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Hellfire and salvation: Tyler Childers’ riven American soul

Matthew Becklo - published on 11/22/22

"Angel Band" reveals a man, like so many in America, caught on the horns of a dilemma when it comes to God.

“I grew up Baptist and I was scared to death to go to hell.” So begins Tyler Childers’ statement accompanying his new album, Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven? The Kentucky singer’s lead single and video, “Angel Band,” is, on the face of it, an old-time worship song right out of the heart of Appalachia. But instead the song reveals a man, like so many in America, caught on the horns of a dilemma when it comes to God.

Childers—along with singers like Colter Wall, Benjamin Tod, and Charley Crockett—is part of a revival of Americana music in popular culture spanning the past several years. Though perhaps not a household name, he has a massive following, with his videos regularly taking in millions upon millions of views on YouTube. His songs blend a deep roots sound with gritty and often explicit lyrics about the addiction, poverty, and despair seizing so much of rural America.

Revival

Religion, too, has been a recurrent theme. On the title track of his album Bottles and Bibles, he sings, “Oh Lord, if you care, send your angels down here / Cause the preacher’s been drinking again.” And on the title track of Purgatory, which receives a reprise on his latest album, Childers sings:

When the time has come for changin’ worlds
I’ll hedge my bets with a Catholic girl
Catholic girl, pray for me
You’re my only hope for heaven

These religious influences come into full view on Hounds. On some tracks, like “Triune God” and “Old Country Church,” Childers takes an uncomplicated approach, tipping his hat to the “old time screamin’ and shoutin’” of his Baptist past. But as he goes on to explain in his statement, the album reflects a more complicated spiritual journey:

Filtering through that and trying to find the truth, and the beauty, and the things you should think about and expelling all that nonsense has been something I’ve spent a lot of time on. This is a collection that came together through those reflections. In a lot of ways, this is processing life experiences in the different philosophies and religions that have formed me, trying to make a comprehensive sonic example of that. . . . Message wise, I hope that people take that it doesn’t matter race, creed, religion and all of that like—the most important part is to protect your heart, cultivate that and make that something useful for the world.

“Angel Band”

In “Angel Band,” Childers first sings of a pastor and two members of his congregation. Imagery of a pulpit, a hymnal, a pew, the pearly gates, the Jordan River, and the nail-scarred hands of Jesus leads to a triumphant chorus right out of a gospel tune:

Hallelujah, jubilee
I can hear the angel band
I was blind but now I see
And I’ll jump right in amongst them
When I reach the glory land

In the third verse, however, there is a dramatic shift:

There’s Hindus, Jews, and Muslims
And Baptists of all kinds
Catholic girls and Amish boys
Who’ve left their plows behind
Up there in the choir
Singing side by side
Wondering why exactly
They been fussing the whole time

The music video untangles the idea further: a bumbling, clumsy man on a work site has a brush with death after getting kicked in the head by a horse. He has a vision of a heavenly reality with people of all different religions and creeds dressed in white, walking the same field and gathering around the same table in harmony and joy. It is a vision of a heaven beyond every religion, a place where all faiths converge in peace.

Riven American soul

In an interview about the song, Childers reflects on the idea of a “great beyond” that goes beyond his own particular religious “filter” of Christianity with which he was brought up. “It’s just one way of talking about the same thing, in my eyes,” he says. “God is bigger than all our gods.”

Though only Childers knows his own journey from the inside out, we glimpse here a common spiritual journey of the riven American soul. It is a move from one extreme — being “scared to death” of hell, an experience common to so much of evangelicalism — into its opposite: the blithe idea that all spiritual roads lead equally to heaven. 

The fear of falling into the hands of an infernalist God dissolves into a passion for an indifferentist God — the same God as before, only now, turned inside out. The God of fire and brimstone doesn’t care what you do and responds with raging punishment; the God of automatic salvation doesn’t care what you believe and responds with apathetic acceptance. Childers, like countless others, seems to be caught between them.

Is there a way out between these doubled, dueling, equally distorted visions of God? We see a promising hint in the singer’s fascination with Catholicism, including the Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor, who Childers cites as an influence. The last song on the album, the “Joyful Noise Version” of “Heart You’ve Been Tendin,’” even includes a sample of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s last recorded words before his death: “I will disappear from view, and we can all have a Coke or something.”

In its official teaching, Catholicism refuses both extremes: both the wild infernalism of evangelicalism and the bland universalism of religious indifferentism. Instead, it offers the same vision that caught Childers’ attention in his “Purgatory”: a vision of hope. “In every circumstance,” the Catechism teaches, “each one of us should hope, with the grace of God, to persevere ‘to the end’ and to obtain the joy of heaven, as God’s eternal reward for the good works accomplished with the grace of Christ. In hope, the Church prays for ‘all men to be saved’” (CCC 1821). Jesus remains our only hope for heaven — but it is an extravagant hope, and one that we must extend beyond the pews of the Church.

Tyler Childers’ doesn’t seem ready to leave his old-time Baptist religion behind; nor does he seem content to stay there. The answer just might be in an even older religious wellspring, whose song is “Hallelujah” but whose genius lies in honoring all that is good.

To learn more about the Catholic Church’s teachings on salvation, it is worth consulting the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Tags:
CatechismChristian MusicDeathFaithHeaven
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