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October 2017
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See Melena Ryzik’s interview with Jim James, of the band My Morning Jacket, here.

Here is James’ new song “A New Life” from his new solo album “Regions of Light and Sound of God.”

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In the interview, James says that “I don’t really believe in a God, like a white man with a beard in the sky.” I would hasten to add that lots of people who profess belief in God don’t believe in that kind of God, either.

Indeed, according to theologian James Fowler’s famous study, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (Harper and Row, 1981), the more mature stages of faith in human life progressively de-anthropomorphize God. Many who avow theism from different religious traditions show that one can dispense with a “grandfather God” and still retain belief in divinity.

However, this should not lull thinking people into intellectual/spiritual complacence or an unearned sense of superiority. As psychoanalyst Ana-Maria Rizzuto found in her research on God-images, published as Birth of the Living God: A Psychoanalytic Study (University of Chicago, 1979), images of God are typically constructed out of early relationships to primary caregivers. Even a “nonanthropomorphic” image of God might still have a relationship to, and emotional embeddedness in, an early significant other as part of its genealogy. This is not to reduce “God” to parent(s), but to acknowledge that James’ tired invocation of (and denial of) the “white man with a beard in the sky” is not so easily dispensed-with.

There is also, importantly, the racial dimension, the “white man.” As a substantial raft of literature has shown in recent decades, images of God are saturated with racial over/undertones in the U.S. context. God is as racialized as American society is. To disbelieve in a “white man” as God does not mean necessarily to have graduated from a racialized God. That may be one of the most difficult things of all to do.

With reference to Jim James’ taste for gospel music from the 1970s-early 80s, he says that “most of the music I do enjoy, they do it with such passion, I know it doesn’t really matter what they’re calling God, because we’re talking about the same thing.” Here too is something potentially radical, wherein Christian appeals to God get taken into something purportedly larger — a more-encompassing ultimate reality than Christians know. Yet here too is something potentially retrograde, wherein what gospel music is holding out about God doesn’t really matter, because a “better” term has already claimed that parking space irrespective of what gospel musicians are saying or singing.

I have written frequently at R&T about musicians’ propensities to declare that all religions/spiritualities/paths/philosophies are true. As a musician, I share that propensity. As a theologian, I am apt to want more nuance. As someone who finds both “worlds” — the musical and the spiritual — appealing, I keep trying to make it all “work.”

Tommy Beaudoin, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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