Shortly after I became the minister of Fitzroy I started bringing rock music into congregational life. When one of the congregation, who I knew as a New Testament lecturer, suggested a Blues Night I jumped at the chance. We have now done three. Out of those nights I discovered more of a love for the blues than I had previously had and we all got the brand new book; The Gospel According To The Blues.
I had the privilege of endorsing the book. I wrote: "Gary Burnett's office is shelved with theological books, guitars fill the floor, and the drawers are crammed with CDs. In The Gospel According to the Blues, Gary brings his vocation as a New Testament teacher together with his passion for the blues and gives the reader scholarly knowledge and wise insight."
I took the opportunity of asking Gary about his love for the Blues, the New Testament and how the book came together…
STEVE STOCKMAN (SS): When do you remember first being interested in the Blues?
GARY BURNETT (GB): When I was a teenager, my friend, George Lowden (of guitar making fame), lent me a couple of blues albums. One was a compilation of stuff from Eric Clapton, Savoy Brown, John Mayall and a few others, and the other was an acoustic country blues album by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. I was more into Bob Dylan than pop stuff at the time and so this kind of built on to that – I suppose it was taking me into the roots of what I liked about Dylan. Something about the rawness of the blues appealed to me, there was just something visceral about it that grabbed your insides. Which is what the best of music can do, whether it’s Mozart or Brahms or it’s Bruce Springsteen or whatever. It’s honest, it touches you. And the blues, for sure, is honest.
SS: Who are your favourite bluesmen? And women?
GB: Of course there are so many – reaching back to the early days, you’ve got to mention Robert Johnson, who was not only a fantastic guitarist, but sort of synthesized a lot of the early blues and made it into something quite special. And I’m a big fan of Blind Willie Johnson, who did the most wonderful gospel blues – and who also was a brilliant slide guitarist.
Moving forward a bit, I’d want to mention Lightnin’ Hopkins from Texas, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Mississippi John Hurt. If anyone wants to learn finger-picking guitar, John Hurt’s your go-to guy – great guitarist and singer and, by all accounts, a really nice guy.
Oh, and let’s not forget Rev Gary Davis – a gospel blues singer and once again an unbelievable guitarist. Once you get up to date, then you’ve a lot of choice – but some of my favourites are Eric Bibb, Keb’ Mo’, Kelly Joe Phelps, Walter Trout and Joe Bonamassa.
Apart from the early days, the blues have been traditionally dominated by men, but today there are a lot of really great artists who happen to be women – Susan Tedeschi, Bonnie Raitt, Rory Block, Carolyn Wonderland and Beth Hart are some of my favourites.
SS: What is it about the Blues that you find so engaging?
GB: Well the blues really are the basis of all modern rock music. It’s the source. Musically its very simple, but when it’s done well and honestly, it’s music to stir the soul. But more than that, there are two things about the blues that I highlight in the book – firstly the blues brings you face to face with everything that’s gone wrong with the world. The songs are really a lament about the way the world is. But at the same time – and this is important – there is hope for a better day as well, that things could change. As B B King says, “there must be a better world somewhere.” And of course, it’s in these two aspects that theology begins to intersect with the blues – the biblical acknowledgement that there is something critically wrong in the world, but also the hope that, through what God has done in Jesus the Messiah, God is beginning to transform God’s world.
SS: On the other side when did you first take an interest in theology of the depth you are now engaged? How did you end up teaching New Testament?
GB: In the late eighties I did an evening course at the Belfast Bible College and during the 2 year period I realized that this guy who had attended church all his life and thought he knew his bible inside out didn’t know so much after all! Those were very formative years for me and at the end I thought – I need to know more! And for me the way to do that was pursuing a theology degree, which I did part time at the University of London. I loved it all, kept an open mind as I did it and just gobbled it all up! Then I did a PhD in New Testament, specializing in Paul.
I then got the opportunity to teach in the Institute of Theology at Queens University Belfast, mostly in Union Theological College. And recently I’ve been doing most of the New Testament Greek teaching at Union, as well as teaching Paul and the gospels. I consider myself very blessed to be able to do what I do – this New Testament stuff is really the most exciting, engaging, hopeful material that you could concern yourself with and to get to teach it and try and inspire a new generation with it is fantastic.
SS: When did you think that the two things blended?
GB: I suppose a few years ago, when we did some evenings at Fitzroy, with your encouragement, Steve, where we explored the connections between Christian faith and modern music. And one of the nights we did was a blues night, where we had lots of live music and where I began to explore the connections between the blues and faith. And we did a number of those evenings over several years, each time taking another aspect of the blues and seeing how that might spark our thinking about the gospel. Hopefully we’ll get the chance to do another night before long!
SS: When did the idea for the book first cross your mind?
GB: Well, as we did those blues nights at Fitzroy, there seemed to me to be a rich vein of material to be mined in terms of the blues and the social history of the blues. And I’d essentially made a start on the project through doing those talks. So happily Wipf and Stock, a major US theological publisher, liked the idea of the project and I spent my spare time in 2013 writing the book. I thought carefully about how I would go about it – so it’s doesn’t just follow the way I approached the blues nights in Fitzroy or my Down at the Crossroads blog. What it does, actually, is to use the social history of the blues as a springboard to consider the Christian gospel as we see it in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
SS: What would you like the reader to gain from the book?
GB: At heart the book is an exploration of Jesus’s teaching, hopefully asking some hard questions about what the gospel really is, and what I do is to bounce back and forth between the Sermon and the Mount and the blues to help tease out the relevance of Jesus’s teaching for today. So, there’s a lot of the blues in the book and there’s a lot of theology. I’m hoping that readers go away with, on the one hand, a better understanding of what the gospel is, or at least have their understanding challenged, and on the other hand, will have found the blues material to have been interesting and engaging. For those who don’t know the blues, it might encourage them to go and listen a bit! I’ve included listening suggestions at the end of each chapter. And of course, a book should be enjoyable! I hope it is.
SS: Give us a short playlist to listen to while we read.
GB: A good introduction if you’re new to the blues is listening to Eric Bibb and Keb’ Mo’ do modern versions of the blues – it’s an easy way in. Try Eric Bibb’s Blues Ballads and Work Songs and Keb Mo’s 1998 Keb’ Mo’ album. And definitely go for Avalon Blues, which is an album of Mississippi John Hurt songs covered by a variety of top modern artists. You can then work back from there. But you can check out the best blues albums, both electric and acoustic for the last couple of years at Down at the Crossroads - http://downatthecrossroads.wordpress.com/2014/01/01/best-blues-albums-2013/