Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Spirituals and the Blues, by James H. Cone

Throughout this year, I've been writing a lot about a kind of dualism we've seemed to embrace as American Evangelicals. Whether N.T. Wright describing how somewhere along the lines we turned the hope of the Gospel into an exclusively "heavenly hope," rather than emphasized the broader vision of the Bible that teaches us our ultimate home is the reunion of heaven and earth (think of the Lord's Prayer or the earthiness of the vision of the New Heavens and Earth at the end of the Bible in Revelation, its similarities with the original Garden paradise in Gen. 1&2). Andy Crouch shared with us how losing sight of the "earthiness" of our hope, we've lost sight of what meaningful "culture-making" is. Lesslie Newbigin pinned the blame for separating the heavenly from the earthly on the Enlightenment Project of the 17th and 18th centuries that began measuring purpose not so much by a deeper "telos," but rather by that which was measurable, by Newtonian physics built on basic laws of "cause and effect." What is "fact" is observable and measurable, but what is "value" is left to private judgment. The "facts" and "values" divide resulted coming out of the Enlightenment and much of evangelical Christianity acquiesced by emphasizing a less rational, more spiritualized, hope, rather than integrating a vision of life to include both the material as well as the spiritual, the heavenly with the earthly. A while back, William Placher spoke of the medieval tendency to see a self-imposed kind of asceticism as describing the "spiritually heroic" and that monastic life, rather than "ordinary life," began to represent those truly with a "vocation," i.e. calling from God.

Well, in James Cone's fascinating book The Spiritual and the Blues, Cone distinguishes between "Blues" and "Spirituals" in that the former tended to be located outside the Church while the latter tended to be within. The Blues that would later turn to Jazz spoke of the hope for beauty and love without "another worldly" hope while the Spirituals later turn to Gospel music gave an eschatological hope taking advantage of "pilgrim" and "sojourner" language to sustain a suffering and enslaved people. 

As Cone writes:

The hope of the blues is grounded in the historical reality of the black experience. The blues express a belief that one day things will not be like what they are today. This is why buses, railways, and trains are important images in the blues. Each symbolizes motion and the possibility of leaving the harsh reality of an oppressive environment. “Ef ah kin jes grab me a handfulla freight train- ah’ll be set.” The blues emphasize movement, the possibility of changing the present reality of suffering. p. 124

While the Spirituals tended to place their hope in an eschatological future instead, in a heavenly hope, nonetheless as Cone writes, both the Spirituals and the Blues "partake of the same black experience in the United States" (p. 129). I found these observations fascinating.

What is more, along with Wright, Newbigin, Crouch and others, so Cone takes his stab at the source of the problematic bifurcation between heaven and earth, the earthly and the spiritual, and he does so through the lens of power and sex. Cone makes a point that white evangelicals have tended to make "sex" a bad thing, while the music of the blues have tended to make central "joy, love, and sex.... hugging, kissing and feeling" (p. 114). I had to pause for a second and try this on for size. I've now been a Christian (and an evangelical one at that) for nearly 22-years. I've always been taught that sex is a beautiful thing in the right context, but there was also the sense when I first came into Christianity in 1990 that the Church was trying to right a ship that had emphasized for far too long the prudishness of Victorian values. Sex was good, but... qualify, qualify, qualify, ... and "whatever you do, don't listen to that terrible rap music!" In other words, it seemed that my evangelical past had once upon a time had a hard time affirming the goodness of sex, let alone even talking about it without blushing. Where did this come from? Well, Cone argues that it comes from people of power who have never had to grapple on a foundational level with the "exchange" of beautiful physicality in the midst of predominantly oppressive physicality. Again, listen to Cone here:

People cannot love physically and spiritually (the two cannot be separated!) until they have been up against the edge of life, experiencing the hurt and pain of existence. They (people of power, “white oppressors” as Cone calls them) cannot appreciate the feel and touch of life nor express the beauty of giving themselves to each other in community, in love, and in sex until they know and experience the brokenness of existence as disclosed in human oppression. People who have not been oppressed physically cannot know the power inherent in bodily expressions of love. That is why white Western culture makes a sharp distinction between the spirit and the body, the divine and the human, the sacred and the secular. White oppressors do not know how to come to terms with the essential spiritual function of the human body. But for black people the body is sacred, and they know how to use it in the expression of love. p. 114

Even as I write Cone's paragraph, I find it pushing my evangelical sensibilities and making me defensive. Really, I can't go "all the way" with Cone (sorry about the sexual play on words there), because I do think those who have not been oppressed can know the sacredness of the body, in fact to know it is to come more fully into understanding the hope of the Gospel that has at its center the resurrection of the body and the honoring of the human nature (as Paul says, "sown in dishonor, raised in glory, sown in weakness, raised in power- 1 Cor. 15:43). To know its sacredness is to know more fully what it means to be human, most fully His as we were intended to be. To know its sacredness is to emphasize some of the evangelical church's emphases on uniting only with a spouse in marriage, since the Gospel itself is brought to bear more fully on our lives as husband loves wife as Christ loves the Church and wife honors husband, indeed "submits herself to him" as to the Lord. So I can't entirely make such a blanket statement with Cone regarding the inability of "people of power" to understand the sacredness of the body, at least without emphasizing nuance or complexity to the issue at hand; ... however, that being said, I think I see what he is getting at and believe I need to listen. There is less shame and bashfulness about bodily subject matters where beauty is involved regarding the body, especially among a people who have primarily known mistreatment, oppression and violence done against the body. I hate to do the comparison game because sin is sin and God hates it all, but let me go ahead and do it for a second since we evangelical Christians ourselves are guilty of separating "sin categories" whether intentionally or unintentionally, so here goes... what is worse, sex outside of marriage or a general disregard for the poor? Actually Ezekiel 16:49 answers this question in part when Ezekiel speaks of the "sin of Sodom"... which was??? Take a guess! You might say, "immorality!" However, Ezekiel's answer was "injustice!"... "She (Sodom) and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy."

The point here isn't to say that one sin is "better" than another but to give pause to the ways in which our particular "class" perspective as American Evangelical Christians has influenced and framed much of our thinking on Scripture and how we define the "good life in Christ." Unfortunately, there are bifurcations everywhere, the splitting up of that which ought not be split up, whether heaven and earth, the spiritual or the material, the professional religious people vs. those with ordinary jobs or the split between talking about spiritual matters but not that of the body.

Sex is good! Can I say that without blushing? Or without a million qualifiers? There are qualifiers, of course, but why be so sheepish about the subject matter? If my 14-year-old foster son wants to ask me what I mean, I think he will. Darius chuckled the other day when I told him sex sets off "pleasure centers" in your brain called endorphins and that food, drink and even drugs tap into a similar part of the brain, that there is a reason all these things "feel good." I told him that's why we have to be careful to partake (or delay or refuse participation) in such things in ways that will give us the life God wants for us ultimately, long-term, not just "in the moment." But he was still giggling because I a pastor said the "S" word. I know he's talking about it with his buddies. I know the rap songs he listens to speaks of sex. Why not talk about SEX in ways consistent with the beautiful portrait given us in Scripture? Why hide or blush or say, "shouldn't talk about it"? The human heart knows better, as do Cone's "people," as does my teenage foster son. Cone gives us interesting food for thought, at the very least.

1 comment:

john said...

Great post, Mike. Challenging. Now I've got another book to add to my list.