Josh Ritter and the American Sensual Spirituality

Josh Ritter is one of my favorite songwriters. In his songs, he weaves wonderful narratives, develops arresting images, and in his live performances, he radiates joy. His new single, “Getting Ready to Get Down,” has been on loop for the last month while I wait for his new album, Sermon on the Rocks, to come out in October.

Listen to the song. Watch the lyric video. Check out the lyrics over at Genius. And then we’ll get back to the matter at hand.

Josh Ritter belongs in the long tradition of American sensual spirituality. Announced by American Romantics like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, it found its prophet in Walt Whitman. This strain of sensual spirituality is often steeped in the religious language of Christianity, but its understanding of God, nature, and humanity diverges quite sharply from orthodox Christianity. This spirituality is sensual; its basic tenet is that the body and soul are one. The Pauline Christianity of mainline American churches sets the flesh against the spirit. Paul writes as if they’re at war: your true self is aligned with the spirit in opposition to your body and the world to which it’s connected. In this body-soul dualism, responding to your bodily desires must be shameful. The American sensual spirituality seeks to mend this rift between the body and soul.

There are many ways to frame a sensual spirituality. One possibility is to reject religious language altogether. The basic notion of a sensual spirituality is that we are of one piece. There’s no need to call it anything other than being or living. The Epicureans were of this mind. Why does this American tradition think in terms of a sensual spirituality at all? It is, in some senses, a contradiction in terms. Yet for many Americans, it’s exceptionally difficult to think in a language outside the Christian worldview. You don’t have to be a believer to speak of “sin” or what your “soul” needs. The Christian language is a large part of the material of our expressive selves. You can change the meaning or resonance of the words, but you don’t have other words to replace them. This was truer in the 19th century than it is in the 21st century, but Christianity still holds great sway over our imaginations. We often unthinkingly reinforce a dualistic spirituality and locate the divine outside of ourselves, and particularly outside of our bodies.

America has always dwelt in contradiction. The Declaration of Independence’s “self-evident” truth that all men are created equal was born in obvious contradiction with the realities of slavery. The effects of this contradiction echo through American history down to today. Unable to deny either the sensual energy of the land’s immense geographic diversity or the Christian traditions in which many of us were raised, Americans like John Muir cultivated the ecstatic spiritual experience in the wilderness. Muir’s writing about nature is devotional; he’s a religious mystic. The American sensual spirituality, crystalized best in Whitman’s poetry, is natural and democratic; it locates the individual in the natural universe and the universe in the individual’s body.

In “Getting Ready to Get Down,” Ritter tells the story of a young woman who grows up in a Christian community that’s afraid of the way she’s acting. They want her to be ashamed of her sensuality and desires—ashamed of her body—and she refuses. They send her to “a little Bible college in Missouri” to set her right. She returns “after four long years studying the Bible” having learned a lot, only it’s not what her parents had hoped she would. She embodies the faith of the American sensual spirituality, declaring: “I’m getting ready to get down.”

The first thing she shares is that “Eve ate the apple ‘cause the apple was sweet / What kinda God would ever keep a girl from getting what she needs?” Of course, the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is sweet. Focusing on the nutritional virtue of the apple, she makes a theological claim about the human need for knowledge. She questions a god who would preserve human innocence through ignorance. It’s a nice line because it redeems Eve, whose choice here is not a weakness as the Christian narrative would have it, but a reason to call God’s motives into question. It also keeps us thinking about the body even while referring to the too-often disembodied idea of knowledge.

I think all the song’s lyrics are worth parsing because they treat the subject with bite, humor, and love. However, a blog is a certain kind of thing, so I’ll skip to the final verse. Ritter sings:

And now you come back, saying you know a little bit about
Every little thing they ever hoped you'd never figure out
The Red Sea, The Dead Sea, the Sermon on the Mount
If you wanna see a miracle, watch me get down

This is the essence of the American sensual spirituality. Emerson said there are no miracles if they are “not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.” This is not a rejection of miracles, only of the supernatural. Emerson reinvests nature itself with the awe of the miraculous. Here Ritter combines Emerson’s miracle with Whitman’s sensuality. In “Song of Myself,” Whitman describes himself:

Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,
Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them,
No more modest than immodest.

I’ve always appreciated the self-description of “turbulent, fleshy, sensual.” There’s an undeniable physicality that’s essential to being a kosmos. For Whitman and Ritter, the miracle is one with the human body. Whitman would approve of the protagonist’s assertion that her body in movement is beautiful and worthy of miraculous awe.