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Christians Can 'Sing the Blues,' Kelly Tells Students

October 3, 2012

"Good theology? Absolutely," Kelly said. "Reflect anything approaching real life? Not a chance."

Kelly, who serves as the Ruth Dickinson professor of religion at OBU, spoke to students on the topic "Singing the Blues" during a weekly chapel service Wednesday, Oct. 3. Based on Psalm 39, the message followed OBU's 2012-13 chapel theme, "The Psalms."

Christian music today focuses almost entirely on praise and thanksgiving, Kelly said, offering little or no avenue for the darker realities of life and the real, genuine emotions which naturally flow from them.


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"Even when our teachers and our songwriters make use of the Psalms, they tend to transform the raw and earthy language that describes troubles in life and the relationship with God that is sometimes complex and even messy, and reduce all of that to feeble clichés, easily digestible, but with no nourishment for the soul," Kelly said. "Instead of trying to capture the full range of human experience, too much Christian music ends up sanitizing the experiences of real, fallen people in a real, fallen world."

While brutal honesty can be scary and genuine emotion may feel uncomfortable, Kelly said 60 psalms of the Bible -- more than one-third of all psalms -- are classified as "laments." Life often proved hard for the ancient Israelites who wandered in the wilderness, faced captivity and lived under foreign domination. The result, Kelly said, was pouring themselves out to God honestly, boldly and, in some cases, even impolitely as they protested to God about their predicaments.

Kelly shared examples of such laments from Psalm 3, Psalm 22:1, Psalm 31 and Psalm 88, but he also noted the lament was a form of prayer used throughout the Bible. He pointed to Jeremiah and Job, who both cried out to God. Jesus himself made use of the lament when he experienced excruciating pain and humiliation on the cross.

"As we pray these Psalms of lament in our situations of pain, suffering and tragedy, we identify with Jesus, just as he did with the ancient Israelites," Kelly said. "And, as he did, we will find ourselves singing sad songs of faith with faithful saints."

Kelly quoted the Irish musician Bono, who said, "A lot of the Psalms feel to me like the blues. Man shouting out to God -- 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?' Why are you so far from helping me?" And yet, Kelly noted, the evangelical church avoids "singing the blues." Singing the blues is honest, but the church has never been comfortable with brutal honesty when it comes to a person's relationship with God. Evangelicals must take some responsibility for creating an atmosphere where a person in pain and loss cannot speak in the same language the Bible uses, he said.

Psalm 39, he said, is a "singing' the blues psalm." In Psalm 39:1-3, the writer began with an attempt to be strong and silent, to "grin and bear it" despite his difficult circumstances.

"But by the very nature of being human, you know what happens when you keep pressing those emotions down?" Kelly asked. "At some point, you're going to explode."

In Psalm 39:4-6, the psalmist considers the fleeting nature of life. The Hebrew word is translated as vanity or breath. Life seems so short, it is filled with so much trouble, and the psalmist wants to know the meaning of it all. In Psalm 39:7-11, the psalmist comes to the realization that his only hope is God. He also comes to the more painful realization that his predicament is caused by his own transgressions -- and that his enemy is within.

In the end, rather than lifting up words of praise, the psalmist cries out in what seems like theological incorrectness. He asks God to turn away from him. Such strong language found in the psalm comes from a place of deep pain, Kelly said.

"Sometimes the first step to praise is crying out to God honestly and openly about what's happening in your heart," he said. "You can't hide it anyway. If God is who we say God is, and he knows me better than anybody else knows me -- even better than I know myself -- what good does it do to put a smile on your face and speak positive words to God when that's not what is in your soul?"

Kelly reminded the students that in Psalm 39, the central verse declares hope in God but is surrounded by doubt and despair. The Scripture reflects twin realities of life: God is faithful and good, and life can be miserable. While lives can be regretfully short and unbearably difficult, at the same time they also can be amazingly and mysteriously wonderful.

Therefore, Christians should pray honestly and boldly to God, he said.