THE BLOG
09/29/2015 06:54 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2016

Bluesin' the Gospel

Despite its essential role in opening the way to other musical forms, the blues remains a bit of a niche genre. I remember touring the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame in Cleveland, where the blues were presented, along with bluegrass and gospel, as a precursor to rock. At that moment I determined to sample blues music from the early part of the twentieth century. Having grown up in Florence, Alabama, where the "Father of the Blues" W. C. Handy was born, the journey felt important to me. Gary Burnett, a biblical scholar, musician, and blues aficionado, says lots more learning awaits me. His "The Gospel According to the Blues" (Cascade, 2014) argues that listening to the blues might put us in better touch with the message of Jesus. (Check out Burnett's blog, Down at the Crossroads.)

Some might object that Burnett isn't necessarily blazing new trails. Decades ago Robert L. Short got the smart idea of writing "The Gospel According to Peanuts." It's hard to believe, but 14 years have passed since Mark I. Pinsky published "The Gospel According to the Simpsons." For all I know, somebody's done "The Gospel According to Star Trek". Maybe even "The Gospel According to Men's Fitness." With all such books the challenge requires doing more than simply establishing points of contact and organizing the material chapter by chapter. The book needs to add value. Burnett makes his book worth our time in two ways.

First, he takes seriously the social history and context from which the blues emerged, and he reads the Bible as literature that addresses social, economic, and imperial exploitation. Burnett sets forth the legacy of slavery and ongoing economic exploitation that imposed untold misery on Southern blacks. Beyond poverty, despair, and disease, Burnett plumbs the pervasive fear that marked black life. A woman's body was never safe from white men who wanted to act violently against her. A man who ventured for a walk could find himself imprisoned and put to hard labor, truly enslaved under deadly working conditions, under the pretense of vagrancy laws and other petty offenses. And of course there was the steady presence of white terrorism, imposed through arson, lynching, and riots. Burnett has read his history. Even a well-informed US citizen (Burnett is Irish) will find Burnett's historical work educational.

Second, Burnett ventures beyond comparison to argue that attention to the blues brings into clear view critical aspects of the gospel. He doesn't say it exactly, but he suggests that hearing the blues might make us better Christians.

The blues . . . is at once laments, cries for justice, howls of protest, and songs of hope for a better future. That being the case . . . the blues is a fertile ground for reflecting on the gospel of Jesus Christ, given the important roles that lament, justice, protest, and hope play in it.

Burnett begins by noting that the Bible itself features lots of the blues: lament, protest, even eroticism and hope. He then sketches the fertile soil that yielded the blues: the economically constricted, socially oppressed black culture of the Mississippi Delta, heir to the realities of slavery and of the African American spirituals. Barnett cites James Cone, the pioneering black theologian who has himself investigated the blues in depth and identified the blues as "a secular spiritual." One topic at a time, Burnett wades into familiar aspects of the blues and brings them into conversation with the biblical witness: justice, violence, economic disparities, hope, commercialism, empire, and the twin ailments of poverty and anxiety. All these concerns express themselves in both the music and the Bible.

I found particularly interesting Burnett's exploration of the devil's role in the blues imagination. As a secular alternative to church music, the blues was often cast as the devil's music. But blues musicians also sang about the devil's evil influence on their lives - while on the contrary some attributed their own musical and erotic talents to Ole Scratch. Drawing upon the work of Walter Wink, Burnett acknowledges that modern readers may recoil from the idea of a devil lurking in the shadows to wreak mayhem. But evil often seems to transcend individual human choice, affecting our lives at a transpersonal, systemic level. The blues recognize this reality, as did New Testament authors.

Given the nature of these topics, the book struggles at times with organization. After all, how does one analyze commercialism apart from empire, poverty apart from economic justice? Chapters seem to repeat one another. For example, we encounter basically the same biographical sketch of the great Blind Willie Johnson multiple times. Sometimes it seems we're reviewing comparisons for comparison's sake rather than lending insight to the blues and to the gospel.

On the other hand, Burnett has done his homework by engaging an enormous range of blues musicians and consulting theologians and biblical scholars like Cone, Wink, and N. T. Wright. Wright, who maintains that Jesus proclaimed God's renewal of this world rather than a pie in the sky salvation in the afterlife, particularly shapes Burnett's interpretation of Christian hope. The blues knows horrific suffering. A native Alabamian born in the 1960s, I remember the sharecropper shacks that the defined rural highways of my youth, signs of abject poverty and hopelessness. With no realistic hope that poor housing, short life expectancies, pervasive violence, and the like would ever go away, the blues refuse to give up hope. "The blues are black," Burnett acknowledges, emerging in particular histories and circumstances. Those of us with different social zip codes may join in, but always as newcomers.

The blues do not receive a free pass in this book. Blues culture frequently gives voice to violence and misogyny, often packaged together just as the occur in real life. To his credit, Burnett acknowledges these realities.

At the end of the book, I'm left with a troubling question. Jesus did indeed announce God's kingdom to people who knew poverty and violence. Burnett celebrates this. Yet Jesus' life brought no fundamental transformation of those conditions. How, then, do the kinds of lament and hope we encounter in the blues and the gospel make things better? Is it simply that we need to voice our pain and invent hope in order to move forward? According to Burnett, the Jesus movement established flesh and blood communities that resisted the values of domination and exploitation, looking after one another in practical ways. Do we find such transformational power in the blues?