Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us about Suffering and Salvation


From the Promised Land to the Mississippi Delta

David expresses his dark side in the Psalms.

The prophets cry out in anguish and condemn social injustices.

And Paul bemoans his frailty as a man.

In Getting the Blues, Stephen Nichols examines this dissonance in the Bible—what he calls "theology in a minor ...

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From the Promised Land to the Mississippi Delta

David expresses his dark side in the Psalms.

The prophets cry out in anguish and condemn social injustices.

And Paul bemoans his frailty as a man.

In Getting the Blues, Stephen Nichols examines this dissonance in the Bible—what he calls "theology in a minor key"—and leads readers in a vivid exploration of how blues music offers powerful insight into the biblical narrative and the life of Jesus.

Subtly weaving Bible stories together with intriguing details of the lives of blues musicians such as Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, Nichols reveals what blues music teaches about sin, suffering, alienation, and worship. He delves into how the blues can intensify our understanding of bondage to sin and redemption and how the blues encourage us to strive for justice and righteousness. In the end, readers will emerge with a deeper understanding of the value of a theology that lingers on the dark side and embraces Good Friday as well as Easter, suffering as well as joy.

"In the current cultural climate, surrounded by so much sentimentality, we need blues music and its Christian resonances as perhaps never before. Nichols's book should go a long way to putting this art form back on the theological agenda."—Jeremy Begbie, Duke University

"Too often the Blues is put in opposition to Spirituals. But when the church's songs stray too far from the cries of a broken humanity, they lose their truth, depth, and power. In Getting the Blues, Stephen Nichols compellingly shows how the minor key of the Blues resonates with the minor keys in scripture and theology. By attending closely to these 'blue notes' Nichols writes truthfully and wisely about God's ways with wayward children—not only famous ones like Muddy Waters and Ma Rainey, but also the likes of you and me."—Christian Scharen, Yale Center for Faith & Culture; author of One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

It's difficult to associate the loneliness and downright mournfulness of the blues with the joyful teachings on salvation that often characterize the Christian religion. Yet in this splendid little book, theologian Nichols engagingly reminds us that the musical genre of the blues helps us to understand what theologians call redemption. Drawing on a wide range of blues singers and their lyrics, he blends the strains of the blues into the harmonies of theology and scripture in order to compose a new song about the powerful manner in which the blues prepare us for understanding the mercy and love of God. In songs such as Mississippi John Hurt's "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," for example, the blues record the loneliness and the desolation the singer feels, and Nichols compares this to the desolation that Christ felt when God forsook him on the cross. Finally, in his mournful songs, Blind Lemon Jefferson juxtaposes the despair of failure with the hope that such failures can be overcome. Nichols's elegant study offers fresh insights into the blues and their meaning for religion. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781587432125
  • Publisher: Baker Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/1/2008
  • Pages: 192
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen J. Nichols (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is research professor of Christianity and culture at Lancaster Bible College. He is the author of several books, including Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to the Passion of the Christ and The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World. Nichols lives with his wife and children in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

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Read an Excerpt

This book attempts a theology in a minor key, a theology that lingers, however uncomfortably, over Good Friday. It takes its cue from the blues, harmonizing narratives of Scripture with narratives of the Mississippi Delta, the land of cotton fields and Cyprus swamps and the moaning slide guitar. This is not a book by a musician, however, but by a theologian. And so I offer a theological interpretation of the blues. Cambridge theologian Jeremy Begbie has argued for music's intrinsic ability to teach theology. As an improvisation on Begbie's thesis, I take the blues to be intrinsically suited to teach a particular theology, a theology in a minor key. This is not to suggest that a theology in a minor key, or the blues for that matter, utterly sounds out despair like the torrents of a spinning hurricane. A theology in a minor key is no mere existential scream. In fact, a theology in a minor key sounds a rather hopeful melody. Good Friday yearns for Easter, and eventually Easter comes. Blues singers, even when groaning of the worst of times, know to cry out for mercy because they know that, despite appearances, Sunday's coming. . . . The blues, like the writings of Flannery O'Connor, need not mention him [Christ] in every line, or in every song, but he haunts the music just the same. At the end of the day, he serves as the resolution to the conflict churning throughout the blues, the conflict that keeps the music surging like the floodwaters of the Mississippi River.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments 9

Prelude: Learning to Hear the Blues 13

1 What Hath Mississippi to Do with Jerusalem? A Theologian Explores the World of the Blues 19

2 I Be's Troubled: Blues, the Bible, and the Human Condition 39

3 Man of Sorrows: David's Blues 61

4 Woman of Sorrows: Naomi's Blues 85

5 Precious Lord: Harmonizing the Curse and the Cross 111

6 Come Sunday: Living in This World, Longing for the Next 143

Postlude: Learning to Sing the Blues 175

Discography 181

Notes 183

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