The Delta Blues, Zizek & Christianity

The Delta Blues (and its more fleshed-out offshoots) often compressed raw traumatic energy within a tight 12-bar musical framework and the aab rhyme scheme, with slight variations. Here’s Robert Johnson;

When the train, it left the station, with two lights on behind

When the train, it left the station, with two lights on behind

Well, the blue light was my blues, and the red light was my mind.

                                                                                                                              (Love in Vain)

What I have always found intriguing is how within this tight dogmatic structure, this triadic form is able to be a platform for creativity; how does this simple, predictable form maintain mystery? It is honest, you accept it and everything becomes illuminated above it; breath, tone, guitar, vocals, pauses, subversions, resistance. The gravity of the form itself becomes a force of nature. Consequently any delay in the delivery becomes a great omission, a temporary abandonment. In its explicitness, the form disappears; it becomes part of the mystery.

Compare this with formless music, or to make a slight departure, formless Christianity. As opposed to the dogmatic rituals of High Anglicanism and Catholicism, formless ‘spirit-led’ Christian movements have an emphasis on the free expression of worship, rather than ritual. The idea of this formless Church is appealing, however it becomes apparent that there are, despite its lack of liturgy, written instructions, and less stand, sit, kneel injuncions, a plethora of unwritten rules and behavioural norms and expectations; even the spontaneity of something as bizarre as speaking in tongues can be perceived as a strict, predictable pattern of rhythmically repeated vowel sounds. This is certainly not formless and free. I think Zizek’s analysis of the postmodern vs authoritarian father is helpful here;

Think of the situation known to most of us from our youth: the unfortunate child who, on Sunday afternoon, has to visit his grandmother instead of being allowed to play with friends. The old-fashioned authoritarian father’s message to the reluctant boy would have been: “I don’t care how you feel. Just do your duty, go to grandmother and behave there properly!” In this case, the child’s predicament is not bad at all: although forced to do something he clearly doesn’t want to, he will retain his inner freedom and the ability to (later) rebel against the paternal authority. Much more tricky would have been the message of a “postmodern” non-authoritarian father: “You know how much your grandmother loves you! But, nonetheless, I do not want to force you to visit her – go there only if you really want to!” Every child who is not stupid (and as a rule they are definitely not stupid) will immediately recognize the trap of this permissive attitude: beneath the appearance of a free choice there is an even more oppressive demand than the one formulated by the traditional authoritarian father, namely an implicit injunction not only to visit the grandmother, but to do it voluntarily, out of the child’s own free will. Such a false free choice is an obscene injunction: it deprives the child even of his inner freedom, ordering him not only what to do, but what to want to do. (Slavoj Zizek, How To Read Lacan)

I am beginning to see the liturgy in the light of the Delta Blues and Zizek. A candid dynamic structure in which mystery and inner freedom is retained, and where resistance or subversion retains a creative potency.



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Filed under Christianity, The Blues

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