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On the Edge Looking Out

It’s appropriate that from the heart of a state whose state bird is the Mockingbird–Arkansas–would come a musical group that is showing the established religious order what the new face of faith expression is becoming. And they’re not even trying.

That is the beauty of Edens Edge. A trio whose lyrics blend the Dixie Chicks‘ biting, social commentary and lilting poetry with the instrumental breadth displayed by the members of Nickel Creek–Sarah Watkins, her brother Sean Watkins, and Chris Thille who was recently awarded a MacArthur Genius grant. But whereas the Dixie Chicks have drawn the ire of many conservative religious groups, mostly for their political views, and Nickel Creek dodges religious issues all together, Edens Edge drives head-on into the religious language and imagery of 1950s Protestant America, and drives out into the brave new world of the spiritually but not religious with their traditional language in tow, if totally re-visioned.

Edens Edge

Edens Edge: (from left to right) Cherrill Green, Hannah Blaylock, and Dean Berner

It begins with the title of its first song on their self-named album Edens Edge, “Amen.” The chorus begins:

Can I get a Thank God Hallelujah
You finally saw what she was doing to ya
Your mama called it and she was right
Glad to see you saw the light.

The language is pure tent meeting. But the song is about a woman celebrating that a man she loved who dumped her for another finally “saw the light” and left her to stand before the woman he left.

I’m standing right here in front of you
I think I love you too
Can I get a Thank God Hallelujah
Baby do you believe it, do you?

In the hands of lesser artists–or less original–the borrowing of revival language would sound sarcastic, venal even. But Edens Edge is neither. They are speaking the language of their youth, and turning it into a song for a new generation of people who themselves have not lost belief in religious experience, but have lost faith in the traditional conveyors of that tradition–American churches.

Pushing the boundaries of religious language is not limited to the first song on the album. It extends to the final song on the album–“By Christ Alone,” a reworking of a hymn by the same name. (See Edens Edge lyrics here, and original lyrics here.) And it flows throughout the middle. In the song “Last Supper,” which artfully weds the language and practice of eucharist/communion to the story of a young couple staring at an old couple in a restaurant that is looking past one another, the young woman wonders if that will be her and her partner in time.

You break the bread and you break my heart
You raise as glass as we fall apart

Oh, oh
Guess it’s time for a comin’ to Jesus
Looks like that just might be us
Is that all we are to each other?
Looks like it’s our last supper

And it runs through the non-religiously titled pieces like “Skinny Dipping,” which explore the Southern summer practice of shedding one’s inhibitions and going swimming au natural.

Close your eyes, uh-uh, no peeking
Are you thinking what I’m thinking
Wanna go-o-o-o-o
Sweet temptation in the cool blue water
Probably shouldn’t but I think we oughta
Go-o-o-o-o-o-o
It ain’t no thing
Pretty sure it ain’t no sin
Let’s go skinny dippin’

Whereas others have been ramming this language back at the generation that clings to faith in an act resembling youthful rebellion,  Edens Edge is transforming it into something new. A new way of talking about faith in an age when faith itself increasingly doesn’t matter as traditionally practiced.

In my years working with American congregations at the Alban Institute, and in my years before as a student of religion and one-time ministerial student, I watched and listened to endless conversations among the professionally religious and the church-going devout about what they’re going to do about the lack of faith in the current generation. Churches are closing, revenues are drying up, and many can imagine a day in the not-too-distant future when European style atheism trumps American congregational practice.

The solutions are variants on a theme–more programs, “hip” translations of old ideas, and getting families into church sooner to “educate” them in the faith. One can easily get the sense they’re trying too hard. The solution may well lie in the road being traveled by a trio from Arkansas who stand at Eden’s edge, and are walking away from the garden into the light of a new experience of faith.

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