He Showed Up In Boots: Garth Brooks is a Fool for Christ

Perhaps Because of the Shock of the Moment, It Seemed Perfectly Right

Connor Gwin / 1.29.21

Did y’all see Garth Brooks at the Inauguration? 

In what was a fairly by-the-book civic liturgy (apart from Lady Gaga’s brooch), it was shocking to hear the announcer quietly introduce Garth Brooks to sing “Amazing Grace.”

What followed that announcement was a succession of surprising events:

  1. Garth Brooks at the Inauguration
  2. Wearing jeans
  3. And a cowboy hat 
  4. And boots 
  5. Singing a Christian hymn 
  6. Speaking directly to the crowd at home
  7. Encouraging a singalong of the aforementioned Christian hymn
  8. Hugging former Presidents and First Ladies as he jogged and giggled off stage

It was disorienting for many reasons and provided a bookend to the events of the weeks prior. Garth Brooks did not belong on that stage, especially not doing the things Garth Brooks did. He had no business wearing jeans and cowboy boots to that event. He certainly had no business singing the quintessential hymn about the power of God’s grace. 

And yet. 

Perhaps because of the shock of the moment, it seemed perfectly right. For just a moment, the pretense was dropped and Garth Brooks imputed grace to those on the dais and those at home. 

Before the final verse, Garth Brooks paused and spoke to the crowd:

“Now if I can ask you to sing this last verse with me. Not just the people here, but the people at home, at work — as one, united,” Brooks proclaimed.

Your first reaction may have been similar to mine. We are not united. We are not one. Our nation is more divided now than at any time in recent memory. Exactly two weeks prior to Brooks’ homily another moment of shock took place on that same spot. 

But as the camera panned over the platform and the microphone picked up the muffled sound of masked singing, you could see people falling — if only for that one moment — into “Amazing Grace.”

Lady Gaga was singing along. Vice-Presidents Pence and Harris were both singing. Diplomats and Congresspeople and J.Lo were all singing grace together. 

Did this moment change anything? Who knows? Is that even the right question when it comes to grace?

I suppose many of the folks gathered on the stage could have written it off as a silly moment with a silly country singer from Oklahoma. The performance by the poet Amanda Gorman rightfully captured the attention of most people. It would be fair to say that you may have already forgotten that Garth sang. 

And yet. 

It is not nothing that “Amazing Grace” was performed twice in the Inauguration festivities. The night before Garth showed up in boots, a nurse from Michigan named Lori Marie Key sang the hymn at the Lincoln Memorial during the COVID Memorial Service. 

Again, it may seem like the obvious choice to sing that hymn because it is one of the only hymns that is widely known and widely loved in America. It could have been a gimmick in the midst of a patriotic gimmick festival. That internal pragmatist in all of us may speak up again and ask, “What good is it to sing about grace if it doesn’t change anything?” 

This is where we hit the Gospel stumbling block for the pragmatic mind. The gospel of God’s grace is not pragmatic, at least not completely. It is pragmatic in the Ultimate sense that Jesus did the work and effectively rendered salvation in his death and resurrection. However, it is not pragmatic in the sense that the Gospel of grace does something outright. Remember the folks in the Gospels who heard this Good News from the source, from Jesus himself, only to walk away sad or seemingly unchanged. The rich young man sulks away from Jesus, he doesn’t pray the sinner’s prayer. Nicodemus slinks back out into the night more confused than when he first approached Jesus. 

The power of grace is in hearing it over and over again (as if from a mockingbird, one might say) until it sinks deeply into a hardened and sinful heart. Salvation is the work of God, and the timeline of each person’s salvation is God’s alone. 

In the Gospels we don’t hear what happened to the rich young man. We see a flash of Nicodemus in the trial of Jesus and again after his death, which implies that the questions he brought to Jesus found their answer in the days and weeks after.

When Garth Brooks stood on the platform and led the congregation in “Amazing Grace,” he was speaking grace to a crowd that didn’t deserve it, possibly wouldn’t accept it, and most likely would write it off as quaint but irrelevant. In other words, Garth Brooks was a preacher of the Gospel. He was doing what all of us who have been called to preach this message do on our better days. He was a fool for Christ. He literally and figuratively took his hat in his hands and told a weary crowd about an amazing grace that saves wretches like him. 

When asked about the performance, Brooks said it was an opportunity “to serve” and is a “statement of unity.”

There is unity in the fact that we are all sinners in need of grace. There is unity in the truth that no one wins in a merit-based world, but that we have merit through Christ. There is unity in the reality that wretches like you and me cry when we hear “Amazing Grace” because we know, somewhere deep in our bones, that it is true. My prayer is that the cynical, pragmatic part of your brain (and mine) can take a seat for a moment, because a fool named Garth Brooks showed up in boots ready to sing.