Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Thabiti on Nichols: Listening in Order to Understand

Thabiti on Steve Nichols's new book, Getting the Blues:
As an African-American reader, I found this an encouragingly bold book. Nichols is fast becoming one of my favorite writers for that reason. Let me explain.

I think I can count on one hand the number of evangelical authors who happily deal with expressions of Christianity outside of "white Christianity." Frankly, that's a little like eating fruit from one small corner of a vast vineyard, neglecting the fruit in other plots of the same vineyard because they don't grow nearest to you. A few historians and theologians show courage by wandering into the wider vineyard of God and sampling choice fruit from those branches. Nichols is one.

In Getting the Blues he ventures into the world of African Americans. And not just any African Americans, but the hard scrabble, scabbed knuckle world of 1920-1940s Mississippi Delta blues-singing African Americans. Go 'head Stephen!

In Getting the Blues, Nichols starts with a helpful admission, one not frequently made by writers. He admits there is a world he doesn't understand and enter into frequently enough, a world with experiences that enrich his own. Nichols asks, "Why read stories and listen to songs of tragedy and loss, despair and alienation?" His answer which he "is only beginning to appreciate" is "I read and listen to stories of these less-than-pleasant elements of life in order to understand, so that I can hear and see that which I don't always hear and see."

Nichols continues: "By just about any standard, my upbringing and current status, hovering around middle-class American culture, has made my life far simpler than the lives of hosts of my fellow human beings throughout our common history. This is not to minimize the challenges and trials, ordeals and sufferings of those in my family or circle of friends, or those of us who are (mostly white) suburban Americans. Still, we enjoy many blessings not experienced by previous generations or by all peoples. I'm not lamenting these blessings--simply recognizing that sometimes they come at a price. They can cause us to miss some vital elements of life.

"We American evangelicals are as likely as anybody else to be missing something when it comes to a fuller view of life and humanity. In addition, we just might be overlooking something in the pages of scripture" (pp. 13-14).

This is refreshing honesty and humility, a self-awareness that's both helpful to the person who makes such an admission and to those of us being studied. Nichols enters the world of the blues--not as some distant, "objective" student of native curiosities but as a sympathizer, one who enters the experience of others as his own. This makes the reading very smooth and peculiarly human.
Read the whole thing.