Preachin’ the Blues

Preachin’ the Blues July 5, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-07-03 at 2.27.43 PMBy Revd Dr Michael J. Lakey, Ripon College Cuddesdon, Oxford, UK. Michael Lakey’s own new book Academic Vocation in the Church and Academy Today (eds. Shaun C. Henson, Michael J. Lakey) is out later this year. For details visit the Ashgate website:

A review of Gary W. Burnett, The Gospel According to the Blues.

One possible way in which race and religious history has featured in recent biblical and ethical debate can be seen in Richard Burridge’s, Imitating Jesus (2007).  In this volume, historical debates over race provide opportunities for a type of hermeneutical triangulation involving the Bible, an example debate (slavery, apartheid), and some other matter of present-day practice, most often gender or sexuality.  Of course, to treat an issue as a hermeneutical exemplar in this manner is, however tacitly, to suggest that it might be en route to being successfully resolved, or at least settled enough to be safe to employ.

However, as I write this short review article (several weeks late, as it happens), I am excruciatingly aware from recent events[1] that the issue of race and religion in America and elsewhere has not been ‘put to bed’ with anything approaching adequacy.  There is still a long way to travel!

It is for this reason that The Gospel According to the Blues,[2] by Dr Gary Burnett (Queen’s University Belfast), is a timely volume.  Dr Burnett writes not to deploy the history of race and religion in America in the service of this or that ethical debate.  Besides the New Testament (NT), his great obsession is African-American roots music—the blues.  This book is, in effect, the result of a three-way conversation between Dr Burnett’s study of the Sermon on the Mount, of the historical experience of African Americans living and making music under Jim Crow, and of some recent works in the field of Black Theology.  As such, it does more than to testify to the myriad ways in which the emotional, conceptual and narrative register of the Bible can frame ever new cultural forms of lament, praise, protest and witness.  Rather, it shows Blues-making to be an effective form of contextual hermeneutics, a mode of drawing on a text to articulate a community’s experience in a way that permits that community’s experience to shed light upon the text.  What makes Dr Burnett’s study significant is that he does due diligence to both of these settings: neither the ancient nor the modern horizon swallows up the other.

In part, this is because Dr Burnett does such a fine job of demonstrating the analogies that exist between the historically-distant communities of the early Jesus movement and of African Americans in the 19th-20th C postbellum South.  He carefully guides his readers through the main themes of the Blues: suffering (pp.15-29); justice and injustice (pp.30-44); violence (pp.45-60); hope (pp.61-75); material wealth (pp.76-90); and the reality of evil (pp.91-111).  At each stage, the ensuing analysis of Blues lyrics is rich in historical, political and biographical information, and is accompanied by genuine connections made to Burnett’s reading of Matthew 5-7.  This is underpinned with recent scholarship on the experience of occupation in the Roman Imperial Period, which helps to show the elements of commonality of experience among oppressed peoples.  The result is not only hermeneutically, but homiletically interesting.  There is something about the ‘feel’ of the argument of this book that is shared with good Gospel preaching!

In terms of one or two evaluative observations, this is an extremely effective piece of accessible interdisciplinary work.  In addition to this, it is immensely readable.  Indeed, it was sufficiently engaging to hold this reader’s attention so that the entire book was completed in a single sitting.  It can also be usefully employed as a study guide: the ‘Recommended Listening’ sections at the end of each main chapter are superb, and demonstrate the author’s mastery of his chosen field.

More generally, it rather feels as though in this book an idea has come full circle.  The work of James C. Scott in the early 1990s,[3] regarding the various cultural ‘transcripts’ at play in the discourses of dominated peoples, helped to provide a theoretical framework for subsequent NT work on the experience of empire and on the aspects of NT writings that run counter to the then prevailing imperial ideology (e.g. Horsley, Wright, McKnight, Oakes).  Since much of Scott’s initial data relates to the experience of African Americans, it is highly apt for Dr Burnett to use this specific sub-field of NT studies to illuminate African American Blues ‘transcripts’.

There is a human depth to the experiences of domination narrated in the Blues and in the NT.  Dr Burnett has rightly found some of the places in which one deep calls out to another.

[1] I write this a fortnight after the Charleston massacre.

[2] Gary W. Burnett, The Gospel According to the Blues. Eugene, OR.: Cascade Books, 2014, Pp. viii+162, ISBN: 978-1-62032-725-8.

[3] James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance. Yale: Yale UP, 1992.

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