Singing the Blues

By Seán Mullan

There was a bit of a rumpus in YouTube land recently following Stephen Fry’s eloquent riff on what he would say to a God he doesn’t believe in, if it turned out that he was mistaken - Stephen that is, not God! His reply became a minor YouTube sensation, with 5 million hits. Perspective matters here: a video entitled “Charlie bit my finger” topped 800 million hits.

As I listened to his complaints, I realised I’d heard it all - or read it all before. You don’t have to be an avid reader of the ancient Jewish and Christian Scriptures to know that they are pretty loaded with complaints against God. 

Job is one of the most ancient and the most famous. And, in fairness, he had plenty to complain about. Then there are some Psalms, which are basically just one long complaint from start to finish. Add in a few of the prophets who were equally eloquent. And finally, look at Jesus, who is reported to have cried aloud in complaint at God just before he died.

Has the church, at least in the more affluent parts of the world, lost the art of singing the blues?

With all that history, why the excitement over Stephen Fry’s complaint against things like bone cancer in children? Could it be because the church in the West has lost the art of complaining at God and now leave that to atheists like Stephen Fry? Has the church become extremist at accentuating the positive? 

When is the last time you who are churchgoers heard a good moaning-Psalm being read out? Songs in the key of “happy” seem the norm. Has the church, at least in the more affluent parts of the world, lost the art of singing the blues?

This question reminded me of a service I attended, years ago, when a visiting clergyman from Sudan was asked to lead prayer for his own country. It was a time of civil war in Southern Sudan. Thousands were being massacred; women were being raped; children were being kidnapped into slavery; and villages were being burned. It was a nightmare situation that, sadly, still goes on.

I have never, before or since, heard anything like it. Beginning quite calmly, the man began to list his complaints to God. Before long he was in tears and soon he was literally roaring at God. By the end, he was so hoarse he was barely audible. The whole thing was so gut-wrenchingly authentic that none of us present could have held to the idea that he was just speaking to himself - that no one “out there” was listening. That he had problems with God was evident - and that God was listening was even more evident.

Stephen Fry and the Sudanese clergyman have a couple of things in common. First there’s the power of their complaints. They are right; there are terrible things going on. But on top of that, they both share a conviction that life’s not meant to be like this. Whether it’s children with bone cancer or children being kidnapped, they believe that it shouldn’t be like that. They share the conviction that somehow life is meant to be different.

Why is that? I’m guessing the clergyman would say that it’s because we are made for something better - and that, despite all that’s gone on, he still believes that it’s on the way. What Stephen Fry would answer, I can’t guess. But the question remains: why do atheists and theists alike believe that the life we have is not the life that should be? And why, in the face of all the pain, do we go on believing we were meant for something better?

Seán Mullan has been working in church leadership for many years. He has developed a new project in Dublin City Centre called “Third Space”.