With hip-hop in one ear, the gospel in the other, Otis Moss III preaches the blue note gospel

Caleb Bedillion '15 M.A.R.

From the pulpit in Marquand Chapel, he conducted a high wire oratorical act of prophetic passion and hip-hop heat. He offered trenchant cultural criticism, provided penetrating analysis of musical form and literary expressions, and exhorted his audience with commanding rhetorical dexterity.

To be succinct, he preached.

Otis Moss III delivered the 2014 Lyman Beecher Lectures over three days during Yale Divinity School’s annual Convocation & Reunions. He entitled his lectures “The Blue Note Gospel: Preaching the Prophetic Blues in a Post-Soul World.”

Moss ’95 M.Div. is the senior pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. A large congregation located on Chicago’s South Side, Trinity describes itself as community-centered liberation church that is “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian.” Moss has pastored Trinity since 2008, succeeding the long-serving Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

The blue note gospel

Moss took as his subject the matter of preaching itself. In both the content and the form of his three lectures, Moss exposited a particular approach to homiletics as an expression of the “blue note gospel.”

The blue note gospel offers a “magnificent mosaic of the contradiction of the human condition,” said Moss. Thus, blue note preaching speaks about tragedy without falling into despair.

By reflecting on this messy, mosaic reality, blues-inflected preaching can open up new possibilities for speaking and thinking.

“Blues speech confronts pain to imagine a future that status quo speech and supremacist speech cannot imagine,” said Moss.

This kind of preaching is not just about aesthetic preferences or empty emotionalism. Moss sees real theological significance behind this particular approach to speaking from the pulpit. Blue note preaching provides a different “way of knowing” and offers correction to a compromised American Christianity.

And compromise comes easy. Moss diagnosed the contemporary American context as “a postmodern world addicted to ease, empire, and markets.”

A dense, pluralistic collage of scholarly sources and cultural figures blended together into a decisively artistic but zealously prophetic vision of the preacher’s task. Moss quoted James Cone and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” the Book of Isaiah and Billie Holliday, Zora Neale Hurston and Flannery O’Connor.

Above all, Moss exhorted his listeners to take action.

Said Moss, “Take your spirit and soul into the storm.”

YDS Dean Greg Sterling described the Beecher lecture series as one of the most distinguished such lectureships at the school. The series has a long history, dating back to its endowment in 1871.

As this year’s speaker, Moss took preparation of the lectures as a serious task. He reviewed each of the lectures that have been delivered, beginning with the very first in 1871 by Henry Ward Beecher. He called this reading a joy to undertake. From this immersion in the legacy of the lecture series, Moss turned to ask himself what themes he could contribute.

“What idea challenges me that has not been lifted up?  What comes from my passion and my lifelong theological project?” Moss said, recalling his thoughts early in the process of composition.

“For me it has really been about developing a cultural homiletic that speaks to the diversity within the American project.”

“Stop running in circles”

In developing this cultural homiletic, Moss had a rich reserve of resources to draw upon. His father is himself an accomplished minister and Moss grew up in a Baptist church in Cleveland, Ohio. Through his church, Moss experienced a great diversity of musical expressions speaking to many aspects of the black experience in America.

“I had all of that music as a child flowing in my spirit,” Moss said.

But church wasn’t the source of musical inspiration in his life. Moss is also a child of the unique musical moment during which he came of age.

“Growing up during the golden age of hip-hop music, that was the soundtrack of my childhood. So hip-hop in one ear, the gospel in the other, with the blues being the underpinning for the structure of the music.”

Music wasn’t the only artistic influence in his life. Photography and film also captivated him. Moss dreamed of a career as a film director. “I was hoping to be the next Spike Lee,” Moss recalled.

But his plans were interrupted and his life redirected while pursuing his undergraduate degree at Morehouse College. At 19, while running on the college track – he’d just qualified for the Olympic trials – Moss felt something. A call. A command.

He remembers the event clearly: “I heard a voice. ‘Stop running in circles.’”

The call took time to develop. Moss did not feel enthusiastic about the pulpit. “Not that I disliked the church, but I grew up in the church and knew how difficult it was,” Moss said.

After Morehouse, Moss pursued further education at YDS with the intent of remaining in the academy. But his experience of ministry in the context of New Haven changed him.

“New Haven really formed my call,” Moss said.

He became involved with Elm City Nation, a gang violence prevention organization. This work offered him an avenue to work again the divisions of class and race Moss saw throughout New Haven, divisions which Moss described as a “splinter in my soul.”

After Yale, Moss pursued doctoral studies at the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology. During this time, his sense of commitment to parish ministry deepened, and in 1997 he accepted a call to serve as pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia.

Bruised and blessed

In 2006, after much prayer, Moss and his family moved to Chicago. Moss served under Jeremiah Wright at Trinity with the aim of eventually replacing Wright as senior pastor. He formally did so in 2009.

Moss admits the move the Chicago was step into the unknown, a step outside his comfort zone. But it was done as yet another response to a sense of God’s call.

At Trinity, Moss continues the church’s heritage of social justice action. He is pushing initiatives to alleviate food deserts, speak to environmental issues, and teach coding and computer programming to urban youth.

He is the author of Redemption in a Red Light District (FOUR-G Publishers, 2000) and The Gospel According to The Wiz: And Other Sermons from Cinema (Pilgrim Press, 2014). He is co-author of two The Gospel Remix: Reaching the Hip Hop Generation (Judson Press, 2008) and Preach!: The Power and Purpose Behind Our Praise (Pilgrim Press, 2008), which he wrote with his father.

Thus, word and deed are one for Moss. The blue note, Moss said in Marquand Chapel, pushes aside a Sunday school faith and enacts a faith that speaks to life as it is lived every day.

This is a challenge, Moss acknowledges, but a challenge that speaks of hope.

Said Moss, “We cannot help but be bruised and blessed by the weight of the task before us.”

November 13, 2014