Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Book Notes: The Gospel According to The Blues by Gary W. Burnett

When I opened a Christmas parcel and found, "The Gospel According to The Blues" by Gary Burnett inside, I was delighted. Here, two of my great loves and interests, Christian theology and Blues music meet together in one of my other great pleasures - reading books! I have far too many books about both of these subjects, on the one hand, commentaries, systematics, and topical monographs; on the other, (along with Blues CD's and DVDs), several books about The Blues in general (notably Paul Oliver and Robert Palmer), and several great biographies of various Bluesmen and women. Apart from James Cone's Spirituals and The Blues, and Stephen Nichols, Getting The Blues, I have not read a huge amount that combines both of these fascinations together, or seeks to explore the many aspects of the interactions between the two of them. The supposed dichotomy between the 'sacred' and the 'secular' exists nowhere more strongly than in the literature surrounding the Blues and the Gospel. Burnett's huge knowledge of both contemporary Christian theology, and the history of Blues makes his thoughtful contribution to this area, a most welcome addition to the genre.

One of the great strengths of this volume is Burnett's sketching in of the historical background from within which Blues emerged. His pithy, and well-researched summary of the main themes in African American post-bellum life is really excellent. Particularly illuminating (and I suspect, little-known), was his explanation of the systems by which Black Americans were exploited, long after Lincoln's emancipation proclamation became the thirteenth amendment. His explanation of the role of lynching in the South during 'redemption' is good; but it was his writing about the abuses of the legal system and the existence of neo-slavery at places such as Parchman Farm, that were especially illuminating.

Burnett clearly loves The Blues, and has a great knowledge of the genre, from its earliest manifestations amongst slave-songs, work-songs and amongst field-hollers, through its gestation in the Delta between the wars, its popularisation and the great female blues singers of the 20s, through the Northern migrations and electrification of the Blues after WWII and on to the present day. The 'listening guides' at the end of each chapter are really great too, much of the stuff listed is available online and can be enjoyed alongside the book.

Burnett's book is theologically intriguing too. His basic thesis is that the age-old supposed tension between the Blues and The Gospel is mistaken. Following James Cone, Burnett sees the Blues as African-American assertions of their essential humanity in the face of a de-humanising world. He regards the tension between the two as echoing a muddled vision of the gospel of Christ, which is a 'soul-only', escape-from-the-world, heavenly orientated faith, which is both hyper-individualistic and ignores the synoptic gospels, and only focuses on Romans and Galatians for its inspiration. If one starts, not with a gospel which seeks to liberate individuals from the world, but of God bringing his Kingdom to earth through Christ's life, death and resurrection; then the Gospel and the Blues might not be identical - but are at least facing in the same direction. That is to say - they both affirm the dignity of all people, and long for a better world, and inherently protest against present realities. In this Burnett clearly has been immersed in the writings of NT Wright who has rightly placed the "on earth as it is in heaven", dynamic back at the heart of New Testament faith - from where it should never have been jettisoned.

The difficulty I found in Burnett's otherwise enchanting book is that I felt he pressed some of 'New Perspective on Paul' type ideas a little too far; certainly in ways which detracted from the the overall thesis of the book. Perhaps not exploring his own personal theological idiosyncrasies in such detail would have given the book a broader appeal to Christians of various stripes. I wasn't sure that getting involved in the spat between Piper/Luther and Wright on justification by faith alone, was useful here; and it did take the book into confusing and complex territory. By attacking Piper, and asserting that a Pelagian reading of Matthew 25 was the centre of the gospel message, while also seeking to affirm Paul's message of grace and forgiveness, I was left slightly puzzled by what Burnett actually meant by 'the gospel'. While Piper represents one extreme, in terms of seeking to hammer down every loose end, flatten every paradox and reorder scriptural narratives into lists of eternal propositions; Burnett is possibly at the other extreme. Like reading Wright for long periods of time, the reader can be forgiven for thinking that the word 'gospel', is a fish too slippery to actually grasp! This is a shame; as the main thrust of the book is just great.

However one frames and understands the gospel, (and I would have more sympathy with Luther than Burnett does!), there is no doubt that the pursuit of justice is an essential, non-negotiable part of what it means to be a Christian. Equally, much of the Blues is a response to injustice; and Burnett tells the stories of several of the Blues players who lived in an unjust world and railed against it, such as Big Bill Broonzy's "Starvation Blues". It was said that Rev "Blind" Gary Davis in his blues sang of a better world to come; and central to the gospel is that this faith is not mere optimism, but personal faith in Jesus Christ who made it possible; is even now working it out, and who will bring it to pass.

From that main-theme, Burnett branches out in various directions in his explorations of The Blues and The Bible; with differing results. When he takes us to imagining Blind Willie Johnson dying alone in his burnt out house, rasping and growling his gospel-blues songs of irrepressible faith in God, it gives great force to his reminder that Christians are called to live as members of God's Kingdom, and give to the poor. Tellingly, Burnett also contrasts the joyous faith of many destitute Bluesmen, with the anxious consumerism that characterises life in the early 21st Century West. His reflections on banking, finance, economics and justice are short, shocking and stirring stuff. His explorations of Jesus' teaching on non-violence in the Sermon on The Mount, I thought mis-fired; as they were over-reliant on Walter Wink's eisegesis. I suspect that just too much was being read into some of the statements there.

I was, of course, interested in how Burnett would handle the "evil Blues", and the whole crossroads phenomenon, which has to be addressed in a book like this. His treatment is generally helpful (debunking myths, and subsuming the sinister-propaganda associated with Robert Johnson, Peetie Wheatstraw and co, beneath his humanity-affirming and Kingdom-of-God building narrative); although why he needed to go into slightly esoteric territory of discussing a non-personal devil, other than his own theological hobby-horse, I didn't get. What perhaps I was hoping for was a book which took the reality of evil more seriously, but applied the redemptive narrative of the gospel to music. We know that Bluesmen like Son House, and Lemon Jefferson alternated between gospel and blues; but that is a very secular/sacred divided model: what would redemption of the Blues look like? I would be interested to read more on this angle on the old debate.

One does not have to agree with every sentence in a book to gain a huge amount from it (nor do I suspect that Burnett would demand that the reader does agree with him on every point!). Finally, this book re-fired my love of The Blues, and embedded the cries for justice contained within it, more firmly into my understanding of my calling as a Christian. For that I am most grateful.

Some useful links:
Gary Burnett's excellent blog "Down at The Crossroads: Where The Blues and Faith Meet"  is here
The issues of slavery, forced labour, and justice raised in the book are being addressed at IJM: click here
The Gospel According to the Blues is available online here
I get a weekly dose of Blues and Gospel from a radio show called "The Gospel Blues Train with Lins Honeyman", click here to listen anytime.

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