Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Book Review - Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World

Moss III, Otis. Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World: Finding Hope in an Age of Despair.  Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.  xvi + 127 pp. Softcover.

Originally presented as a series of Lyman-Beecher lectures at Yale Divinity School, this slim book includes three chapters, each based on an individual lecture, and four sermons which serve as illustrative examples for the material covered in the lectures.  Moss talks not just about preaching, but also about the history of Black, or ‘blue note,’ preaching, what Valentino Lassiter calls ‘the African American preaching heritage’ (Lassiter, preface, 9).  Like Lassiter, Moss notes that modern day preaching often fails to address contemporary needs.  His lecture series and this book seek to correct that situation.
This review offers a brief summary of the book followed by a critique, and concludes with an assessment and recommendation for the intended audience.
There are as many styles and approaches to preaching as there are preachers.  Moss adds his voice to a long list of authorities on preaching, including his mentor Fred Craddock, David Buttrick, Thomas Long, Kirk Jones, and others.  His influences are many, from Howard Thurman, Abraham Heschel, Martin Luther King, Jr., Frank A. Thomas, Henry Emerson Fosdick, and his parents, Edwina and Otis.  This book could sit on the shelf next to Jones’ The Jazz of Preaching, as the two authors both apply musical metaphors to the subject.
Moss intends to show preachers – any preacher – how to ‘effectively communicate hope in a desperate and difficult world’ (according to the publisher’s description).  Preaching with a ‘Blue Note sensibility,’ that is, preaching with a blues aesthetic (Moss, xiii) as it developed in the black American church in the South, is prophetic preaching; a ‘Blue Note sensibility’ preaches about tragedy but refuses to fall into despair (6).
Writing from the perspective of the black preaching tradition, Moss wants to recover and reclaim this tradition from today’s church ‘where Christianity is nothing more than capitalism in drag’ (4).  Blue Note preaching is meant to challenge the church and the preacher: ‘America is living stormy Monday, but the pulpit is preaching happy Sunday’ (4).  Preaching the Blues tradition is now lost ‘in the clamor of material blessing, success without work, prayer without public concern, and preaching without burdens’ (4).  Moss wants preaching to regain a literary sensibility, prophetic speech, and a powerful cultural critique, and names exemplars of each genre, for example, Flannery O’Connor, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dorothee Solle (4-5).
For Moss, Blue Note preaching is an oral art, rooted in sound not the printed page, nor is it confined to the pulpit.  It reaches the head, heart, and hopes of the hearer.  It is performed in the sense of ‘using all sensory resources to communicate’ to others, and not performed in the sense of being entertainment (36).  Elsewhere, Moss says that the preacher ‘paints with a homiletical brush upon a spiritual canvas’ (34) but also includes a level of musicality (40).  Blue Note preaching is many things save for the preacher reading an essay from the pulpit.  And yet, Moss says, there is a danger in preaching, for ‘preaching brings the purveyor into contact with a world of conflict and contradiction’ (34).  Amen to that.
In chapter 3, Moss develops the metaphor of digital/mobile culture versus analog/stationary culture.  The digital culture informs Blue Note homiletics.  There is always something new being created from the old.  Jesus moved the culture, metaphorically speaking, from an analog to a mobile, digital culture.  The introduction of movable type and the printing of the Guttenberg Bible further pushed the culture into a digital framework even as it was only part of a stationary, analog culture in terms of who had access to it (48-50).  This analog-digital culture shift is occurring around us all time, and challenges the preacher.
Moss is speaking mainly to preachers, specifically black preachers but anyone who steps into the pulpit on Sunday is welcome to apply what he has to say.  This is a challenging book; not everyone will be comfortable with what they read.  As a ‘person of pallor’ reading this book, my responses ranged from feeling excluded in some ways from this amazing-sounding tradition to feeling inspired to include in my own preaching Moss’ call for preachers ‘to stare in the darkness and speak the Blues with authority and witness the work of God’ (9).  This preaching style ought to be valid not only for black American preachers but to anyone who proclaims the good news of Jesus and his ministry in their preaching.  Moss’ intent, I believe, is to open up the pulpit to powerful witness from any source and not to preach the saccharine platitudes of a ‘happy Sunday’ (4).  Our world, Moss writes, has been designed by shadows, not truth (30).
In a time of civil unrest, Moss sheds light on (a) how we can address the current sense of despair, and (b) provides insight to preachers for ways to address contemporary issues in authentic, relevant ways.  This book offers a good start for anyone to whom this is news.  If you are a text-based, immobile preacher, this might be unsettling stuff.  For a book based on a short lecture series, Moss presents his material in a logical, coherent way with the caveat that some fine-tuning, some light editing, might help tighten it up, but to do this is to risk stifling Moss’ engaging voice which comes through on every page.  He quotes blues tunes, Scripture passages; he brings in just about every musical form from classical to hip-hop.  There are a few typos – Larry Byrd?  Hey, Moss isn’t from Boston, so we’ll let it go.
Mostly, we hear Moss telling us to study out of our tradition.  Blue Note preaching challenges us to do the work, study our craft, and develop our own voices (61).  Though Moss sometimes repeats himself and occasionally makes the odd claim, this book is appropriate for its intended audience.  Moss displays some showmanship, enthusiasm, and the movement of the Spirit through both the lectures and the sermons (number four, How to Get Away with Murder, is worth the price of the book).
The book is significant and timely, given the recent situation in Ferguson, Missouri and the Black Lives Matter protests.  Moss is biased toward preaching the truth and shedding light on injustice.  His background as a preacher at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago makes him credible and persuasive.  This work is a useful addition to any preacher’s library, particularly to a non-black audience that seeks understanding and new methods of proclaiming the Gospel.
Critically speaking, the book isn’t perfect but it comes close and it does the job as the author intended it to.  In terms of presenting his ideas in an authentic voice, Moss hits a home run.  He taught me that my way of preaching needs to open up and he gave me ways to do that.  There is much food for thought in this little book and I would recommend it to anyone who preaches, period.
Valentino Lassiter, Martin Luther King in the African American Preaching Tradition.  Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2001.
Kirk Byron Jones, The Jazz of Preaching: How to Preach with Great Freedom and Joy.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004.