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Feb 2012

Getting the Blues | What Blues Music Teaches Us About Suffering and Salvation

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. – Psalm 51:1-3

The Psalter gives us ample instruction in how to come before God in a proper way, bearing the frequent suffering which this world brings upon us. Serious illness and severe loneliness before God and men, threat, persecution, imprisonment, and whatever conceivable peril there is on earth are known by the Psalms. They do not deny it or try to deceive us about it with pious words. They allow it to stand as a severe attack on the faith. Occasionally they no longer focus on suffering, but they all complain to God. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, 46-47.

I think a lot about our congregation. I think about how diverse we are generationally, and I thank God for not only the older saints he has placed in our midst, but the younger ones who stream in every week. I think about how diverse we are racially, and I thank God that He is building a church where we can truly say, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).”

A vision that I keep coming back to for our Sunday gatherings comes from the vision that we are given of heaven in Revelation by John; one where every nation is assembled before the throne of God, offering up praise (Revelation 5:13; 7:9-10). In thinking about this incredible display of worship, I move to perhaps what all of Redemption Hill might look like, and sound like, worshipping before the throne of God. Old, young, black, and white. This has lead me to much personal, and musical, soul-searching as I pray and reflect upon this.

One idea that I have spent a great deal of time exploring is this: What if the way forward musically was actually a looking back to the old gospel music that permeated many of the churches in the South, particularly Richmond? Music of The Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson, and Edwin Hawkins to name a few. Music birthed not only out of spirituals, suffering, and “the blues,” but out of a hope that Christ alone would save. This music had a broad appeal among both black and white churches, and still does today. A book that I recently picked up on the subject was Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us About Suffering and Salvation by Stephen J. Nichols. The book was extremely helpful for me in dealing with this subject, and seems particularly appropriate during this Lenten season.

I don’t want to review Nichols opus as much as I would rather commend it to you, and wet your appetite for it, as there are already some great reviews out there, including Thabiti Anyabwile’s wonderful review at The Gospel Coalition blog. The book is a musical journey through the early 20th century Mississippi Delta, looking at a “theology in the minor key,” the blues. Too many American Christians, Nichols writes, live life as though it is always “spring and summer without winter or fall. Or always Easter and never Good Friday” (14). Nichols states that this kind of attitude is simplistic and naive at best, borderline blasphemous at worst. This is because it is a rejection of the experience and intent of Jesus Christ, who, though fully God, left the spring and summer of heaven to take on flesh, and dwell in the winter and fall of earthly life.

Nichols takes us on a tour of the world of the Delta Blues as well, introducing us to some of its key figures, including: Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Ma Rainey, Son House, and Charley Patton. I even find myself inspired to start nicknaming some of the people around here, even though blues nicknames tend to be a little repetitive (Blind Zach Banister, Blind Ryan Burns, and The Reverend Blind Robert Greene).

The blues is a congregation that sings on Saturday night in expectation of Sunday. (171)

Nichols wants us know that the blues are more than just music. They are a song of the human condition; physically, socially, and spiritually. They are a window into our depravity, and in it we feel the reaction of our soul to sin. The blues force us to deal with the realities of life. The woman who “done me wrong,” the death of friends, the allure of “the bottle”. Yet at the same time, while in the midst of dealing with so much trouble, the blues points us to the hope of things to come. That glorious Sunday morning when all will be made right, and salvation will surely come.

We American evangelicals are as likely as anybody to be missing something when it comes to a fuller view of life and humanity. In addition, we just might be overlooking something in the pages of scripture. C.S. Lewis wrote hauntingly of Narnia, where it was always winter and never Christmas. For many American evangelicals, life is like always having spring and summer without winter or fall.  Or always Easter and never Good Friday. Not everything, however – in life or in the Bible – plays out in a major key. (14)

This idea of a “theology in a minor key” is a theme that threads its way throughout the book. It lingers over the pain, suffering, and death of Jesus on the cross on Good Friday. It reminds us that our sin caused Jesus to be lashed by a whip, and then nailed to a cross. It doesn’t leave us without hope though, but rather points us to Easter morning. The day when all things were made new, including us. I’ll leave you with what I believe is the heart of the book, which is Nichol’s statement on the blue’s connection to Christ:

Well before the blues showed up, Christ inhabited Negro spirituals. According to “Daniel Saw the Stone,” Christ was the stone cut from the mountain without hands. He was the deliver, the one who could make a way out of nowhere. He was the good shepherd, restoring the lost sheep. When the blues came around, Christ remained. He bore the curse, he suffered exile and abandonement, he was the Man of Sorrows. The blues, like the writings of Flannery O’Connor, need not mention him in every line or in everty song, but he haunts the music just the same. At the end of the day, he resolves the conflict churning throughout the blues, the conflict that keeps the music surging like the floodwaters of the Mississippi River. Christ resolves the conflict precisely because he enters the conflict itself. He is Emmanuel, God with us, which ultimately makes him God for us. (15)

I can’t recommend this book enough, as in the end, it exposes us to more than just the blues music, but reveals the reason the blues exist. We are living in a painful and cursed world, awaiting the day when God will set all things right, but are also striving to change our world for the better in the meantime. God’s ways are difficult to understand, but He is still merciful and present. The blues are the truth of the curse of sin, but there is another truth present as well. The truth of grace, the truth of the cross, the truth of Jesus Christ who broke into the human condition, lived a human life and conquered death. Singing the blues means recognizing both these truths.



Jake Belue

February 24 2012 Reply

Great post! I just ordered the book.

Glenn Pullin

February 27 2012 Reply

Thanks Shelby. The Blues, and Southern Gospel speak to people where they are, not where they want to be, will be, or should be. It exposes our bent for sin vocally and commiserates with the reality of how that sin is ever before us. It provides for many that opportunity to “confess” lyrically and musically our wretched state before man and God which is a step towards redemption. I grew up on Gospel. The ultimate victory was found “Just over into Gloryland” where there’d be a “Mansion Just Over The Hilltop”. The journey then and now is the same, for He is the same. Only the scenery has changed. Thanks for putting this out there. Bet there are lots of other closet Blues lovers like me out there.

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