[Editor's note: This article is adapted with permission from Otis Moss III's book Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World: Finding Hope in an Age of Despair, published by Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.]
IF WE ARE to reclaim the best of the preaching tradition, then we must learn what I call the blue note gospel. Before you get to your resurrection shout, you must pass by the challenge and pain called Calvary.
What is this thing called the blues? It is the roux of black speech, the backbeat of American music, and the foundation of black preaching. Blues is the curve of the Mississippi, the ghost of the South, the hypocrisy of the North. Blues is the beauty of bebop, the soul of gospel, and the pain of hip-hop.
Before we can speak of the jazz mosaic or the hip-hop vibe for postmodern preaching, we must wrestle with the blues. In his song “Call It Stormy Monday,” T-Bone Walker laments how bad and sad each day of the week is, but “Sunday I go to church, then I kneel down and pray.”
Walker’s song unintentionally lifted up the challenge that the blues placed before the church and that black religiosity still seeks to solve. “Stormy Monday” forces the listener to reject traditional notions of sacred and secular. The pain of the week is connected to the sacred service of Sunday. There is no strict line of demarcation between the existential weariness of a disenfranchised person of color and the sacred disciplines of prayer, worship, and service to humanity.
This blue note is a challenge to preaching and to the church. Can preaching recover a blues sensibility and dare speak with authority in the midst of tragedy? America is living stormy Monday, but the pulpit is preaching happy Sunday. The world is experiencing the blues, and pulpiteers are dispensing excessive doses of non-prescribed prosaic sermons with severe ecclesiastical and theological side effects.
The church is becoming a place where Christianity is nothing more than capitalism in drag. In his book Where Have All the Prophets Gone? Marvin McMickle, president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, asks what happened to the prophetic wing of the church. Why have we emphasized a personal ethic congruent with current structures and not a public theology steeped in struggle and weeping informed by the blues? McMickle’s book is instructive for us. He demonstrates the focus on praise (or the neo-charismatic movements) coupled with false patriotism—enhanced by the reactionary development of the tea party, the election of President Barack Obama, and personal enrichment preaching (neo-religious capitalism informed by the market, masquerading as ministry).
The blues has faded from the Afro-Christian tradition, and the tradition is now lost in the clamor of material blessings, success without work, prayer without public concern, and preaching without burdens. The blues sensibility, not just in preaching but inherent in American culture, must be recovered. We must regain the literary sensibility of Flannery O’Connor, Zora Neale Hurston, Ernest Hemingway, and James Baldwin; the prophetic speech of Martin Luther King Jr., William Sloane Coffin, and Ella Baker; along with the powerful cultural critique of Jarena Lee and Dorothee Sölle.
The blues, one of America’s unique and enduring art forms, created by people kissed by nature’s sun and rooted in the religious and cultural motifs of West Africa, must be recovered. The roots are African, but the compositions were forged in the humid Southern landscape of cypress and magnolia trees mingling with Spanish moss. It is more than music. The blues is a cultural legacy that dares to see the American landscape from the viewpoint of the underside.