Private beliefs, public expression

Thursday, December 27, 2007
Ryan Harper rehearsed with his band including, from left, Mark Ellison on drums, Zach Priester on guitar, Bryan Davidson on guitar and Sam Godwin on bass. Others band members not pictured include Beth Godwin, vocals, and Craig Marshall on keyboards and percussion. (Fred Lynch)

Religious revivals swept the American Western frontier at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. These services offered a special place at the front of the church called the "anxious bench" for people who were grappling with their sins. "They did their business before God and before everybody else present," Ryan Harper said.

That tension between intensely private beliefs and their public expression is at the heart of Harper's new CD, "The Anxious Bench."

The Jackson native, a mainstay in local music circles before leaving to study religion, is a doctoral student in the American Religious Culture and History program at Princeton University. He will celebrate the release of his third CD with a free concert beginning at 9 p.m. Friday at Grace Cafe in Cape Girardeau. Performing with Harper will be a number of local musicians: organist Craig Marshall, bassist Sam Godwin, vocalist Beth Godwin and guitarists Bryan Davidson and Zach Priester.

The CD was released online Saturday at The songs can be downloaded for free, with donations encouraged.

Most modern-day evangelical churches have something like the "anxious bench" in the altar calls at the end of the services, Harper said. "Clearly this person's body present on this bench has become a spectacle for everyone else present, the site on which everyone else can project all their fears, hopes, theological misgivings, theological wonderings."

In performing Christian music, the public-private dichotomy is one Harper himself is working through. In the title song he sings to God, "I make an idol of my home/I take your weapons as my own/I lock my door and build my fence/I claim your word as my defense."

Though he is a Baptist and his wife, Lynn Casteel Harper -- also a Jackson native -- is a hospice chaplain, Harper comes to his subject almost as an outsider, as one who is studying religion critically as well as practicing it. "There is something very substantively meaningful with this for folks even as there are things we need to examine," he says.

His is not necessarily feel-good Christian music. "I wanted to be critical and skeptical and even sarcastic sometimes," he said. At the same time his sympathies are with his religion.

Neither bashing nor defensiveness interests him. His CD explores the way many Americans actually live their faith. "I'm trying to get at what is driving these people -- and me on some level," he said.

His song "Miriam" is based on the Old Testament woman who led her people in singing and dancing but after questioning God was stricken with leprosy and banished for a time from her camp. Above the lyrics on the album are the words "Shout, Marsha Stevens," a reference to the 1970s contemporary Christian singer who was blackballed by the Christian music industry when she divorced her husband and came out as a lesbian.

Singing about such issues is one reason Harper is offering his CD for free. He knows some evangelicals don't want to give monetary support to anything contrary to their beliefs, and he respects their ideals. He also doesn't want to be a slave to writing for a particular audience.

"I want people to come to my music and engage it and disagree with it, war with it, do battle with it, and not feel like they've done something to perpetuate causes they don't feel they should."

A number of local musicians play on "The Anxious Bench," including Southeast piano instructor Matt Yount, Sunrise Recording Studio owner and co-producer Kurt Tietz, Cape Girardeau schools string teacher Steve Schaffner and the Regeneration Choir from the Black Student Fellowship at Southeast.

Harper, a multi-instrumentalist, is responsible for 90 percent of the music. The CD is exceedingly eclectic, portraying Harper's own diverse musical background and tastes. "It is intentionally stylistically incoherent," he said.

Kristin Schweain of the former contemporary Christian group ZOEgirl is an old high school friend of Harper's and also appears on the CD singing backup vocals. Both were members of Pat Schwent's band at Jackson High School and have kept up with each other's musical careers. "I have always admired Ryan," Schweain said. "I have seen a lot of drive in him. He was the kind of person I always wanted to listen to what he had to say. That goes the same for his music."

ZOEgirl gave their last public performance a year ago. Schweain has been working on a solo album in Nashville to be titled "Days of Eden." She and her husband Ryan live in Jackson and have a baby daughter.

In public performances Harper does not preach between songs as some musicians of all different beliefs do. He cited U2's Bono for an example. "They really like to use their microphone when they go on these jeremiads. That is something I'm resistant to."

Harper's doctoral dissertation -- he reads three hours each day to keep up with his studies -- harkens to his own boyhood as a member of his family's Southern gospel group called the Roman Road Quartet. Back then he was too short to reach his drum pedals. He "got too cool for it at some point" but realized in graduate school that this music was important and needed to be written about.

His dissertation will explore the Gaither family and the homecoming phenomenon in evangelical Christianity. The Gaithers sold out the Show Me Center a few years back. Their homecoming concerts are attempts to recreate the old-time country singing events with large groups of people on stage singing old hymns. "It's very strong stuff for a lot of people."

Christianity is strong stuff to a lot of people, too, Harper said. Those who define themselves as nonreligious are learning that they need to engage those who don't, he says. At the same time, Harper said, "I have learned studying religion that there is a good deal to be ashamed of in a lot of these traditions."

Ultimately, he said, "There are a lot of redemptive moments in this history that are things all of us can be proud of."

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