The Agnostic Gospel of Susan Werner (Pt. 1 of 3)

by John C. Snider © 2008

Singer/songwriter Susan Werner has been on the music scene for over fifteen years.  She has toured nearly constantly and released seven successful albums (including I Can’t Be New, her delightful homage to Tin Pan Alley), and despite consistent critical acclaim and positive audience response, she flies just under the mainstream radar.  Her output is eclectic, but generally skews to the soft side: jazz, folk, lounge, easy listening – Werner is difficult to pin down.  Equally at home with guitar and piano, she possesses a clear voice and a head for clever lyrics and biting satire (she’s opened for such diverse acts as Madeleine Peyroux and George Carlin).

Werner’s latest album is The Gospel Truth, released in February 2007, a unique collection of songs that combine “the music of faith and the lyrics of doubt.”  Musically, each offering sounds like something that could have been pulled from any Protestant hymnal or sung by an African-American choir, but in the finest tradition of folk and the blues, the lyrics express indignation, hope, and calls for social justice. 

But The Gospel Truth is no gimmick album.  It’s not just church music coupled with mocking poetry.  Like any good agnostic, Werner can challenge both the righteous and the skeptic.  With songs like “Why Is Your Heaven So Small?” she sneers at those who profess unquestioning certainty in their spiritual dogmas, and in “Our Father (The New, Revised Edition)” she takes the Pope to task for not allowing women full participation in the heirarchy of the Church.   But in “Probably Not”, while she questions the unlikely claims of the holier-than-thous, she turns the interrogation toward the irreligious to ask how sure they are of their convictions.   And in “Help Somebody” and “Together” she offers messages on which both the religious and the irreligious should be able to agree.

In short, Susan Werner’s latest album is not just a worthy musical accomplishment, it’s a thought-provoking philosophical essay on the state of affairs in 21st century America.  Those who love the forms of American sacred music but have been turned off by its content will find refreshing, attractive and enjoyable in The Gospel Truth.

I spoke to Susan Werner via telephone late last year.  Learn more about her on the web at www.SusanWerner.com – be sure to check her calendar, which is updated frequently, for upcoming performances.

PART ONE: THE GENESIS OF THE GOSPEL TRUTH

American Freethought:  So you’ve been touring with the new album…

Susan Werner:  I have. It came out in early March and I’ve been all around the country with it by now – and into Canada, too.

AF:  How many shows do you do in a year, typically?

SW:  About 125.

AF:  That’s a lot.

SW:  I guess.  For some people it is.  But for those of us who are performing songwriters, we perform constantly and record occasionally.  And that’s turned out to be a good way to do business in the music business today, because as income from sales of recordings dwindles because of file-sharing or people buying singles instead of buying whole albums, it’s enabled some of us who can perform to continue to have a career. 

AF:  Do you continue to tour while you’re working on an album, or…

SW:  I tour.  I tour constantly.  It also gives me an opportunity to test-drive new songs.  So by the time I put them on a record I already know whether or not they’re going to speak to a large number of people, or just a few, or just me.  I’ve found that to be very helpful, to know whether or not songs work in front of people.  Maybe there’s a line that doesn’t make sense, or maybe there’s a line that people feel strongly about.  I had a couple of songs on this new project, that I knew right away that these songs would resonate with a large number of people, and that was a good feeling going into the studio, knowing that many of these songs had great power to them. 

AF:  So I guess you have piles of songs that didn’t quite make the cut?

SW:  Volumes.  [Laughs]  Volumes of songs.  I’m trying to think even how to describe it but…yeah.  Boxes and boxes of songs that didn’t work out.

AF:  Let’s talk about The Gospel Truth.  If you’ll forgive the pun, what was the genesis of this album?

SW:  I like that pun, actually.  It’s important, that pun.  I’m gonna write that down.  The fact that you use the word “genesis” is interesting.  The word “genesis” comes for the Book of Genesis.  It’s a word that’s part of our common language, whether we’re religious or not.  Many of the songs on this project use religious imagery or terms without being, um, orthodox, without being literalist in any way. 

You take Christmas or Easter – Americans are free to observe them, whether they take them as religious fundamentalists or not.  I think that’s a good thing, that in this society we’re free to make use of these terms, this iconography, this language – whether we’re literalists or use them symbolically.  Maybe that’s the big argument on this record, to pry these terms and this iconography loose from the fundamentalists who would claim exclusive domain over them.  

One of the most successful songs on this album is “My Lord Did Trouble Me”.  I’ve found that almost everyone relates to that song – whether they’re atheist, agnostic, Jewish, lapsed Catholic, liberal Christian, or even evangelical fundamentalist, they can find a place for that song, can find that that song speaks to them.  Because the song’s not even about a literal Jesus – it’s about conscience.  It speaks about conscience in a symbolic way.  I think that might be the argument that this project makes, more than any other, is that many of us can agree with religion in symbolic terms, and that might even be where religion has its greatest power – for good, let me say that – its greatest power to do good.

AF:  It occurred to me while listening to your album how much musical history would be gone – complete missing – if you cut the religious aspects out of it.  No Gregorian chant…half of so-called classical music… 

SW:  …No Bach…half of Mozart gone…Beethoven’s masses…Verdi’s Requiem…Bernstein’s Mass.  All gone.

AF:  So, in a way, you have taken the trappings of certain types of religious music, and used it to express your own religious or philosophical view.  Would that be fair to say?

SW:  I think so.  It’s a philosophical view – I’m more comfortable with that word.

AF:  How would you describe your religious/philosophical views?

SW:  I would say I’m an agnostic.  The few, the proud, the agnostic. 

AF:  When you say “agnostic”…there’s a lot of discussion in the freethought community about “What does ‘atheist’ mean? What does ‘agnostic’ mean?”  Agnostic could mean someone who’s open to just about any explanation, but it could also mean someone who says “Well, there could be a higher power, but it’s not Jehovah.  I’m an atheist when it comes to Jehovah but I’m an agnostic when it comes to a higher power.”  Would that be a fair description of your view?

SW:  I highly doubt there’s a God in the sky in a robe on a throne.  I highly doubt that.  But I’m also open to the possibility of things beyond what we understand and know.  If someone had told us a hundred years ago that you could microwave a cup of coffee, no one would have believed that.  I think there are things that remain to be understood and will be amazing to us.  There are people who wear copper bracelets; there are people who wear magnets in their clothing; there are people who wear crystals around their necks.  I don’t know, you know?  I don’t know.  I tend to doubt it because it hasn’t been proven.  But I’m also willing to say “Let’s find out.”  There may be something really simple that we discover years from now and say “Boy, that was obvious, but we didn’t understand at the time.”  So I think when you close off lines of inquiry, you restrict the possibility of further discovery, and that’s unfortunate.  Part of being an artist is being willing to try anything, and see what happens.  And part of being a scientist is – and I’m not one – but the fun part seems to be the freedom to test any hypothesis.  So to me, “agnostic” is a healthy stance.  It also acknowledges the limitations to our experience at this point.  I’ve only lived one life, unfortunately…

AF:  …That you know of…

SW:  [Laughs] Yeah, right – that I know of.  It’d be great if I could live about a hundred at once and have the benefit of all that experience and knowledge.

AF:  We have a “sample of one”, and we have to do the best we can with that.

SW:  Yeah, that’s right.  That’s very well put.

AF:  Another word that gets abused a lot is “skeptic”.  When you say you’re a skeptic, some people think that means you’re going to refuse to believe anything no matter what is put before you, but what it really means is that you hold a certain standard of evidence.  “The congressman didn’t cheat on his wife.”  Okay, maybe, maybe not.  But when you start talking about God, and Eternity, and things nobody can really know about, skeptics are understandably…skeptical.  I think your album addresses all of these issues.  At least two of your songs, I think, address the skeptical world.  I know you’ve taken a lot of heat from people who say this album is “anti-religion”, but the songs “Don’t Explain It Away” and “I Will Have My Portion”, seem to address the agnostic/atheist community, saying “Don’t be so quick to dismiss things.”

SW:  You might have seen this new book on Einstein, in which he was quoted as saying “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious.  It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science.”  I love that: art and science.  It seems to me that your magazine is willing to entertain the mysterious in art and science, and the power of wonder, and the thrill of discovery.  I think those things are among the most powerful emotions that a human being can experience.  I’ve had so many people come up to me and say how much they appreciate that, that there’s something beyond rationalism, and the purely material experience of being a human being, the freedom to question whether there might be more than we’ve experienced so far, that there is and that future generations will know things that we don’t.  I’m happy that that song (“Don’t Explain It Away”) came about, and I’m happy that it found a place on the record.  It came out so beautifully – the producer did a wonderful job with the whole record, but especially with that track, a sense that you are looking up at the stars, that you are at the edge of the ocean, that you are looking up into something mysterious and wonderful.

AF:  I’ve talked to a number of people who describe themselves as flat-out atheists, total rationalists, but they talk about having these experiences, of being out in the country with no city lights and seeing the Milky Way.  Or just sitting and watching the ocean and suddenly having this moment.  I think it’s completely rational, but it’s still a wonderful moment.  Just because it has a rational explanation doesn’t mean it’s any less wonderful.

SW:  That’s right.  Someone said to me recently “I’m amazed at the universe but I don’t need to believe in Jesus to think the universe is amazing.”  [Laughs] Organized religious doesn’t amplify the sense of wonder in any way.  There’s wonder aplenty without anyone having to resort to religious literalism. 

AF:  What was the moment when you said “Aha!  This is the album I want to make.”

SW:  Last summer I went to the Chicago Gospel Music Festival, which is an enormous music festival in Millennium Park, downtown Chicago.  It’s three days of gospel choirs from all over the country.  And the choirs often have up to 75 to 100 people onstage.  The intensity with which these choirs perform is unlike any other music I’ve ever been around – and I’ve been around music my entire life.  I have a master’s degree in classical voice, and I’ve sung just about every kind of music you can sing.  But there was something about the intensity of these performances that was compelling to me.  And I was standing there (a lapsed Catholic and agnostic) with my friend Kenni Feinberg (she’s Jewish), and she said “I love this music!” and I said “I know it, I love it, too.”  “I wonder,” she said, “How can you get the joy without the Jesus?”  What a great question.  I said “I dunno, but I’d like to find out.” 

And it came to me at that point – wouldn’t it be interesting to write a gospel project, to write new songs, making use of gospel music and its themes, but to write it as an acknowledged non-believer.  Because gospel music is quite certain that there is a Jesus and you need to believe, or you won’t pass through the Gates of Heaven.  Every single gospel presentation pauses for an altar call.  Even the House of Blues Gospel Brunch in Las Vegas, Nevada did exactly that, and I couldn’t believe it – pauses in the middle to ask you if you want to accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.   It was amazing.  It seemed to me that it was important in this project to acknowledge that this was an important part of gospel music, and this is a part of Christianity in America that you have to reckon with, this exclusivist strain, where you either believe in Jesus and you’re going to Heaven, or you don’t and you’re not.

A lot of folk musicians, a lot of singers, will do a gospel project without saying right up front how they feel about that.  In fact, you can skate around it.  You can sing that old time religion, Carter Family songs, everybody feels good, May the Circle Be Unbroken…but hey, where are you “at” with this central question?  Have you taken Jesus as your Lord and Savior?  It’s part and parcel of the message of gospel music.  So I wanted to write this project and be honest about that going in, to say “No, I don’t.  I don’t subscribe to that,” to say I think that that exclusivist strain is dangerous. 

Part of what I wanted to do with this project was to reclaim the parts of my experience with the church that were good and that still play a positive role in my adult life.  That sense of reclamation seems to have a great deal of power with people all across the country.  There are many of us who grew up in the church who want to say “This part of it I still want to make use of.  This part of it still operates for me.  This part of it is still beneficial to me, and I want to reclaim that, even though as an adult I’m not a churchgoer.  I’m not a believer, but I find that this desire to be of service, to be a volunteer, to be a mentor, to walk the old lady across the street.  Maybe it came from Catholic school, and maybe I’m okay with that.  Many of us have felt that that would be an admission of weakness of some kind, of intellectual soft-headedness.  Some of us have had to push against the orthodox Left to make room for these feelings and experiences.  It’s interesting to me that this project is somehow radical in its moderation.  If I was ever sitting on Bill Maher’s show I’d be sitting to the right of Bill Maher, and I agree with plenty that he has to say.  I did three shows with George Carlin, and I’m to the right of George Carlin, even though I agree with a lot of what he has to say.  You think of yourself as a Leftist, but goodness, what’s that?  It comes as a surprise.

Up Next: Reactions and Revelations – Part 2 of our interview with Susan Werner!

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