When in doubt, try gospel: the virtues of interpretation


I am a big fan of Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation,” and I’ve written pieces espousing similar positions in the past (e.g. https://tnwjackson.wordpress.com/2015/03/11/can-i-just-dig-it-please/). On the other hand, I’m also a big fan of interpretation – contradiction is the spice of life (What? That isn’t how that saying goes? Whatever, smarty pants.).

I’m a scientist, an atheist and a lover of gospel music (amongst other things). The constant bickering between “science” and “religion” (as if either of those things is a single entity) that pollutes so many information streams today (Ack! Memetic warfare!) is often boring at best. “Religion” has indeed been associated with its share of atrocities (not quite as many as “humans”) throughout cultural history, but it has also been associated with much of lasting value. If you can’t see the “good” in something because you’re blinded by the “bad”, here’s an easy 4-step process:

  1. Read the Wiki entry on the “nirvana fallacy” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nirvana_fallacy
  2. Have an icy cold shower.
  3. Read Alan Watts’ The Book.
  4. Have a piping hot shower.

Will that help? No idea, but it probably won’t do you any harm (be sure to get warm before you start step 3).

Anyway, I dig gospel. Gospel and the blues are very closely related, so closely related that the song I’m about to discuss can be found on compilations of music from either genre. Whether you’re religious or an atheist, unless you’re an idiot (no offence, idiots!), then you’ll probably agree that the “African American” originators of these musics were having a seriously rough time, and perhaps that the music was a “coping mechanism” – a way to focus on something other than how incomprehensibly awful the way one group of humans treats another can be.

I know what you’re thinking (I can see the future, too) – “how does this relate to you, atheist middle class white boy of 2016!?” Well, hush for a second and I’ll tell you. On the surface, gospel songs might appear to be about God, but really (like most songs), they’re about the “human experience”. Check out these lyrics:

“I said no, don’t worry,

no, please don’t worry,

no, don’t worry,

see what the Lord has done.

Just keep your lamp all trimmed and burning,

keep your lamp trimmed and burning,

keep your lamp all trimmed and burning,

see what the Lord has done.”

What on Earth was Blind Willie Johnson (in my chosen version of the song) on about? Well, you’d have to ask him (good luck), but for me “keep your lamp trimmed and burning” means “pay attention”. A lamp is like a torch (https://tnwjackson.wordpress.com/2015/12/14/a-metaphor/), it’s a piece of technology designed to augment our senses, to help us see in the dark. He’s saying keep your eyes open, keep your senses sharp (trim that lamp, in case it burns itself out) and keep your awareness projecting outward. The “dark” could be the confusion we all experience sometimes in everyday life, in which our attention is constantly attracted by the “wrong” things; the “lamp” is your awareness, or a thinking tool that augments it, something that can help you see through the BS and focus on how absolutely glorious the world really is (“see what the Lord* has done”), despite everything.

OK, so maybe you think my middle class white boy interpretation is facile. That’s fine. It’s always up to us to choose which things to pay attention to and which things to ignore (and what a “superpower” that truly is). Regardless, it’s nothing more or less than my interpretation, anyway. For the good stuff, proceed directly to the source:



* “see what evolution has done” had too many syllables, I guess.