouch’s own musical compositions have had a broader impact on American culture, through his cross over into pop music and his musical arrangements for movies like The Color Purple and The Lion King. His memorial service at West Angeles Church of God in Christ on January 20th was attended by musicians in Gospel and pop music from Stevie Wonder to Kirk Franklin, which offers a snapshot of the extent of his influence.

When as a teenager Crouch penned his first song in 1956, “The Blood Will Never Lose its Power,” he was drawing on a cultural reservoir within Pentecostalism and the Church of God in Christ that went all the way back to the beginning of the movement. Charles H. Mason, the founder of the Church of God in Christ, cultivated an ethos that preserved the distinct forms of African slave religion. By combining slave religion with pentecostal worship and Booker T. Washington’s vision of black uplift through industrial education, Mason was able to forge a powerful cultural enterprise. This ethos facilitated its own sense of black consciousness, albeit one that was not initially concerned with social activism but with artistic expression as the way to pass on culture.

One glimpses this cultural enterprise in the music of individuals like Blind Willie Johnson, the blind pianist Arizona Dranes, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the so-called godmother of rock-and-roll, all of whom preceded Crouch in COGIC circles. They helped to create the musical ethos of the Sanctified Church, which had a considerable impact on blues, jazz, and Gospel. To begin to measure this impact, one need only recall Louis Armstrong’s statement about jazz that “it all came from the old Sanctified Churches,” or Mahalia Jackson’s assertion, “I believe the blues and jazz and even the rock and roll stuff got their beat from the Sanctified Church.”

Referred to as a “holy blues” guitarist, Blind Willie Johnson (d. 1945) played on the streets of Marlin, Texas, eventually contributing to the early jazz and blues music of Deep Ellum on the eastern side of Dallas. According to his first wife, Willie B. Harris, Johnson attended Marlin Church of God in Christ and then played on street corners and in other COGIC congregations. He eventually recorded thirty slides from December of 1927 to 1930.

A fellow Texan, the pianist Arizona Dranes played her music in COGIC churches in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the 1920s where she connected with the Rev. Samuel Crouch who was the great uncle of Andraé Crouch. Dranes’s style of playing has been described as “fast Texas” boogie-woogie or barrelhouse by Jay Brakefield and Alan Govenar in their book on Deep Ellum. She first recorded her songs in 1926 and continued to record until the Depression devastated the fledging recording industry. Not only did she influence Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but another upcoming pianist raised in Pentecostal churches named Jerry Lee Lewis, who fused barrelhouse and blues in the development of rockabilly. Dranes also played in Samuel Crouch’s church in Los Angeles where Andraé Crouch grew up.

In the first songs Johnson recorded, one glimpses the ethos that permeated the Pentecostal milieu. Not only was this ethos expressed through songs like Johnson’s “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole” or Dranes’ “The Lamb’s Blood has Washed Me Clean,” but in the corporal dimension of Pentecostal worship. The release of human bodies in the context of worship gave tangible expression to what Pentecostals meant by freedom in the Spirit. It was out of this ethos that new cultural forms were created and Pentecostalism contributed to blues, jazz, and early rock.

Having recently entered interstellar space, Voyager 1, with its recordings of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and, yes, Blind Willie Johnson, aims to present a sampling of the “sounds of earth.” The spaceship blasted off with a recording of various sounds and compositions that represented life on this planet to whomever might encounter it. The song “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground,” was chosen by Carl Sagan and his team of researchers as an important part of human culture. In making such a choice, Sagan was implicitly acknowledging the creation of new forms of culture in the slice of Christianity that Andraé Crouch also embodied.

I hesitate to call what Crouch did as “crossing over” from Gospel to other forms of music, because in the Pentecostal ethos that formed him, the distance between the music of church and the music of the street was not as far as it might seem today. Rather, what Crouch did was to continue the tradition of creating new cultural forms from within the folk culture he inhabited and taking such artifacts into a broader public space. This artistic model of the relationship between Christianity and culture is just as important as the social activist model.

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