Today’s post is an interview with Gary Burnett (PhD), author of The Gospel According to the Blues. Burnett is a man of diverse talents. He is an honorary lecturer in New Testament in the Institute of Theology at Queens University Belfast (where he teaches New Testament and New Testament Greek), a Fellow of the British Computer Society, and with a parallel career in the software industry, he also runs a high tech business consultancy. He takes a keen interest in development work in India and in his spare time likes to surf, play his guitars, and listen to the blues. He is also the author of Paul and the Salvation of the Individual (2001) and the blues blog Down at the Crossroads.
OK, the title got my attention. Tell us what the book is about.
The Gospel According to the Blues reads Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount in conversation with Robert Johnson, Son House, and Muddy Waters, because thinking about the blues—the history, the artists, the songs—provides good stimulation for thinking about the Christian gospel.
Both are about a world gone wrong, about injustice, about the human condition, and both are about hope for a better world. So I look at both the gospel and the history of the blues as we find it in the Sermon on the Mount, to help us understand better the nature of the good news which Jesus preached, and its relevance and challenge to us.
I’ve tried to make the blues and the social history of the blues a sort of conversation partner for exploring some of the essential aspects of the gospel as we see it in the Sermon on the Mount.
So, along the way I discuss some questions like what is the gospel, and did Jesus and Paul preach the same gospel, and then I get into what I see as pretty central gospel issues like justice, peace, wealth and lifestyle, hope for the future and a few other things.
It seems to me that Jesus’s teaching is very radical, very far-reaching and, with one eye on the first century and one eye on the Southern States in the early twentieth century, I’ve tried to think through the relevance of the Sermon in our modern world. And as I did that I was consciously thinking about the whole world, not just our narrow little wealthy Western bit of the world.
The blues provides a great backdrop and provocative stimulation for thinking about the gospel.
Who is your audience?
It’s aimed at a number of audiences – if you’re a Christian who wants to explore more of what the gospel is about and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, then I think this will suit you. Clearly if you’re a music fan as well (not just a blues fan), then it’ll be of particular interest to you.
But I’m hoping also that people who are interested in music but maybe haven’t thought too much about Christian faith will read it as well – they might find an approach to the gospel that is a little different to what they might expect.
What can the blues tell us about Christian faith?
The blues are about a world gone wrong, about injustice, about the human condition, and maybe surprisingly to some people, about hope for a better world. So you can immediately begin to see how they might be a springboard to thinking about the gospel.
The blues grew up in a situation of considerable injustice and were in many ways a howl of protest and an expression of the pain of African Americans facing discrimination, racism and violence in the South during the period the blues emerged. So I look at the suffering and injustice, the violence, the “worried minds,” the lack of shalom of this community – in many ways reflecting the experience of many people around the world today – and use the way that all this is reflected in the lyrics of the blues to help me explore the import of Jesus’s teaching.
As a New Testament scholar, I’m aware of the social circumstances of the first Christians – typically the poor of the urban centres of the Roman Empire – and so I weave the context in which the gospel was first encountered into the mix and, I hope, give a coherent account of the meaning of the gospel. That’s the hope anyway!
The blues aren’t normally associated with the gospel—like it’s the “devil’s music” or something.
That’s often been said. And of course some of the artists – Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson, Peetie Wheatstraw, the Rolling Stones, even – deliberately courted notoriety by associating themselves with the devil. But a lot of this was PR. And of course, it’s true that some of the places the blues were played were pretty rough, to say the least.
But I look at all of that, and the fact that many of the blues artists switched back and forth between the blues and the church – and, also I get us thinking about the whole subject of the devil and evil, and what the gospel might have to say about all of that.
So I didn’t try to sanctify the blues – there are aspects of blues history and the blues genre which are not particularly wholesome, but at the same time, all human life is there, so to speak – actually, not unlike the Bible. So there’s a lot of fruitful ground to explore.
But of course there is a whole strand of the blues stretching from the early days right to the present that we might call gospel blues where artists like Blind Willie Johnson sang about their faith, often in the midst of the most desperate circumstances. Which is not dissimilar to the experience of many of the early Christians who found cause for joy and hope even in the face of the most desperate of circumstances.
So the blues aren’t all about despair and dejection?
Actually no. Of course they do indeed give voice to the lament of a suffering people. And that’s something that the modern church in the US and Europe needs to think about a lot more – and we get this aspect of faith reflected in our Old Testaments, don’t we, in the Psalms and so on?
The focus in our societies is making life as easy as possible and we can become dulled to the cry of pain and lament from others around the world whose lives are scarred by injustice. We need to re-discover those parts of our Bible that awaken us to the lament of the world; we need to hear Jesus blessing those who mourn.
Mourning for the cry of pain in the world is an essential part of our faith. And so, I think the blues help alert us to that cry of pain, not just from African Americans in the Southern States, but from communities all around the world.
But that’s not the whole story. Somehow the blues seem to manage to hope for a better day – “things about comin’ my way,” or “there must be a better world somewhere,” to quote a couple of songs.
And that’s where we have another intersection with the gospel. Not a hope for escape to some celestial palace when we die, but the hope that God will complete the world-transformation project which the New Testament speaks of, and that we can be a part, in some way, of that happening. This is what Jesus meant when he talked about his followers being peace-makers, shalom-makers – those that will exemplify and demonstrate God’s coming day of peace and justice.