Gaither homecomings, college football reunions, and the consecration of cultural history.

Author:Harrison, Douglas
Position:Essay
 
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Although the Bill and Gloria Gaither Homecoming Friends concert and video series is a

ubiquitous presence in Christian entertainment, its cultural function and i nfluence are not

well understood. This essay argues that alongside the established view of the

Homecoming series as an inwardly focused method some Christians use to inte rpret the

vicissitudes of evangelical experience, the Homecoming phenomenon also exerts an

outwardly shaping force. Drawing on a line of sports reunion videos that share key

similarities with Homecoming, this essay traces the emergence of the Homecoming series

as a transcultural narrative framework within which to commodify nostalgic reengagements

with the past--both religious and secular.

[1] Within the overlapping worlds of American gospel music, contemporary Christian entertainment, and multi-media televangelism, the longstanding success of the Bill and Gloria Gaither Homecoming Friends franchise has been a fact of professional life for almost a generation--a ubiquitous presence to compete with, admire, envy, or (when invited) to join. What started as a happenstance gathering of "old-timers" from the bygone heyday of southern (which is to say, white) gospel music in a Nashville, Tennessee, studio in February 1991 has since become an institution in the Christian entertainment industry. (1) The concept is deceptively simple. Bill Gaither, who rose to fame in Christian music as a songwriter and mentor to other writers and performers in the 1970s and 1980s, (2) invites many of his friends, peers, and (at least in the early days of Homecoming) his gospel-music idols from childhood to join him on a stage, where everyone sits around a piano and sings: old songs, new songs, gospel songs, hymns. Despite the connections between Homecoming and southern gospel music, no single song style predominates. (3) Songs need not even be, though most are, religious; for more than a year in the first decade of this century, the Homecoming tour opened with the chorus of "Lean on Me." Stories, jokes, testimonies, and the pageant of Homecoming friends enjoying each other's company and musical gifts hold the show together. Gaither himself generally stands in the foreground of the frame, where he cracks jokes between songs or reminisces about a lifetime spent in gospel and Christian music. At other times, he will single out one or another of the Homecoming friends to sing solos or in groups. Though he likes to describe himself and his wife as a team (4)--she is his longtime co-writer and usually offers an ornate prayer, sentimental poem, or meditative reading at some point during each recording--Gaither is obviously the impresario of his own show: the ultimate Homecoming friend; known and liked by everyone; peer to all, rival to none. Gaither has perfected displays of Christian friendship as performance art.

[2] Though it is difficult to say exactly how and in what way the Homecoming series has impacted Christian music (like so many other aspects of white gospel creative culture, Gaither and the Homecoming series remain woefully understudied), the case for the importance of Gaither music in general and the Homecoming series in particular in the development of mass-market Christian entertainment and the modern evangelical artistic imagination seems inarguable. (5) Less clear is the influence, if any, the Homecoming series has had on markets and cultures beyond its own and those immediately adjacent to it.

[3] Others have touched on the impact of the Homecoming series within the evangelical Christian community. In his essay on the ceremonial function of the Gaither Homecoming videos, Michael Graves has shown the recurrence of ritual reinstatements of celebrities from southern gospel and Christian entertainment who "have not lived up to their professed Christian behavioral expectations and ideals." (6) Michael English, Calvin Newton, and Mylon LeFevre are each among white gospel's favourite sons who openly transgressed conservative Christian cultural norms and were shut out of the mainstream of Christian music for their transgressions, only to be welcomed home much later by the Homecoming friends in ceremonial rites of repentance, forgiveness, and reacceptance. (7) Though Graves is interested in a fairly narrow subset of prodigal-son moments in the Homecoming series, his argument suggests a broader psychosocial function for the Gaither Homecoming series as a tool that helps evangelical Christians understand their place in the world by reconciling competing ways of life and worldviews in musical dramas of love, acceptance, and graciousness. In this view, the ritualistic resolution of conflicts between orthodox believers and their prodigal sons in the Homecoming series constructs for its audiences a beatified image of Protestant Christianity in the Calvinist tradition triumphing over worldliness in an effulgence of pious tears, humble repentance, and sanctifying harmonies.

[4] But is it possible that, alongside this view of the Homecoming series as an inwardly focused method some Christians use to interpret the vicissitudes of evangelical experience, the Homecoming phenomenon might also exert an outwardly shaping force? That is, might the Homecoming model of commemorative bonding and sentimental friendship be more than a purely religious mode of expression, something else in addition to a means of effacing disjunctions between the sacred and the secular in certain sectors of contemporary life? (8) Viewing the popularity of the Homecoming videos and concerts alongside another series of videos about nostalgic reunions that emerged in the wake of the Homecoming phenomenon suggests that the answer to both questions is yes. Drawing on the Gabriel Communication line of commercial videos that stage "reunions" of football stars from Division I universities in the South, (9) I argue that the Homecoming series has become a transcultural narrative framework within which to commodify certain nostalgic re-engagements with the past--both religious and secular. These sports videos seemed to have absorbed from the Homecoming series a semiotic vocabulary with which to articulate the ritual exchange of sentiment and sympathy among legendary athletes bonded by their achievement, collegiate affiliation, and devotion to athletic ideals of excellence, loyalty, and honor. Whatever utility the Gaither Homecomings have within evangelicalism, Gabriel's sports reunion videos suggest the Homecoming phenomenon also serves as an exportable method of managing the transformation of American life in cultures that partially include, but exist far beyond the confines of, the core Homecoming audience. (10)

More than Mimicry

[5] When I show the sports reunion videos to fans of the Homecoming Friends, one of the first things people comment upon is the structural similarities between the two. Like the Homecoming series, the sports reunions assemble famous friends in tiered semicircles around powerful iconic objects--a grand piano for Homecomings, a miniature grid-iron for the sport legends (little yellow goal posts are mounted at each end of the set). In each series, the moderator sits in the foreground and functions both as a provocateur and a loose centre for the rhetorical energy; though each friend's stories, memories, or testimonies are shared for everyone to hear and enjoy, they are notionally directed at the moderator, whose gentle urgings and queries help keep the program flowing more or less smoothly. In this way, no one friend appears to compete with another for more time or attention, since the moderator controls the pace. Aesthetically, the cover art for the sports videos echoes the style of Homecoming DVD covers, with sepia-toned photos of famous figures arranged in a collage of gently overlapping images, as if to reinforce the sense of each person's individual star power, as well as the intergenerational connections the friends share. Conceptually, just as the Homecoming videos develop different aspects of the series' overarching emphasis on the community of singing saints as a cornerstone of Christian life, the sports videos similarly assume that though the names and faces and stories vary from school to school--Auburn, Tennessee, Alabama, Oklahoma-college football in the South deserves ceremonial commemoration for its role as "a would-be populist folk-religion," to borrow Nathan Elmore's phrase. (11) And perhaps most important, both series are built around heavily nostalgic remembrances of legendary figures and a sharing of stories and sentiment that both honor the dead and informally place the living within an unbroken arc of cultural greatness that the videos commemorate.

[6] In tallying up these similarities, I do not mean to suggest that the sports reunion videos are necessarily conscious reappropriations of the Gaither Homecoming approach. They may or may not be. The best one can say is that they are similar. Nor should the differences between the two be glossed over. In the first place, the only music present in the sports reunion videos is a non-diagetic soundtrack played before and after segments. Moreover, the athletes in the sports reunion videos possess very little of the Homecoming Friends' unselfconscious ease of bearing in front of the camera, giving the sports videos a rougher, more exposed--and sometimes, more endearing--quality than the Homecoming videos (in the Auburn video, a former player's cell phone goes off while a revered former coach is trying to tell a story that seems very important to him; later, another former coach launches off into a story about a long-ago Auburn team getting into a knife-fight in Georgia, only to reveal he doesn't really remember the story and had hoped someone else in the room had been there, but no one had). To some extent, the often clumsy exchanges or outsized displays of downhome bonhomie on the sports reunion videos are no doubt purposeful, or at least desirable...

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