Monday, November 23, 2015

Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World (Otis Moss III) -- A Review

BLUE NOTE PREACHING IN A POST-SOUL WORLD: Finding Hope in an Age of Despair.  By Otis Moss III. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015. Xiv + 127 pages.

                Preaching is a calling. It is also an art. Preaching draws on particular cultural and societal forms of communication, and it is reflected in the personality of the one in the pulpit (if one preaches from a pulpit). I start from a particular social location. I am white, male, Mainline Protestant, and I have an academic background as well. I learned particular styles in college and seminary and have a style that seems appropriate to my own personality. That said, it is important that we continually take into consideration the world around us and draw from forms that might not be as natural to our own realities. It is with this context in mind that I read Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World. The author is a preacher serving a predominantly African American congregation of the United Church of Christ. It is both progressive and rooted in a distinctly Afro-centric context. 

                Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World is authored by Otis Moss III, the senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ of Chicago, making him the successor to Jeremiah Wright. The book is comprised of two parts. Part one brings to us Moss’s Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale University Divinity School. The Beecher Lectures are among the most prestigious religious lectures in the country. Part two reprints four sermons that reflect the vision expressed in the published lectures.


                Before I get to the book it would be helpful I think to reflect on the place of preaching in our world today. It is important that we acknowledge the fact that preaching does not have the same status it did in earlier generations. This is especially true among the Euro-American white population. It also seems to be a trend within the African American community as well, though the preacher in the black church continues to be honored in ways different from the white community. Whereas, once published sermons were considered important forms of reading material, such is no longer the case. While of this is true, the preacher’s voice continues to ring out. As Otis Moss III writes in the opening paragraph of his introduction: "preaching has faced the judgment of academia and been marginalized by western culture, yet the word continues to go forth in various forms" (p. xi). 

In Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World, Moss draws on the blues tradition that is rooted in the black experience to offer a word of hope to an age of despair (a post-soul world). I read this book, which reflects upon a distinctive tradition of African American preaching, cognizant of my own social location as a middle class white male, but I found the book to be a compelling contribution to my own sense of calling as a preacher.  How am I to preach the good news in a world that is often filled with despair? Moss writes that "A Blues aesthetic frees the preacher and preaching from both personal-piety sermons and the ever-present prosperity mode now popular on television" (p. xiii). While the world might not be all right, God is still at work. 

The book has three primary chapters (the three Beecher lectures). Moss begins by sharing his vision of Blue Note preaching by turning to the story of the rebuilt Temple in the book of Ezra. He notes that in Ezra some of the people wept at the sight of the Temple, for it was not as grand as before, while others celebrated. That is, some experienced a "Blues Moan” while others experienced the “Gospel Shout." He suggests that there is a generational paradox, with some moaning and others shouting. Blue Note Preaching takes both into consideration. Thus he writes: "Before you get to your resurrection shout you must pass by the challenge and pain called Calvary" (p. 2). Such preaching offers an authoritative word in a world experiencing the blues, so that while pain experienced, despair is not.
In chapter two Moss further defines what he calls the "blues sensibility." Blue note preaching, he reminds us is "preaching about tragedy but not falling into despair" (p. 22). A Blues sensibility brings together both the moan and the shout. He reminds the reader how a word of hope inspired slaves to stand tall in the midst of a season of despair. He tells us of the use of the West African word kulibah, which he defines as "God is in you." We don't create this word, we simply pass it on, and it liberates. Thus, this kind of preaching creates an alternative reality, so that when the word of life is shared the people can rise above the degradation of their situation in life. Drawing on a Blues sensibility, "Blue Note preaching allows a person to recognize pain but not fall into despair" (p. 46). 

In the third chapter, Moss takes the question of the generational divide deeper. He writes about the emergence of Hip Hop and how it engages with the church. Whereas the earlier generations drew upon the Blues, the Blues is related to the church. But now we are moving into what he calls a "post-soul world." This is another way of describing the post-modern world of the millennial generation. It is an age in which Hip-Hop has taken hold. The image of a "post-soul generation" is new to me, but it is intriguing. He writes that we are no longer living in the Soul era, which was embodied by singers such as Aretha Franklin, who sang Gospel before singing a song like RESPECT. Hip Hop isn't all that new. It emerged in the early 1970s, but came to the fore later in the decade. What makes Hip Hop unique (at least to this point in the African American community), is that it is the "first cultural creation that does not explicitly come out of the Church" (p. 55). That is, this music reflects a new situation where the music is essentially secular and thus Post-Soul. Going forward, Moss declares, preaching must take this new reality into consideration if it is to communicate the Gospel to this new generation (and those that will follow). He notes that Hip Hop has four pillars -- graffiti (the appropriation of space), aesthetic (movement and kinetic energy), the DJ (as opposed to the organ), Rapping. These four pillars can provide a framework for preaching that connects. Here’s the kicker—he warns us that we can't be wedded to just one form of communication if we hope to share the word. So even if I prefer Soul to Hip Hop, I need to be able to wade into this new ethos. It’s important to note that Hip Hop has transcended ethnic boundaries.

With these three foundational essays/lectures in place we turn to the four sermons.  These sermons bring together the Blues Moan with the Gospel shout, ever cognizant that a new Post-Soul generation is rising.  Of course reading a sermon is not the same as experiencing it. Nonetheless, you can get a sense of his emphasis in the written form. There are in these sermons a liberative/social justice element. There are also themes here that call on the listener/reader to take stock of one's own place in the world. He offers us a variety of narratives, including that of Samson, of David, along with a mandate for ministry, and discussion of the reality that faces the African American community of incarceration and death. The final sermon is titled “How to Get Away with Murder” and was preached shortly after the Michael Brown verdict. The title is drawn from a well-regarded TV show, and speaks to the reality that some get away with murder -- a recognition that if black lives actually do matter then all lives will matter! First we must recognize that Black Lives matter.

I found this book to be a helpful primer on the need to connect the realities of our world with the good news of the gospel. We can acknowledge and speak out on the realities of our day without giving into despair. We can prophetic and hopeful. I take from this book the message that preaching in this Post-Soul world requires that we speak to the concerns of an age that is not so sure that God is present. He invites us to move out of our comfort zone and address the concerns of our day.  Pain is part of our reality, but despair need not! So, to all my preaching colleagues, no matter your social location, take and read and be blessed so you can be a blessing.   

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