The Blues in a Christian Key

Driving home across Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin the other day, I was enjoying the eclectic mix of music on my iPad.  Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me”, followed by Neil Young’s “Down by the River”, with some Mumford and Sons and onto something bluesy by Creedence Clearwater Revival.  Some how that bluesy number got me thinking about Christian music.

A major movement within worldwide Christianity is usually referred to as “contemporary music”, to distinguish it, I suppose, from the non-contemporary organ driven hymns written in 18th and 19th centuries English that too many church-goers consider sacred.  Yes, I have an issue with that, but maybe some other time.  All around the world Christians are taking music from their surrounding culture and adapting it for worship.  In North America, jazz, rock, pop, rap,Hip-Hop, soul, pick your favorite genre, are being used by Christian recording artists, and finding their way into church services.  I’ve heard it all except – I realized at that moment – the Blues.

If the Blues are about the sordid, miserable, broken side of human experience, then perhaps Christians have an instinctive aversion to the blues in their worship.  If Christian worship is understood as a celebration of God’s victory over evil, then a music genre devoted to the worst of human experience may seem out of place.

Perhaps you already see the irony in that.  Because Christian worship celebrates God’s victory over the blues – the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus is the ultimate answer to the blues.  Without acknowledging life’s blues, it’s hard to honestly give God praise.  How about these words from Psalms 22?

    I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters.

    I will praise you among your assembled people.

    Praise the Lord, all you who fear him!

    Honor him, all you descendants of Jacob!

    Show him reverence, all you descendants of Israel!

That would make a good organ-driven hymn wouldn’t it?  But first, the writer of Psalm 22 was singing the blues:

    But I am a worm and not a man.

    I am scorned and despised by all!

    Everyone who sees me mocks me.

    They sneer and shake their heads, saying,

    “Is this the one who relies on the Lord?

    Then let the Lord save him!

    If the Lord loves him so much,

    let the Lord rescue him! ”

Sounds like the blues to me!  Or how about this oldie but goodie?:

    Oh, oh, oh… How empty the city, once teeming with people.

    A widow, this city, once in the front rank of nations,

    once queen of the ball, she’s now a drudge in the kitchen.

    She cries herself to sleep each night, tears soaking her pillow.

    No one’s left among her lovers to sit and hold her hand.

    Her friends have all dumped her.

Nope, not Muddy Waters.  Lamentations 1:1-2.  How could you put that book from the Bible to music with any style other than the Blues (or Job for that matter)? But from Jeremiah’s blues comes praise for God in Lamentations 3:

    But there’s one other thing I remember,

    and remembering, I keep a grip on hope:

    GOD’s loyal love couldn’t have run out, his merciful love couldn’t have dried up.

Sing the Blues in church?  Maybe, maybe not.  But I noticed in church this week that our time of confession was an expression of the blues, and every prayer request was lifting up the blues for God to overcome.   But wouldn’t some good hard Blues be good on Good Friday?  Or every so often during Lent – the times Christians traditionally express sorrow?  If I were still planning those kinds of things I might try it- but then again, maybe I was too edgy at times.

It is the resurrection of Jesus, not the cross, that ultimately shapes the nature of the Christian faith; the up-beat bouncy-ness of pop more than the mournful soul-ness of the blues.  But I want to suggest that the blues – both as a style of music and as a metaphor – has its place in Christianity.  I mean, hey!  The Bible is full of the Blues.  And any Christian who insists that life is all sunshine and lollipops because Jesus rose again, needs to start downloading some serious Blues music, ’cause God’s victory over the blues is present tense, as well as once for all time.

Last Friday my wife went out with the office staff for a little end of the season celebrating.  Some of the younger ladies are living the blues – families that put the “dis” in dysfunctional, alcohol and drug abuse, poverty, betrayed relationships – the full range of life’s misery.  If they were invited to church, maybe hearing some Blues, some lamenting, a recognition of life’s misery, would help them connect, and hear the message, “Jesus’ empty tomb is the only blues beater there truly is”.

Beats me.  I like the music genre of the Blues, and just got to wondering why I never hear it from Christian recording artists or in church.  I can’t help thinking that maybe I should.


6 thoughts on “The Blues in a Christian Key

  1. First, This is a longer conversation we need to have.
    Second, Have I shared with you Kelly Joe Phelps “Roll Away The Stone”?
    Third, The legend has it that “The Crossroads” is where you choose Gospel or Blues, sacred or secular. The choice is a myth, as you eloquently stated.
    Fourth and to be continued, Gospel and Blues are inextricable. In the old Gospel tunes, there was a “moaning verse” where the congregation would moan in a way that no words could convey for the Holy Spirit to interpret. In American popular music, that became the bent notes of the saxaphone in Jazz, the lead guitar solo in Blues/Rock n Roll, the harmonica in Blues/Folk and the steel guitar in Blues/Country.

    • Heh, Heh. Kinda wondered how you would respond. Figured your time at EMP would be insightful. But then, I’m only trying to comment on an observation, without any supporting evidence – just a former preacher, making gross generalizations!

  2. Rev. Kittleman (a.k.a. Minister of Rock and Roll) –
    Funny how that title still fits you! But with 30 plus years of life between then and now, ordination and a pastoral career, evolving perspectives on life that few of us will fully comprehend, and now as demonstrated by this blog entry, the connotations of that title have definitely expanded a bit. I enjoyed your insights. Could explain one of the reasons why I’ve come to like the blues so much. True confessions though, I still find myself on occasion trying to figure out how to honestly give God praise while acknowledging life’s blues. But its not my intent to open up that discussion here. I’ll save that for another time. Instead, like “Skeeb” did before me with Kelly Joe Phelps,if you aren’t already familiar with Todd Agnew, I’d like to introduce his “Reflection of Something” and “Grace Like Rain.” I for one am glad to hear that Christian music isn’t totally void of the blues and the honesty that gives birth to it.

    • Nice. Yes, I have become introduced to KJP and enjoy the music. I’l find some Todd Agnew. As to praise with the blues, i don’t believe it is supposed to be easy. What would be the significance in that? 🙂 Thanks for looking me up.

  3. Starting about 15 years ago, I began learning that acknowledging my pain, my questions, my fears is prerequisite to entering into praise or experiencing God’s identification with my state and his power over my brokenness. I can’t avoid or gloss over what’s going on in the deepest depths of my heart if I want to take part in God’s comfort, healing and victory. It is often a painful process, often humbling in the extreme and doesn’t always end in perfect peace, at least not at the moment, but it is always a learning, maturing experience and God has shown himself to be trustworthy and faithful, and his word to be true. I have learned to ‘sing the blues’ in order to make room to be filled with God’s life-giving gifts.

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