SBA/RR Challenge: Belief/Religion; A Case for Unitarian Blues

 For those unfamiliar with the religious denomination known as Unitarian / Universalism (UU) a little introduction is required to explain what UU is and what it is not.

It might be best to explain what it is.  It is not a Christian church.  Unitarianism originated in Transylvania, but it has nothing to do with werewolves or the occult.  Rather than being Trinitarian – believing in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – it is Unitarian.  The nature of that single deity is generally regarded as Deists regard it; a clock builder who created the clock, started the pendulum and went off to do something else.  So, most Unitarians see the Universe as either the work of the Creator or as both the creation and the creator. 

In the mid-20th Century Unitarians merged with another church, the Universalist Church which was more Christian in its thinking, but believed that the concept of a loving Deity and Hell were inconsistent and chose to believe in the Deity.

After some period of meeting the two denominations decided that what was most important in our daily practice was how we regarded and treated each other and abandoned the concept of a creed for the concept of a covenant between members.

Out of this, seven principles of living were adopted.

Consequently, the membership of Unitarians is quite diverse in background, belief and practice.  In any congregation you are apt to find Jews, Buddhists, Secular Humanists and Pagans, all living more or less harmoniously with each other.

There is only one problem with this history and these beliefs; the music is weirdly intellectual.  Much of it is about nature and the universe.  While it is awe inspiring to look up at a “star” in a constellation and know that it is really another entire galaxy like our own Milky Way and that while near in celestial terms, it is so far away as to defy imagination.  That kind of awe does not inspire toe-tapping visceral emotional response.

Christian hymns on the other hand are visceral.  They range in effect from fear to adoration, but there isn’t much about them that is neutral.

One would think that a denomination that doesn’t believe in Hell would be incredibly joyful, but it isn’t reflected in the music. Unitarians sing spirituals, not for the typically Old Testament references to religion, but because they are about freedom for an oppressed people.  They frequently hark back to Moses and Pharaoh and crossing the Jordan.  UU belief in the first principle which has to do with respecting the intrinsic worth of every person celebrates justice and fairness.  It’s alright to sing spirituals.  Gospel, on the other hand, is out.

Enter the Blues.

Blues from its inception was frowned on by preachers.  While the themes in Blues songs were sad; you lost your job, your dog died or your mate left (usually for someone else), there was ultimately celebration, “Hey, I’m still standing.” 

“Now she’s gone

But I don’t worry,

I’m sittin' on top of the world.”

At times the level of forgiveness, and depth of love, is hard to fathom;

“She caught the Katy, left me a mule to ride,

She caught the Katy, left me a mule to ride.

Now my baby caught the Katy

Left me a mule to ride

The train pulled out (the station)

I swung on behind

Crazy 'bout her

That hard headed woman of mine.”

The problem that Gospel preachers had and have with the Blues is it celebrated the resilience of humans, rather than the benevolence of God.  And, perhaps worst of all, those flawed humans who listened to Blues musicians listened in “juke joints” on Saturday night and skipped church on Sunday.

The Blues are not about a better world in the next life; they are about getting through life in this world.

Since UU “theology” is about our interactions with each other and not with the Creator, Blues music seems ideally suited for UU.

I just don’t want to hear anything with a “back beat” and lyrics about science, technology or nature.

This is a sermon that you are welcome to enjoy, but the opening music is what I have in mind:

Views: 140

Comment by Rodney Roe on April 14, 2018 at 1:29pm

This post could have been classified as either music or belief/religion, but I thought it had less to do with music than belief.

Now I have to deal with music which will be harder.

I'm done for a day or two.  I have a busy day tomorrow, and will be gone all day on Tuesday, so I'll try to read other people's efforts instead of writing.  There has certainly been a flurry of posts and a few complaints, as well.

Comment by koshersalaami on April 14, 2018 at 1:37pm


The closest I ever came to blues at Temple was an accident and based on kidding around. It was at Sunday School assembly during Purim, which it a holiday with costumes (if you go that far), so there’s a costume parade for kids that the junior rabbi at my NC congregation (education was his department) would sort of narrate/MC. They needed processional music for the kids, so I’d fake it on the piano for them every year because I could do that. 

There’s often also something called a Purimspiel, which is a humorous play or musical in which to frame the Purim story, which is the Book of Esther. I’ve played on a bunch of those too and they generally use well known songs with rewritten words. Last time I did one some of the music was from Grease. 

Anyway, on this particular morning the rabbi is in costume, something involving a big artificial beard, I don’t remember what. He’s about to tell a story. He starts off his story, innocently enough, by saying

”I woke up this morning.”

You do NOT say that in front of a pianist with any blues experience. I didn’t even think. It was instant reflex.

Ba DAH.......dah Dump.   Chords: 1 4.......3b. 1.   Tripleted, in 4/4, the 4 chord on the 4 beat and the ending 1 on the downbeat. (So the chord numbers match the beat numbers. Weird.)

The rabbi gives me this deer in the headlights look for about half a second. 

And then he goes for it. He fakes a verse of blues, I have no memory of what words he made up on the spot. What I do remember is that no one in the congregation realized we hadn’t planned it. I have always respected him for that move.

He’s a pretty good guitar player, incidentally. So is the head rabbi. 

Comment by Rodney Roe on April 14, 2018 at 5:15pm

Good reflexes on the assistant rabbi's part.

We have a new member, a pianist from a Pentecostal background.  He is OK with the switch in belief, but hates the music.  Awhile back he played and sang, "Lean on Me" with some really good piano breaks.  I loved it and I think the congregation did as well.  I would love to attend that congregation where the video was recorded.

Comment by Rodney Roe on April 15, 2018 at 12:37pm

" I think it's like being deaf. I yearn for it but it's never been something that's come to me - total surrender."

That's how I got into UU.  I suppose if I have faith, it is in the belief that you can be good without faith in G-d, heaven and hell, or anything not here and now, because treating others the way you want to be treated is just the best way to be, and I believe that most people know that.

I rejected Christian belief sometime in grade school for the same reason that I rejected Santa Claus before i knew he didn't exist: he wasn't fair.  Why should the neighbor kid who was no better a person than I, get more and better in his stocking?

Comment by koshersalaami on April 15, 2018 at 2:17pm

I have faith but I don’t experience it as ecstasy, though I think some Kabbalists do and some Chasidim do. I experience it more as responsibility with a feeling that I’m not completely on my own. God can be a bit like Lorianne: I gave you the tools, it’s up to you to use them. But with a closer personal connection and a lot more help that you don’t usually see. Why did I raise a son with a severe disability? Because I could handle it in a way most people around me indicate they couldn’t (I don’t always buy that). I would never volunteer for it, though my wife and I have a friend who has by deliberately adopting disabled kids, but I could do it, and I wonder whether that had anything to do with the fact that I did it. And an ancient connection that adds a level of resonance, which I guess is a Jewish thing. Also, now that I think about it, my reaction to the physical Torah. It feels deeply sacred. I experience awe around it, not as an object but as a sort of conduit. It feels like an honor to be involved in rituals with it - it’s called one, but it feels like one. I’ve noticed that those around me in the Reform movement don’t seem to have that reaction quite as much as I do, which I guess is because of my Conservative movement upbringing. On Simchat Torah, when the hand-written Torah scroll is rewound, when we go from the end back to the beginning and I hear the words of B’Reishit, In the beginning, something we’ve all heard in English, but for some reason the sound of that passage makes me aware of how old it all is, that I am listening to words thousands of years old that are still read by my people. But any time if I’m on the platform looking closely at the scroll as it is read or touching a corner of my prayer shawl to the text then kissing it, there’s an aura about it. It’s nothing like an ordinary book. 

But it’s not about surrender at all. In fact, that flat-out isn’t our way. It’s more about trying to understand its meaning.

In terms of music, some music brings connection, but I have no idea how old any melody is we use and the melodies shift so much from congregation to congregation, even within the same tunes. 

The most religiously inspiring music I think I’ve ever heard isn’t Jewish at all. It’s Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. I”ve been to one performance where I followed along with a pair of libretti, two different translations so I could synthesize the idea. That performance put me more in touch with the faith of Christianity than anything else I’ve ever experienced. 

Comment by Rodney Roe on April 15, 2018 at 5:59pm

I have some sense of connection.  It goes through everything in my life.  Last week we heard a poet read some of his poetry and talk about how his poetry intersected with his lifelong Episcopalian belief and Buddhist practices. I came home thinking about Buddhis practice ( and poetry ) and began noodling around with the guitar, thinking about those ideas.. Today, as a means of illustrating this, I played a piece I "wrote" that started with a very Eastern motif in a minor pentatonic scale (1,3b,4,5,7), imitating forms characteristic of Eastern music somewhat like the music I listened to in Vietnam, and morphed into a minor pentatonic blues scale and back - in B minor of all things - with the intent of showing that we are all one.  People enjoyed it, although I'm not sure they understood my intent.

kosh, at one point early in life, I attended a reformed Jewish service.  I was struck with several things; the cantor did the chanting behind a curtain which I was told reinforced the notion that music was a part of worship, not a performance..  Second, the words and the melody were almost the same as one of the settings in the Lutheran Hymnal. ( I attended a Lutheran Church then ), and the experience was almost like a religious experience in itself.  I felt connected to all of the people - Jewish and Christian - who had sought meaning and truth over millennia..

Comment by Rodney Roe on April 27, 2018 at 4:27am

A UU friend read this and disagrees about the assertion that UU is not Christian.  In her view, since Unitarians in the US have traditionally held services that look something like Christian church services, and generally follow the teachings of Jesus UU is Christian. 

I argued that is is not Christian in that it does not follow traditional belief that Jesus is the son of G-d, immortal, sent to earth to save sinners, and that that belief is necessary for salvation; basically does not follow the Nicene or Apostles Creed.

And, while most UU services are more influenced by Unitarian traditions, the Universalists were Christian in belief, but rejected the concept of Hell.

I submitted that following the teachings of Jesus does not make one Christian.  Rather it makes them a good person.  We argued semantics.

Comment by koshersalaami on April 27, 2018 at 6:26am

I like most of the teachings of Jesus. They’re good Judaism. That obviously doesn’t make me a Christian. 

Comment by Anna Herrington on April 27, 2018 at 7:58am

My sister's a lay minister in her UU community. She'd agree with you, Rodney, the UUs aren't Christian, but that Christians/Jews/Buddhists/atheists/Muslims/pagans - anyone who believes (or not) whatever - are always welcome.

To her, the point is the community showing up for and with each other. To me, the UU 'service' is rather like going to a humanistic seminar. I enjoyed it, but any traditional/conservative Christian like you describe above, sinners and saving and such, would find it lacking and they'd insist it isn't Christian, no doubt....

Even the UUs argue, huh?


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