The orthodoxy of the blues

The orthodoxy of the blues August 23, 2016


The seventh chapter of my book How Jesus Saves the World From Us is about Christian orthodoxy. I gave it the title “Communion Not Correctness,” because the ultimate purpose of having orthodox Christian theology is to gain the deepest possible communion with God, not just to have correct answers. In my book, I used the metaphor of a blues open jam to describe the healthiest understanding of orthodoxy. Here’s an excerpt from that chapter.

My favorite blues bar in North Carolina was a place called the Blue Bayou that held open jams every Tuesday night. Musicians would sign up on a clipboard, and different combinations would be called up to play together. We could play songs together with complete strangers because the blues have a straightforward “orthodoxy” that fits just about every song. The blues use a pentatonic scale that isn’t major or minor but a mix of the two. Most blues songs follow two chord progressions called 8-bar and 12-bar blues. So if you learn the scale and these chord progressions, you can play along with almost any blues song.

There is no one “correct” way to play a blues song. Every time that a classic like “Stormy Monday” is played, it’s a different song. Sometimes it feels right to play it with a driving rhythm; at other times it barely crawls. Sometimes the singer belts out every word; at other times the vocals need to be understated. Sometimes you have a harmonica in the mix; sometimes you don’t.

It’s more important to find the right groove with the other musicians on the stage than to play the exact notes of the original recording. You need communion, not correctness. The song is right when you’re so tuned into the other musicians and the soul of the song that the song starts playing you. Your hands move with an instinct that comes from beyond you. You find riffs you never knew you could play. Your whole body gets covered in sweat. Sometimes your fingers even bleed.

There are two ways to ruin a blues open jam. One is if somebody decides to solo the whole time. When one player is soloing, it’s critical for every other player to vamp, which means to play minimalistic chords and notes that keep the rhythm going. Everybody is supposed to take turns vamping and soloing. But sometimes a diva insists on soloing the whole time and makes everybody else sit back and vamp. Mature musicians care more about maintaining the groove of the song than showing off.

The other way to ruin an open jam is to have a band leader who stops the song when it’s being played “incorrectly.” You’re supposed to roll with the mistakes. Mature musicians adapt what they’re doing to cover up the mistakes of the least skilled player in the jam. The one thing you cannot do is stop the song in the middle of an open jam because somebody messed up. The level of improvisation within the blues means that everybody is always messing up and fixing their mistakes on the fly.

I believe that Christian theology is a lot like the blues. The church is packed with millions of amateur theologians who need to learn the basic scales and chord progressions of Jesus to play God’s song together. The goal of theology is to make it possible for a wide range of human personalities to find God’s groove and experience communion together. It’s more important for the song to be playable for millions of people than to be perfect so only a few can play it right.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t always be refining our grasp of the divine groove. Nor is it to say that we shouldn’t weed out bad theology that ruins our jam session. Major theological errors compromise our connection to God. It’s like playing with a guitar that lacks two of its strings. Your song will have a hole in it. On the other hand, it’s impossible to play God’s song perfectly. If you throw down your guitar every time somebody plays an incorrect note, then you’re going to wind up playing by yourself…

A commonly misunderstood word is orthodoxy, which Christians use to define what’s “in” and “out” theologically. The ortho part means “straight” or “right.” The doxa part depends on whether you’re talking to Aristotle or Paul. For Aristotle and other pagan philosophers, the Greek word doxa meant “opinion.” It was often used to talk about the popular opinion in the street. For followers of Aristotle, orthodoxy means having the “right opinion.” But Paul used the word doxa in a completely different way. Following the lead of those who translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek, Paul uses the word doxa to mean “glory.”

If Paul is right, then orthodoxy means “right glory” instead of “right opinion.” Glory is a tough word to define. It describes an aura that fills the room and give everybody goose bumps. It happens when an athlete makes an incredible play that makes everyone jump out of their seats or when a song comes on that makes everyone start dancing. That’s what God’s truth is like. It’s not a hard, dull sentence filled with facts. It’s a glowing resonance that overwhelms our hearts the deeper we dive in.

The best biblical passage I’ve found that captures “right glory” comes from 2 Corinthians 3:17–18: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

Orthodoxy happens when we play God’s song with such humility, freedom, and genuine love that the veils of our sin and insecurity are cast aside, so that we can see the full glory of the Lord. We are transformed from one degree of glory into another, as the Holy Spirit makes the song start playing us, in communion with one another and with the divine.

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