Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Stepen J. Nichols Is Getting the Blues

I've been reading Stephen Nichols wonderful little book, Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us About Suffering and Salvation (Brazos, 2008).

As an African-American reader, I found this an encouragingly bold book. Nichols is fast becoming one of my favorite writers for that reason. Let me explain.

I think I can count on one hand the number of evangelical authors who happily deal with expressions of Christianity outside of "white Christianity." Frankly, that's a little like eating fruit from one small corner of a vast vineyard, neglecting the fruit in other plots of the same vineyard because they don't grow nearest to you. A few historians and theologians show courage by wandering into the wider vineyard of God and sampling choice fruit from those branches. Nichols is one.

In Getting the Blues he ventures into the world of African Americans. And not just any African Americans, but the hard scrabble, scabbed knuckle world of 1920-1940s Mississippi Delta blues-singing African Americans. Go 'head Stephen!

In Getting the Blues, Nichols starts with a helpful admission, one not frequently made by writers. He admits there is a world he doesn't understand and enter into frequently enough, a world with experiences that enrich his own. Nichols asks, "Why read stories and listen to songs of tragedy and loss, despair and alienation?" His answer which he "is only beginning to appreciate" is "I read and listen to stories of these less-than-pleasant elements of life in order to understand, so that I can hear and see that which I don't always hear and see."

Nichols continues: "By just about any standard, my upbringing and current status, hovering around middle-class American culture, has made my life far simpler than the lives of hosts of my fellow human beings throughout our common history. This is not to minimize the challenges and trials, ordeals and sufferings of those in my family or circle of friends, or those of us who are (mostly white) suburban Americans. Still, we enjoy many blessings not experienced by previous generations or by all peoples. I'm not lamenting these blessings--simply recognizing that sometimes they come at a price. They can cause us to miss some vital elements of life.

"We American evangelicals are as likely as anybody else 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" (pp. 13-14).

This is refreshing honesty and humility, a self-awareness that's both helpful to the person who makes such an admission and to those of us being studied. Nichols enters the world of the blues--not as some distant, "objective" student of native curiosities but as a sympathizer, one who enters the experience of others as his own. This makes the reading very smooth and peculiarly human.

Others have taken a look at the blues as a source for theological reflection. James Cone published his The Spiritual and the Blues in 1992. In 1955, Howard Thurman reflected on the spirituals with some thoughts about the blues as well in Deep River. But, to my knowledge, this is the first time a white evangelical has ventured into this ground to make theological reflection as well. And he interacts with awareness and respect with a wide range of writers who've thought about the blues. The writer and the book then demonstrate an awareness of others consistent with his hope of learning from others, but delivered in a smooth style that avoids burdening the reader.

Getting the Blues provides a very friendly introduction to the music of the Delta and the many people who popularized it. The reader will meet with fun-hearted and sometimes serious biographies of blues greats from the Delta area as well as a good survey of many songs themselves. The book is organized into six main chapters:

1. What Hath Mississippi to Do with Jerusalem? A Theologian Explores the World of the Blues
2. I Be's Troubled: Blues, the Bible, and the Human Condition
3. Man of Sorrows: David's Blues
4. Woman of Sorrows: Naomi's Blues
5. Precious Lord: Harmonizing the Curse and the Cross
6. Come Sunday: Living in This World, Longing for the Next

Nichols maintains that the blues and the people who gave us the Delta blues is a music "haunted by Christ." In the genre of the blues, Nichols traces the biblical theological themes of creation, fall, and redemption. It's a Christ-centered treatment done in the minor key. The blues has long been thought of as "the devil's music," but Nichols shows that all things exist under the reign of Christ and the careful observer will catch glimpses of Him even in the juke joints and chitlin' circuit of the Delta.

If you struggle to understand the minor key of life--Christian and non-Christian--this book may help. If you're interested to see the echoes of Christ in cultural achievement, this book will help. If you're in need of entering experiences not your own so that you might understand life more fully, this book will help and be a joy.

Read Nichols and be introduced to a new world. But when you've finished reading Nichols, go read those who actually lived in that world or a world like it. Nichols is a sure guide. But there is something about "the horse's mouth" that I think Nichols would encourage.

Thanks Stephen for serving us so well.


ajcarter said...

Hey T,

Nichols is becoming a favorite of mine as well. I like his insight, his grasp of history, and his ability to engagingly communicate it. I am looking forward to reading this book.

c.c. said...

i really want to read this!

Tordesque said...

In the 2005 Jan/Feb Modern Reformation there is an article by William Edgar in this same vein. I think you will find it edifying.

Char said...

Hi, I just wanted to say thanks for letting us know about this book. I hadn't heard of it before and now I very much want to read it.

Honestly it's hard to objectively observe the country blues. It draws you in to it's world with it's frank rawness. Viceral and powerful, I would agree it ultimately speaks of Christ because it speaks of life as it is. It is more honest than any of us really find comfortable.

theinscrutableone said...

I've not read this book, but it sounds like it would be right up my alley. I occasionally listen to the music that's covered by this book. It's hard to find a clearer and more honest testimony of the consequences of sin than is found in the country blues of the early 20th Century.

In the world of cinema, I've discovered that some movies of the so-called "film noir" genre can be of similar interest insofar as they illustrate the depravity of human nature and the consequences of sinful choices. In the world of noir, no one is truly and purely good: both the bad and the not-quite-so-bad are tainted by sin. In the end, all suffer the consequences of their evil to some degree. Although there's little redemption to be found in noir (besides the not-so-bad but not-very-good guy who decides to turn noble in the end and lay down his life for someone else), there can be much insight into the evil that's deeply embedded in every human heart.