“Angel Band” reveals a man, like so many others in America, caught on the horns of a dilemma when it comes to God.
“I grew up a Baptist and was afraid of going to hell.” So begins Statement from Tyler Childers accompanying his new album, Can I take my dogs to paradise? The Kentucky singer’s debut single and video, “Angel Band,” is, at first glance, an old-school worship song straight out of the heart of Appalachia. But instead, the song reveals a man, like so many others in America, caught in a dilemma when it comes to God.
Childers – along with vocalists like Colter Wall, Benjamin Tod and Charley Crockett – is part of a multi-year revival of American music in popular culture. While he may not be a household name, he has a massive following, with his videos regularly racking up millions and millions of views on YouTube. His songs blend a deep-rooted sound with gritty, often explicit lyrics about addiction, poverty, and despair gripping so much of rural America.
Religion was also a recurring theme. On the title track of his album Bottles and Bibles, he sings, “Oh Lord, if you care, send your angels here / ‘Cause the preacher drank again.” And on the title track of Purgatorywhich receives a cover on his latest album, Childers sings:
When the time has come to change worlds
I’ll hedge my bets with a catholic girl
Catholic girl, pray for me
You are my only hope for heaven
These religious influences appear fully on Dogs. On some tracks, like “Triune God” and “Old Country Church,” Childers takes a straightforward approach, throwing his hat back to the “screaming, screaming old days” of his Baptist past. But as he explains 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 be thinking about and kicking all that nonsense out was something I spent a lot of time on. It is a collection which was constituted through these reflections. In many ways it deals with life experiences in the different philosophies and religions that shaped me, trying to make it a complete sonic example. . . . Regarding the message, I hope people will understand that regardless of race, creed, religion and anything related to it, the most important thing is to protect your heart, cultivate it and keep it alive. do something useful for the world.
“Band of Angels”
In “Angel Band”, Childers first sings a pastor and two members of his congregation. The imagery of a pulpit, a hymn, a pew, pearly gates, the Jordan River, and Jesus’ nail-scarred hands lead to a triumphant chorus straight out of a gospel tune:
I can hear the group of angels
I was blind, but now I see
And I will jump among them
When I reach the land of glory
In the third verse, however, there is a dramatic change:
There are Hindus, Jews and Muslims
And Baptists of all kinds
Catholic girls and Amish boys
Who left their plows behind
Up there in the choir
Sing side by side
I wonder why exactly
They were fidgeting all the time
The clip further unravels the idea: a clumsy, clumsy man on a building site comes close to death after being kicked in the head by a horse. He has a vision of a heavenly reality with people of all religions and beliefs dressed in white, walking in the same field and gathering around the same table in harmony and joy. It is a vision of a paradise beyond all religion, a place where all faiths converge in peace.
The Torn American Soul
In an interview on 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 raised. “It’s just a way of talking about the same thing, in my eyes,” he said. “God is greater than all our gods.”
Although only Childers knows his own journey from the inside, here we glimpse a shared spiritual journey of the torn American soul. It’s a shift from one extreme – being “scared to death” of hell, an experience common to so many evangelists – to its opposite: the playful idea that all spiritual roads also lead to heaven.
The fear of falling into the hands of an infernal God dissolves into a passion for an indifferent God – the same God as before, only now, returned. The God of Fire and Brimstone cares not what you do and responds with angry punishment; the God of automatic salvation doesn’t care what you believe and responds with listless acceptance. Childers, like countless others, seems caught between them.
Is there a way out between these split, dual, equally distorted views of God? We see a promising clue in the singer’s fascination with Catholicism, including Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor, who Childers cite as an influence. The last song on the album, the “Joyful Noise Version” of “Heart You’ve Been Tendin”, even includes a sample of Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s last recorded words before his death: “I’ll disappear from view, and we can all have a Coke or something.”
In its official teaching, Catholicism refuses the two extremes: both the savage infernalism of evangelicalism and the insipid universalism of religious indifferentism. Instead, it offers the same vision that captured Childers’ attention in his “Purgatory”: a vision of hope. “In all circumstances”, the Catechism teaches, “Each of us should hope, with the grace of God, to endure ‘unto the end’ and obtain the joy of heaven, as God’s eternal reward for good works done in the grace of Christ. In hope, the Church prays that ‘all men may be saved’” (CCC 1821). Jesus remains our only hope for heaven — but it is an extravagant hope, and one which must be extended beyond the pews of the Church.
Tyler Childers doesn’t seem ready to give up his old Baptist religion; he doesn’t seem happy to stay there either. The answer may well lie in an even older religious source, whose song is “Hallelujah” but whose genius lies in honoring all that is good.
To learn more about the teachings of the Catholic Church on salvation, it is worth consulting the Catechism of the Catholic Church.