Review of Getting the Blues by Stephen J. Nichols
The subtitle of Getting the Blues, What Blues Music Teaches Us About Suffering & Salvation, is a major hint on where Dr. Nichols is going to take his study of blues music and the bluesmen and women which are described in his book.
Dr. Nichols is research professor of Christinity and culture at Lancaster Bible College. He has established his credentials for writing about Christianity and Culture when he wrote Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to the Passion of the Christ.
Dr. Nichols credentials for writing about blues music and the iconic blues artists is his deep love of the music.
From these two points of view Dr. Nichols brings a unique understanding about the blues, African American culture, and the American Christian experience. He starts presenting this unique understanding right away with sections such as
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.
This book attempts a theology in a minor key, a theology that lingers, however uncomfortably, over Good Friday. It takes its cue from the blues, harmonizing narratives of scripture with narratives of the Mississippi Delta, the land of cotton fields and cypress swamps and the moaning slide guitar. I am not a musician, but a theologian, and so I offer a theological interpretation of the lbues. Cambridge theologian Jeremy Begbie has argued for music's intrinsic ability to teach theology. As an improvisation on Begbie's thesis, I take the blues to be intrinsically suited to teach a particular theology, a theology in a minor key.
(pg 14 & 15)
A theology in a minor key is a continuing theme in the book. A theology in a minor key lingers over the pain, suffering and death of Jesus on the cross on Good Friday. A theology in a minor key reminds me (us) that my sin caused Jesus to be lashed by a whip and then nailed to a cross. But a theology in a minor key does not leave me (us) without hope but rather points me (us) to Easter morning. The day when all things were made new, including me (us).
Another area that Dr. Nichols writes about concerns how African American and evangelical (white) Christianity have different world views about the "promised land". Dr. Nichols writes:
There's a simple cosmology that dominates African American spirituals and the religious consciousness and theology that those spirituals forstered. There's Egypt, the place of bondage for them both as slaves and even in the pos-Reconstruction South. There's the exodus, sometimes symbolized in spirituals as the crossing of the Red Sea, and most times as the crossing of the Jordan River. Either symbol chiefly represents death, though in slavery times these symbols also represented freedom through the Underground Railroad. Finally, there's the Promised Land. This latter one looks on the surface to be heaven, but peering beneath the surface, one finds the hope that some, even just a bit, of that heaven would break through to life on earth. This fundamentally differs from the early non-African American religious cosmology, informed as it is by Puritan sensibilities. The Puritans dubbed the Old World as Egypt, the crossing of the Atlantic as the exodus and the New World as the Promised Land, as Zion, "the City upon a hill." Allan Dwight Callahan cleverly highlights the differences in these cosmologies: "The land that the puritan founders called the Promised Land has been Pharaoh's Egypt for African Americans."
(pg 134 & 135)
These fundamentally different cosmological views of the Promised Land combined with the hope of some 'heaven here and now' need to be deeply reflected upon by Christians in America. How much of our present strife and self-segregation comes about because the majority US culture (which has infected the church) sees the USA as the promised land but the African American culture still sees the USA as part of Egypt - a place of bondage?
Anytime I am left asking myself these kinds of questions I know that I have encountered truth. And truth often upsets my simple and personal view of the way the world works with a more complex and communal view of the world.
And isn't that what blues music is all about, the truth about life?