by Otis Moss III
Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky., 136 pages
REVIEWED BY DENISE ANDERSON
“Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World” is an insightful offering on the black homiletical traditional. In this collection of lectures and sermons, Otis Moss III examines what it means to preach from a “blues sensibility,” communicating hope to communities experiencing turmoil.
Moss, it should be noted, is the son of theologian, civil rights leader and gifted preacher Otis Moss Jr. In this book, Moss shows us the influence of his upbringing while also displaying his own theological and exegetical prowess. His work continues in the vein of his father, yet draws from the cultural influences of his own time — namely hip-hop culture.
The first three chapters are lectures Moss delivered in 2014 for Yale University’s Lyman Beecher Lectures. He brilliantly draws from music theory and history to craft this concept he calls “the blue note gospel.” Moss connects the musical tradition of the blues to African-American homiletics, which holds in tension the desperation of the times (blues) with hopefulness for the future (gospel). He masterfully weaves Scripture and song in his illustrations and examines how a “blues sensibility” must adapt in a hip-hop world. The “post-soul generation” — Moss’s appellation of millennials — encounters the gospel differently from their blues predecessors. In response, Moss crafts a framework for preaching using Tricia Rose’s four pillars of hip-hop.
It is in his Lyman Beecher lectures that we’re able to see what an intellectual powerhouse Moss is. His theses are well informed, cogent and incisive. The remaining four divisions of the book are sermons Moss lifts as examples of “blue note” preaching.
Sermons are orations — spoken things — that often lose something when read in print. This is probably even more true for sermons in the black preaching tradition, because the sermon is often dialogical and relies on congregational participation and support as much as the preacher’s own delivery. Unfortunately, the sermons Moss’ includes in the book don’t escape that tendency. There is nothing like hearing an “OM3” sermon, yet what you do “hear” in the reading of his sermons is a preacher who knows his community. Moss is clearly preaching to the people of Trinity United Church of Christ in the south side of Chicago. Some of his cultural references may be lost on a hearer who is outside of that context. Though the sermons are probably more accessible to more people than the lectures, he never scarifices exegetical heft in order to achieve that accessibility. You can still tell he has done some intense work, even if he does make it look easy! For those who’d like to hear Moss, QR codes to each of the Lyman Beecher Lectures are included after each of the first three chapters.
In “Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World,” Moss gives a hopeful way forward for preaching in difficult contexts. We are challenged (or given permission) to wrestle with text and context, daring to proclaim that, even when it’s not all right, it’s all right. In this way, Moss helps us appreciate anew the contributions of the black preaching tradition.
DENISE ANDERSON is a writer and pastor of Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hills, Maryland.