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A Blues Brothers mystagogyBy Nathan Jennings
A Blues Brothers mystagogy was originally posted on The Living Church’s Covenant blog on May 19, 2015.
My wife and I recently had a chance to entertain ourselves by watching The Blues Brothers, that 1980 classic, again.
Every other time I’ve watched this movie, the repeating theme wherein the “brothers” insist that they are on a “mission from God” came across to me simply as part of the joke of the movie or as a blasphemy (as it did to Aretha Franklin’s character in that famous scene), especially when I found myself in a rather pious mood.
This time I felt rather differently. Between the last time I watched this old comedy and this recent viewing, a lot of life, growing up, sorrow, and spiritual direction has intervened. I believe the brothers were indeed on a mission from God. And I believe it is “proved,” time and again throughout the movie by the constant intervention of grace.
Jake is released from prison to his “brother” (rather, fellow orphan) Elwood. Elwood has purchased a decommissioned police cruiser as the new “Blues Mobile.” The car will be a means for continued escape from the law (legalism?) throughout the film. Elwood will not allow his brother to lie to the nun who raised them. He must see her once freed from prison, as he promised. Brothers keep one another accountable. They discover that the orphanage they grew up in will be sold if a radical increase to property taxation is not met. But the nun will not accept stolen money, and she commands them to redeem themselves.
Upon departure they meet their old janitor (Cab Calloway). He makes it clear in no uncertain terms that ruling out the place of the Church in their lives simply will not work. Miraculously, they obey the summons. At an African-American church filled with gospel singing (James Brown), Jake finally “sees the light”: there is a legitimate way to help their orphanage. They must re-form their band and earn the money honestly (so to speak). Thus the real journey of the movie begins.
But was it not a simple parting of the clouds that led to Jake’s illumination through a stained glass window? Yes, of course. We who claim belief in a non-competitively transcendent God should expect no greater miracle in order to “see the light.”
Time and again the brothers are confronted with obstacles: the law, an angry abandoned bride, Nazis (yes, Nazis, of course), lack of money, Good Old Boys, etc. At every turn the brothers escape just in time. Often, they make their escape without knowing that they have escaped anything. “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Do we give thanks enough for all those evils God saves us from, unbeknownst to us, everyday? Only one thing can explain this pattern. The brothers are indeed on a mission from God. God’s prevenient grace paves the way for them to save the orphanage.
But they are outlaws. They are “sinners.” They are liars. They curse. They manipulate. How could they be on a mission from God? How are any of us? My greatest hope is that the brothers were indeed on a mission from God. For I must somehow believe that despite my sin, my self-deception, my disobedience to God’s law, and my self-pity, I too, somehow, serve some purpose in God’s divine service.
(Spoiler alert, do not read the next paragraph in case you are the one person in the world who has not yet seen this movie.)
In the end, the brothers save their childhood home. They pay its price. “I will show him how much he must suffer for me.” In the final scene, the brothers, together with their whole band, bring joy and entertainment to their fellow prisoners singing a soulful rendition of the King’s (coincidence?) “Jail House Rock.” The movie does not end with the brothers and their band free and on good terms with the law. The movie ends with them, both of them, now, right back where Jake started: incarcerated. But they know that they fulfilled a mission from God. And that has made all the difference.
All of the above fails even to mention one major note of grace shot through the movie overall: that two grown up white orphans desire to be associated with the core expression of African-American angst, the blues. The continued racism of American culture is thus confronted with grace and humor in this classic. This also is, of course, no coincidence. It is rather grace upon grace.
Let us laugh and become real, and say with the Blues Brothers, “We are on a mission from God.”
Nathan Jennings is the J. Milton Richardson Associate Professor of Liturgics and Anglican Studies. Nathan attended University of Texas, Yale Divinity School, and The University of Virginia and has served at Seminary of the Southwest for 10 years.
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