A special lady: Gloria Gaither
Songwriter, scholar, opens her mind, heart to HLG boosters
HANNIBAL – Before she even took the stage at Hannibal-LaGrange College’s annual booster banquet, Gloria Gaither wowed reporters with her wit, knowledge and faith during the pre-banquet press conference.
The Grammy and Dove award-winning songwriter is the wife of Bill Gaither. Throughout the 45 years of their marriage, they have written more than 700 songs including such Sunday morning standards as Because He Lives, Jesus Paid it All, There’s Something about that Name, and This is the Day that the Lord Hath Made. Since the early 1990s, the Gaither Homecoming CD and video series has revived the popularity of Southern Gospel music. She has written dozens of books and, to the surprise of the press corps, is a world-class scholar of author John Steinbeck. She recently returned from presenting a paper at a Steinbeck conference in Japan.
Most questions naturally centered around music and Gaither’s songwriting.
“I don’t write by assignment,” she said. “We’ve always written out of a vacuum; ‘There ought to be a song that says this.’ That’s always been our motivation. If you’re a writer, you have to write. To live is to write. The bonus is if it means something to other people. I’m always a little surprised when it does.
“Probably our most well-known song was a song so personal, we didn’t think anyone else would sing it, and that was Because He Lives. I learned something from that as a writer. Most people think if you want to appeal to a broad audience that you need to write generally. The real truth is you need to write very specifically; the more specific, the more universal. You find that in your [the reporters’] writing, you find that in fiction and I think you find it in the Bible. Jesus was very specific. If He was talking to farmers, he said ‘The Kingdom of God is like a farmer who went out to sow his seed.’ If He was talking to shepherds, He talked about sheep.”
Whether it’s her writing or just speaking to the public, Gaither isn’t afraid to get specific or bold. When asked if America was headed in the right direction, she didn’t pull any punches.
“We’ve lost our bottom line,” she said. “If you don’t like the Bible as a bottom line, what can you use? What is your measuring stick? Public opinion? FOX News? Someone’s book hot off the press? If we don’t have a bottom line, it’s just my opinion against yours. Where do we go? I believe that it is very important for a society’s survival to have a common yardstick against which they can measure things. Every law is a moral statement. Every law is about not crossing a line. I’d rather that line be backed up by generations, tons of courts and God’s will.”
A deep rooting in the Bible is also what’s missing from many of today’s popular Christian songwriters. Gaither specifically pointed to some – but not all – praise and worship artists.
“The ‘wrapper’ of Christian music will continue to change,” she said, “but what scares me is what’s in the ‘wrapper.’ In the church community, we’ve more often than not been idolaters worshipping our forms rather than Christ. If you want to get people bent out of shape, mess with their form. You can mess with theology all you want and they won’t even notice. We do it everyday.”
Gaither was careful to point out her complaint is not with the style of music, the instruments, or even hair length, although she did make a tongue-in-cheek theological argument that we are to sing in harmony and not unison (“We are not one because of our consensus, we are one because of our commitment to something bigger and we keep our identities and voices. To me that spells harmony.”) For her, it’s about the Bible.
“I believe in praise and worship,” she said. “My problem with a lot of it is that we’re stealing the punch lines of David.”
Gaither told of an informal poll she took of praise and worship songwriters at a conference.
“I asked them how many had read I or II Samuel,” she said. “I saw two hands out of 300. What right do we have to plagiarize the punch lines of David when we don’t know his story or what he paid for those lines? I’ve sat in songwriting rooms watching people skimming through Psalms, fast-forwarding through chapter after chapter to find one positive little punch line they can write a song around. They pass the depression, the doubt and the beating of the chest as David asks, ‘Is there even a God?’ just to get his one little moment of victory. We don’t have that right. The reason our kids leave feeling empty is because those songs are empty and they are not prepared theologically for what is coming.”
Gaither praised Christian colleges, like Hannibal-LaGrange. She herself attended Anderson University, a small Christian liberal arts school in Indiana.
“I believe a Christian, liberal arts education from a small school is a better education,” Gaither said. “I went to such a school and I had a Ph.D. in every class from Day 1 as a freshman. I got a very rich education in that small context. It opened doors for me and sent me out. In that context you learn to be a sensor of what is in the room – you’re not just an academic, you’re something else and it’s that something that is so valuable.”
Perhaps it’s that “something else” that causes Gaither to be a thinker and even a thoughtful doubter. That goes for society, academics and sometimes even her faith.
“I’ve come to believe that if you don’t doubt, you’re not a very good believer,” she said. “I am a skeptic by nature. If you don’t wrestle with questions and sometimes get beat up by them, you don’t know why you believe. I guess I’m a little like Jacob: I’d rather limp the rest of my life because I wrestled an angel to the ground than to walk freely and not know why. I’m just thankful for the last beatitude said to Thomas (John 20:29): ‘Blessed are those who see and believe, but more blessed are those who do not see and yet believe.’ With that one beatitude Jesus threw a lifeline to all us doubters.”