Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sherry Cothran’s “Strange Woman”: Popular Music as Parahomiletic

Those who spend their time listening only to Praise and Worship music as it is packaged by the mainstream media and publishing houses will miss the brilliant homiletical interpretations of scripture that can be found in music that is being made outside the boundaries of the Christian music industry. Much, if not all Praise and Worship music avoids narrative. It’s verticality is focused on God and Christ in a timeless, “awesome God” kind of way. It is meant to facilitate worship as adoration.  If such music were to stray one inch toward narrative, it would shift from being adoration to being thanksgiving. Instead of praising God for who God is in and of God-self, the music would have to tell some of the story of why one is praising God in the first place – a story would have to be told and we would find ourselves remembering God at work in particular times and places.

Homiletics is always a timely, and time-saturated reflection of who God was and is and continues to be.  It is “expository” and banks on memory, and, as we all know, memory is a theologically contested domain. Memory can be selective. Memory can be influenced by ideology, patriarchy, the will to power, and suffering. How one re-members the past in the present is the key to homiletics.

It is in this contested homiletical domain of memory that we experience the music of Sherry Cothran on her CD entitled Sunland. Cothran wrestles with the memory we have of the women of the Old Testament – Rahab, Jepthah’s daughter, the Woman of Endor, Jael, Deborah, Huldah, and the Strange Woman of Proverbs.

Cothran’s interpretation of the so-called “strange woman” in the book of Proverbs is not standard fare. It owes much to her education with Hebrew Bible scholar Jack Sasson at Vanderbilt Divinity School, filtered through her poetic genius and her pastoral and homiletical sensibilities.

In most of the standard biblical commentaries, this “strange woman” is at odds with the “wise woman.” As Cothran’s lyric puts it:

Maiden of the storm
For chaos you are blamed

But Cothran's lyric doesn’t leave the strange woman there,  “banished to the dark” by “a man” because she is “a woman he cannot tame.” Instead, Cothran sees in her an interruption in human-contrived order – a Godly interruption, “made” by God:

In a world with a rage for order
God sends a wind that won’t obey
In a world with a rage for beauty
God has made something strange
Strange woman.

In a similar way, biblical scholar Claudia Camp speaks about the Strange Woman as a kind of "trickster" character, one who in many ways intersects and mirrors Woman Wisdom.

Instead of seeing her as evil, therefore, Cothran’s song invites us to see in her a feisty, trickster-like power for life in the midst of one’s orderly “place” in a man’s world. 

And she sees other women in the Old Testament, such as Lot’s wife, as representing this same power. And she also identifies this excluded life-force with the narrative of the Christ-child – who represents the same creative chaos in the midst of contrived order.

You bite the serpent back
Upset the applecart
Stare back at what you lost
Without turning into salt
Stay away from our men
Our model citizens
There’s no room for the strange woman in the inn

Again, Claudia Camp:

We need more of THIS kind of music. Deeply poetic, educated, devotional, grounded in faith, and always re-thinking biblical truth for our world in new and helpful ways. Take a listen to this amazing song: Strange Woman


  1. um, not to be a jerk or anything, but didn't you produce this album and oversee the project as Cothran's faculty advisor? Seems a little disingenuous not to mention that when offering a review...

    1. Doug Meeks was my faculty advisor, great man and wonderful mentor, runs a great program at Vanderbilt for United Methodist ministers like myself who are all placed under his wing. I used the project as the concept for my senior project, but it's actually my 7th official CD release in a 17 plus year career as a songwriter/musician/recording artist. (for more info. see www.sherrycothran.com) Sasson was the reader on my senior project, he had little to do with the songs themselves other than to affirm particular instances where he thought I got Saul or Jepthah or The Witch of Endor. That was fun. A few of the songs were written post grad school, some were written during and some were written before, some that I wrote during grad school didn't make the final cut. The entire project from start to finish took about 7 years. All that I recorded didn't make the final cut. John was the engineer on the project, top rate, I might add, and the whole McClure family put up with me for a while as I invaded their home studio with my tour weary musicians and my concepts. John enabled the songs to come to life through his technical skills and in his homiletics courses I learned how to combine this crazy art of songwriting and preaching. I am grateful for everyone who contributed to this project and enabled me to bring it to fruition. Extremely grateful for those who take the extra step to write about it, diving into the work to help others discover it. It is meant to be shared.

  2. Sherry produced it. I was the recording engineer (see earlier post). I was not her faculty advisor either. But I did advise her senior project as she was writing these songs. And, to be quite honest, I had nothing to do with the actual content of these songs - but Jack Sasson certainly did! Thanks for throwing me a bone.

  3. Sherry was definitely the writer and producer. As one who was sitting there through many of the sessions, John's engineering was great. The content and arrangement, however, was all Sherry (plus, a great bibliography of great writers, scholars, and poets all made the mix). As for the rest, John's encouragement made Sherry shine. Thanks for the work John and the above.

  4. It's a beautiful project. Thank you for the seven year investment. I hope it is indeed shared!