The Sanctified Blues?

“The Blues” as a genre has become a part of the American culture in more ways than most people realize. Many phrases in the modern vernacular find their origins in blues music. Rock-and-Roll find its roots in the blue. In fact, this weekend my wife and I even saw the blues on the top funniest moments in TV history (The “Justine Justine” scene from the Cosby show). In a recent article Stephen Nichols asks if the blues have anything to do with theology. 

Nichol’s article is quite thought provoking.  I even came home and listened to some Muddy Waters after reading this article.  Quite frankly, it is hard to get theology out of “…if the river were whiskey, and I was a diving duck…”  However, I think that Nichols makes an interesting point in his article.  Let me see If I can sum up was Nichols has to say, and elaborate with some of my own thoughts.  

Here is a key quote from Nichols,

Muddy Waters and a host of other blues artists may not be a direct part of the past of many of us, us meaning white, middle-class, suburban American evangelicals. For us, the experience of Mississippi Delta sharecroppers is as distant and foggy as the faded black & white photo montage of it on a PBS documentary. But, that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from it, and that we can’t learn something about our theology from it. In fact, because it is so distant from us, what we can learn from it is all the more pressing, all the more imperative.

The point is that the majority of evangelicals in this country do not even have a paradigm to understand the suffering and oppression that expressed itself through the blues. 

Given the above point, the question still remains, does blues music have anything to do with theology.  The answer to that is yes and no.  The music itself is not theological, however the worldview behind blues music represents an understanding of this world that is in some ways biblical.  Nichols provides the example of Naomi,

This theology in a minor key can be seen in the book of Ruth. The character Ruth gets all the attention. The book is even named for her. Next comes Boaz, the symbol of strength and compassion, the Alpha Male with a sensitive side. And, don’t forget the baby, Obed. He’s the father of Jesse, the father of David, the father of—skipping a bit—Joseph. But, the main character in the book, who Andre LoCocque refers to as the “central character” to whom the narrative “incessantly relate[s]”, is the one who tends to get overlooked: the mother-in-law, the widow, Naomi.

Naomi’s story begins with a double note of distress: it was the time of Judges—not Israel’s most stellar moment—and there was a famine in the land (1:1). Out of desperation she and her husband and sons left Bethlehem for Moab. Ten years, two marriages, and three deaths later, she returned with her daughter-in-law, who was clinging to her like a burr to a dress. When Naomi met up with her old friends, she told them to no longer call her Naomi, which means pleasant, but to call her Mara, meaning bitter. Then she pealed off a blues lyric:

I went away full, and I came back empty.

The fuller version reads, “and the Lord has brought me back empty” (Ruth 1:21). I can’t think of a more honest statement of the human condition. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “A great loneliness has descended upon our age.” As part of life under the curse, we’re all empty. We’re just good at camouflaging it or anesthetizing ourselves to it. It takes a widow, one who has had everything stripped away, to tell us the truth.

It’s worth lingering a bit over Naomi’s statement, uncomfortable as that may be. She reminds us of something that we have lost in our age, to reflexively think of ourselves as empty, as under the curse. What Naomi said of herself is precisely what happened at Eden, what happened to Adam and Eve, and what is true of all their sons and daughters. What is true for Naomi is true for us. In the garden, Adam and Eve were full. Now, they are empty, and so is Naomi, and so are we.

The question that I was left with after reading this article was, “Is it OK for a child of God to have the blues?”  After much reflection I think that the answer is yes.  A child of God can -and should- have the blues in come circumstances.  The best biblical evidence of this is the book of Lamentations.  In fact, what we call the blues may be the closest thing that we have to the genre presented in the book of Lamentations.  In Lamentations we find Jeremiah lamenting (singing the blues) because Judah had been taken into captivity.  Jeremiah was lamenting not because his girl left him, or he lost his job, but rather because God’s people had been oppressed.  Additionally, Jeremiah closes his lamenting by acknowledging the Lord control, and appealing to His mercy.  Maybe you could call this “the sanctified blues.” 

I think that the Church today could gain a lot by having “the sanctified blues” from time to time.  There is plenty to lament over!  It would be far more appropriate for us to come together and lament over sin before we turn to God in dependence (see the above model from Lamentations), than to come together and sing happy songs that never deal with sin or repentance.