By Gerald Liu
Crossover — not the maneuver deployed on basketball courts; but the overlap of “sacred” and “secular” in musics — thematizes Benjamin M. Stewart’s interview with Don E. Saliers, William R. Cannon Distinguished Professor of Theology and Worship, Emeritus and platinum, gold, and Grammy award winning Indigo Girl, Emily Saliers. In the Practical Matters (issue 1) video segment A Song to Sing, A Life to Live: A Conversation about Musical and Liturgical Imagination with Don and Emily Saliers, father and daughter detail how music, in its vast array, provides a horizon where the theologically unsuspecting twilight of “Saturday nite” and the theologically explicit dawn of “Sunday morning” meet in music to radiate profound beauty, blessing, redemption, and transformation in the world.
The two Saliers also embody the crossover of music. Emily grew up in a house filled with sacred music and with family vacations soundtracked by singing. Her musical upbringing matured in former venues like Atlanta’s Little 5 Points Pub, which became a sanctuary of sound, and its “motley crew” of patrons, a community of the faithful. In the bonus tracks of the video interview, she reveals how songs like “History of Us” emerged from these experiences, and how the hands-on cry for activism in “Hammer and a Nail” grew out of love for the message of mercy in the Eucharistic hymn “Let us Break Bread Together.” She also admires the ability for songs like “Fuera la Marina” by Puerto Rico’s Lourdes Pérez to galvanize resistance against the U.S. Naval military tests in Vieques. Surely music models justice most in times of conflict and in efforts for peace.
Don, also the child of a musician (his father a jazz musician and classically trained violinist), and himself an accomplished organist, pianist, harpsichordist and United Methodist minister, punctuates how music can “attune” us to a deeper imagination of the world. For Don, music can nurture a biblical imagination where we do not seek to repeat in music prescribed forms of worship and liturgy. Rather, music can “evoke” the prophetic and express holiness in situations where words fail to suffice – circumstances like caring for the bedridden or celebrating new birth in baptism. Music gives sense to suffering and mystery in structured sound.
The songs and duets that Don and Emily shared during the segment amplified their combined wisdom. But the most striking music and musical statement came from above, unscripted, and with abandon. About five minutes before the video’s end, rain audibly interrupted the discussion. Emily described it as “beautiful” and a “transcendent moment.” Don followed by emphasizing that “music is not in the score” and that “prayer is not in the liturgical text.” And what I witnessed was a true crossover. The rain manifested Divine charity that made itself felt and heard. The water dropped and dripped in concert with what had been said, perhaps anointing the conversation, but outmaneuvering it as well. It seemed to insist that music might take place far from our intent, without our interpretation, and speak theologically on its own.