[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.
THE DEATH of B.B. King this spring was marked by an outpouring of homage appropriate to the man’s talent, his influence on U.S. culture, and his fabled personal humility and generosity.
He started out picking cotton and singing on the street and ended as one of the most famous and honored men on earth—a classic rags-to-riches tale. But King wasn’t just a black Horatio Alger. And his story wasn’t just one of individual striving and achievement. King also understood that his art was rooted in the collective struggle of his people and that he was a part of that struggle.
I grew up about 30 miles from B.B. King’s Sunflower County, Miss., home, but I discovered him the same way most white people my age did, by hearing “The Thrill Is Gone” on the radio. It’s a recording that still jumps out of the speakers and grabs the heart. It starts with a mournful guitar melody. Then, behind verse two, an eerie, quavering wash of strings begins low in the mix and rises through the rest of the song. By the time King wails out to his lover, “I’m free from your spell, and now that it’s all over, all I can do is wish you well,” you knew you were hearing the last words of a dying man.
AN OLD Buddy Guy song is titled “First Time I Met the Blues.” I don’t remember the first time I met the blues, but I do remember that I was captivated by the music. For many years now, two of my passions have been listening to blues and studying the Bible. Gary W. Burnett, a lecturer in New Testament at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and an amateur blues guitarist, shares those passions. This book, he writes in the introduction, is his attempt “to combine in some ways these two passions and to be able to reflect on Christian theology through the lens of the blues.” He succeeds with a well-crafted synthesis of U.S. history, African-American history, the blues, and New Testament scholarship.
Blues music is one of the great contributions of African-American culture to the U.S. While rooted in the oppression of slavery and post-slavery Jim Crow, it speaks meaningfully to the experience of all people. It’s a music that grabs your soul and won’t let go. And Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is central to his message of life in the coming and present kingdom of God. It can also grab your soul and not let go. By juxtaposing blues lyrics with passages from the Sermon, Burnett shows the common themes that emerge.
The girl with the mobile garden dress -- cover songs by Iron & Wine -- kid reacts to first sip of root beer -- art from wine stains -- and Conan teaches first-graders how to sing the Chicago blues. See these in today's Links of Awesomeness...
It’s good to start a new year by remembering those who passed in the just concluded year. These aren’t the most famous (or infamous), and I didn’t know them personally (or, at best, had met several briefly), but their lives touched mine in three of my passions: American roots music, politics and public life, and baseball.