The Agnostic Gospel of Susan Werner (2 of 3)

[Originally posted January 22, 2008 at]

Continuing my interview with singer/songwriter Susan Werner, whose latest album The Gospel Truth is an unusual collection of songs that combine “the music of faith and the lyrics of doubt.”  In this second installment, she talks about the response of fans to this (as far as we can tell) unique artistic project.

Learn more about her on the web at



Q: So, what kind of reactions have you been getting on the album?

Susan Werner: Every kind you can get. [Laughs] People cry. I’ve gotten letters and email from everywhere. I just can’t believe it. People stand in line after a show and want to talk about it. They want to tell me about how they grew up, what their experiences were with this music; with church music; with church; with priests; with pastors who were exceptional people; with nuns who changed their lives; with nuns who were cruel, heartless, nasty people; with priests who were basketball coaches and changes their lives – with all of it.

I would have never thought the South would like this record, but the South wants to talk about it all night. I was just in West Virginia and they wanted to talk all night about this record. Georgia, too – I was just in Decatur. North Carolina, South Carolina – my God, they just wanted to talk all night. And you know who thought this album was just kind of charming, was Oregon, which is the least churchgoing state in the union. They clapped at everything I did, and they just thought it was nice, this little toy project I was doing. “This is charming, this religious thing. This is a darling little thing you’ve done.” But in Charleston, West Virginia on a Saturday night, the guy who did the seating told me after the show, “You know, two people got up after they heard the first tune. As they walked out, they said one word to me: ‘heathens’.” [Laughs] They got up and walked out!

Q: Do you ever notice it yourself when this happens?

SW: Yeah, I have seen it occasionally.

Q: I think most people are going to be polite. They probably are not going to walk up to you and say, “I hated this.”

SW: No, but they’ll log into and leave a review.

Q: Yeah, I saw that. Some guy wrote in and said you were “mean-spirited and tedious.”

SW: [Breathes a sigh of frustration] Yeah…

Q: Having listened to the album myself, I find it hard to imagine anyone could characterize it that way. Another reviewer said “Susan Werner is out to upset folks.” Do you set out to upset folks, or is that an unfair characterization?

SW: No, no, I’m not out to upset folks. I wanted to be really honest with myself, and make this project. I wanted to represent every corner of my own experience, and to admit where the church has actually inspired me, growing up Catholic in a big Catholic family in eastern Iowa, and having nuns who taught in my elementary school, who were very plugged-in and political Franciscans. They knew what was going on in El Salvador and Guatemala. They were environmentalists way before the rest of the country caught on. So, I wanted to acknowledge what parts of the church growing up really resonate for me. The second track “Help Somebody” – that’s a gospel rave-up go-out-and-be-of-service-to-your-fellow-man. That’s something that I feel I’ve benefitted from in growing up the way I did, as a churchgoer. “Did Trouble Me” is a song they’re singing in churches all over the country – including synagogues, which is astounding to me, but evidently it represents atonement. Atonement is the theme of Rosh Hashanah.

AF: So, you’re becoming a Jewish staple.

SW: Yeah! How wonderful is that? “I Will Have My Portion” is a song that says that something good is coming my way; that sense of anticipation that’s so much a part of gospel music. Of course, it doesn’t say that “Jesus is coming back.” Because I don’t really believe that Jesus is coming back. I think he got a lot done while he was here. [Laughs] But that sense of anticipation is part of what gives gospel music its power. So, I didn’t set out to upset people. I set out to be honest, and to write a project that would have songs of doubt next to songs of faith. And in fact have the music of faith and lyrics of doubt in one song. That’s how I experienced the church in America, and I’ve found that there are so many people for whom that is exactly the case. I think that’s why the response has been so strong. There are people who say “Is nothing sacred?” But I want to say “Is everything sacred? Is every sacred thing sacred?” I’ve had people react badly to the line about women in the Catholic priesthood (“And remind the Pope that he could have been a girl”). This does not seem to me to be so outrageous to say.

Q: You’re talking about “Our Father (The New, Revised Edition).” It is kind of a protest song. It’s about as close to a protest song as you get on this album.

SW: But who wants to stand up in defense of hypocrisy? That’s what the song really addresses, is hypocrisy. So, it really surprises me when people take offense at that and I think, “Hmmm.” A strong negative response to that song, to me, raises certain questions… well, I won’t indulge in that… but I do find it curious, that anyone would think that that line is anything but on target. But I’ve had people sending me emails explaining the Vatican’s position on women in the priesthood, as if that flawed line of reasoning would convince me.

Q: You mentioned you were a lapsed Catholic. Recently in the news there’s been a book about Mother Teresa [Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk], in which she admitted to having these great doubts. I pulled a quote (and there’s always a chance I’m taking this out of context): “The silence and emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.” Do you think most people who profess to be believers really, secretly say, “I’m not getting anything,” or do you think there are people who really think they’re getting a message?

SW: I think there are plenty of people who think they have a very real, active relationship with the Divine. I’m certain of it. But these revelations about Mother Teresa are just fascinating; because, as it turns out, even Mother Teresa was no Mother Teresa. [Laughs] Amazing! It certainly gives us with doubt some comfort.

Q: In your song “Sunday Mornings” you talk about fond memories of going to church with your family and being part of something; bittersweet memories of that experience. You know, the actress Julia Sweeney recently came out as an unbeliever – and she’s also a lapsed Catholic. Her experience seems very, very similar to what you describe in “Sunday Mornings.”

SW: I think for many women, the fact that there are no women priests is impossible to overcome. It’s not reasonable. It’s not rational. It’s not justifiable in any way, shape or form. I think it leads many of us to abandon the Catholic Church. The Episcopalians seem ready to be there, though, to embrace those who leave the Catholic Church. [Laughs] It’s fascinating: you have gay Episcopal priests and you have women Episcopal priests. It just seems like the Episcopalians are the next door down, standing out on the lawn waving you in, you know? It’s an interesting business model.

Q: There’s something you say in “Sunday Mornings”: You ask too many questions, dear / And I said you ask too few / That’s why I still don’t quite know what to do / On Sunday mornings. When did you start to have your doubts and wonder if what you were hearing in church wasn’t quite “the gospel truth”?

SW: I think it had something to do with my mother saying, “You can be anything you want when you grow up – except a priest.” Which is funny. Now we have a woman candidate for president, who might become the president. But you still can’t be the priest in your own home parish. Again, it’s a divide that’s almost impossible to bridge, for many of women – and I think for plenty of men, too. It doesn’t make sense, but I don’t think it’s going to change any time soon.

Q: It’s funny, if you know much about the Bible, the evidence on which they hang that policy [the all-male priesthood] isn’t exactly the centerpiece of the New Testament.

SW: [Laughs] No, it’s not!

Q: But homosexuality, you can find plenty of biblical justification against it.

SW: Yeah, but if you’re going to take your social policy from 2,000-year-old documents, I think that’s curious. And we don’t with regards to race. We don’t take our cue from the Bible with regards to women’s place in society any more. Why we would do that with regards to gays, I don’t know. I think in twenty years we won’t at all. It’s just this particular generation’s hang-up, and this too shall pass.

Q: In your song “Our Father” you mention the politicians who can’t give a speech without mentioning God. I read in a recent news article, that among all the leading candidates for the presidency, the frontrunners – Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani – are perceived as being the least religious of the candidates for their respective parties. [This interview was conducted in the Fall of 2007.] Do you think the country is starting to make a decided turn away from religion as a political issue?

SW: I think for the moment there’s a turn away from fundamentalist Christianity. I think there’s a move away from religious literalism. I think it’s because of the War in Iraq more than anything, and the certainty with which this fundamentalist Christian president took us to war. I think we’re entering a different phase for the moment where doubt is ascendant – at least, religious doubt is ascendant. I think Giuliani is a secularist, but I won’t speculate any further than that. I think these things go in cycles. America has this puritanical strain that runs right down the middle, so it’ll come back, as sure as the corn grows in April. [Laughs]

Q: In preparing for this interview, I was trying to think of other musicians who had done similar projects, and I really couldn’t come up with anybody. The only exceptions I’ll make to that are the people who do the freethought conventions that sing gimmicky songs, where they’ll do things like take “Amazing Grace” and change the lyrics. But I can’t think of any other established artist who’s done an album along these lines.

SW: Well, I hope I did it well. I tried to do something that hadn’t been done before, which again, is to put songs of faith and doubt side-by-side. The fact that the response has been so strong to it suggests to me that there are many people who are bridging this divide in their own hearts and souls. I’ve come to believe now that it’s part of what gives this nation its energy, this friction between the secular and the sacred; the fact that these two tendencies rub against each other constantly in American public and private life. It certainly creates a lot of heat, and I think it drives this country; it gives us some of our vitality. It’s certainly a permanent facet of the American landscape, and I think becoming comfortable with it allows you to enjoy the dialogue, to enjoy it as byproduct of our free society. It’s something you can be entertained by, and you can come to see humanity in all the ways it can manifest itself – religious and atheist and everything in between.

Q: I gave up trying to find another album similar to yours, so I started to think about songs that try to address the things you’re addressing. The only examples I could come up with were: “Imagine” by John Lennon…

SW: Mmm… absolutely…

Q: “Dear God” by XTC…

SW: I don’t know that one. I’ll look it up tonight.

Q: And the last one is “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus No More” by Kinky Friedman.

SW: [Laughs] Kinky!

Q: Have you ever played with him?

SW: No, I’ve never even met him, but he plays in the same circuit as me. I’m glad he ran for governor [of Texas].

“Imagine” is really interesting. There’s a song with spiritual ambitions, even though it says “Let’s get beyond religion.” That is a song with spiritual content. I don’t think anybody would say anything different. That’s a transcendent song. We could use more songs like that, there’s no doubt.

Up Next: Prophecy and the Blues – Part 3 of my interview with Susan Werner!

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