At Christmas I was delighted to get tickets to see the Blind Boys of Alabama in Belfast later this year. I saw them a few years ago, and wrote an article on the back of my experience. An edited version appears below.
I had the pleasure of seeing the Blind Boys of Alabama at the Grand Opera House last week, and what a show it was.
Four of us went: my atheist father [no longer an atheist], my mother, my devout Christian grandmother [now deceased], and me: a Christian. A pretty diverse bunch. And to the credit of the Blind Boys we all loved it. From the start it was superb. Jimmy Carter is the leader of the bunch, a man as old as my grandmother who had as much energy as I do. What made them so fantastic was more than just the music.
The Blind Boys (4 out of 7 of them are blind) don’t ask for pity or sympathy because of their disability. I’ve seen people with lesser disabilities complain about their lot, about how hard life has been to them. Not so the Blind Boys. They don’t do self-pity. For them their disability is seen as a blessing, and even a source of humour. Getting up from his chair and reaching for his microphone Jimmy Carter had wandered slightly sideways and was left groping aimlessly in the air before finally laying his hands on it and remarking (with an Alabama accent that made it all the more humorous): “Well, I suppose that means you all know I can’t see. No hidin’ it now.” They’re a great example of disabled people getting on with their lives and enjoying themselves.
Not only are the Blind Boys fantastic musicians and vocalists, they also know that they are and aren’t afraid of saying so. But, somehow it never comes across as smug arrogance. The only thing that irks me more than brazen arrogance is false humility – which seems to infect much of the music industry these days. The Blind Boys have a remarkable genuine humility blended wonderfully with a massive dose of self-confidence. Telling us all how great they are at singing, Jimmy Carter quips: “Blind Boys don’t brag. They just state facts.” They are great singers: fact. So, I guess Jimmy would be right on the money there.
As you may know the Blind Boys are also unashamedly religious, but they are so without many of the excesses of modern day Christianity. They aren’t preachy. They never tell you that you’re going to hell for disagreeing. Their gospel message is one of joy – a joy that springs from a sure faith in God, and a delight that one day they’ll sing for Him in heaven (no doubt informing God about just how good they are: stand aside angels and arch-angels, eh?). All they want to do is make people happy. Jimmy Carter announces from the start: “All we want is for you to go home feeling uplifted.” Their theology might come across as a little bit trite at times: “no matter what trouble is going on in the world [the Iraq war at the time], God is in control,” but they aren’t theologians. The manner of their religious expression has a far greater impact than any amount of traditional preaching. No matter how clichéd their religious pronouncements sometimes sound you’re more inclined to agree because of the manner in which it’s said. The aurora of joy and peace that surrounds them is something that I rarely see these days. Disagree with what they say, but they make you smile when they say it. And that’s a rare gift.
This joy and happiness that the Blind Boys exude also jars with the manner of many of our “New Atheists,” and reminds me of one of the problems I see in that movement. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris & Hitchens [peace be upon him] get labeled “atheist fundamentalists,” and not without good reason. They tend to share many of the same character traits as the worst religious fundamentalists, including the often shrill and manic nature of many of their pronouncements. And just like religious fundamentalists they make little effort to understand the object of their criticism: for instance Dawkins’ intellectually pedestrian book “The God Delusion” shows little more understanding of religion than you would expect from a High School student of Religious Education. And often they aren’t motivated by anything other than hatred of the other side: a fact beautifully illustrated by Christopher Hitchens who calls anyone with any hint of religion about them evil or stupid or both. Many who wear the new atheist jersey strike me as terribly bitter men and women with nothing to offer humanity other than vitriolic damnations of all who disagree. It seems as if they have lost any belief in progress and purpose in life and are simply bitter at those who still have some vision of good, some sense of meaning and purpose. Frankly, they need to smile a bit more. Is atheism something that cannot be enjoyed? A glimpse at the current crop of “New Atheists” doesn’t give much hope.
And it is this feature that “New Atheism” would need to capture. They need to move far beyond their rather unimpressive critique of religion that’s long on polemic and short on decent arguments. They need to give humanity something more positive, something to live for, something to give people meaning and purpose to their lives. Something to be celebrated. Disagree with every religion on earth, but there’s no denying that religion excels as providing this for people. What will “New Atheists” offer humanity in place of religion? Hitchens offers: “Probably the most daunting task that we face, as partly rational animals with adrenal glands that are too big and prefrontal lobes that are too small, is the contemplation of our own relative weight in the scheme of things…the awareness that our death is coming and will be succeeded by the death of the species and the heat death of the universe is scant comfort.” Is that it? It doesn’t mean atheism is false, but if it’s true and if this is the best its defenders can offer then it’s pretty bad news for humanity.
One might be forgiven for thinking that such an over-the-top crusade against religion is a ruse: a way for “New Atheists” to avoiding any reflection on the lack of popular appeal of their own agenda, with their reveling in causing offence to religious people bordering on the self-indulgent. And I think people will soon tire of it. What next for them?
Anyway, who would I rather sit in the pub and have a pint with? I’d choose the Blind Boys any day over fundamentalist Christians – who wouldn’t go to a pub anyway – and fundamentalist atheists with little sense of joy and purpose, who’d probably sit and sneer at everyone else until someone throws them out for sucking the souls out of everyone. The Blind Boys are sure. The Blind boys are happy. And that sense of happiness is wonderfully infectious. They have a sense of meaning and purpose to their lives that I envy, and they absolutely delight in it.
The high point of their concert was their singing of “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.” One of the lines of Amazing Grace says: “I once was lost, but now I’m found; Was blind, but now I see.”
And that sums up the Blind Boys of Alabama: they’re blind, but they sure can see.