Beth Hart has really hit it big these past couple of years. Her collaborations with Joe Bonamassa on a sensational album of soul covers, Don’t Explain, and on the just-released Seesaw, another collection of covers of songs by Billie Holiday, Etta James, Aretha Franklin and others, have won both artists well deserved acclaim and new fans.
Beth Hart has been a working musician for over twenty years, and in the early years of her career battled with both drink and drugs. She says that discovering a real Christian faith was instrumental in her recovery. On a recent Youtube video made for Guitar Centre, Beth says “Growing up I went to a Catholic school and the Catholic church, and I didn’t really like it. So I finally got to go to a Baptist church. And it was amazing.” Elsewhere she has talked about becoming best friends with people who were involved with religion who turned her on to bible studies. She said “I do use Jesus as my curve point and I think of his teachings when it comes to how I want to treat people.”
On her 2005 album, Leave the Light On, she gives us the gospel-infused Sky Full of Clover, which points to the new hope in life she has discovered – it’s a place where “the orchids run wild,” it’s a land full of smiles,” where “people are praising the holy one.”
Her new album, Bang Bang Boom Boom, which showcases Beth’s gospel, soul and blues talents, is quite simply superb – a terrific set of self-penned songs wonderfully produced, evoking Janis Joplin and Etta James, but at the same time essentially Beth Hart. One of the songs on the album is Spirit of God, which takes us on a rockin’ journey from Beth’s house to the house of God where she goes “hip shakin’ down the aisle”, then “breaking bread with my own special style”. Beth’s brand of Christian worship is clearly not the sombre sit in your pew, be quiet and sleep through the sermon version which is served up in too many churches. In Beth’s church, it’s a “soul celebration,” where the preacher’s “goin’ crazy…knocking devils down on the floor,” the choir is “giving it up to the Lord,” and Beth knows she’s sure “feeling something!”
The earliest Christian churches were communities of the Spirit. As far as the first Christians were concerned, the time that the Jewish prophets of old had talked about had come when God’s Spirit would be poured out on all flesh (Joel) and when God would “pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground…pour his Spirit upon your offspring, and [his] blessing on your descendants” (Isaiah). This was because the Messiah, Jesus, had lived, died and was raised to life – that meant that the day of God transforming the world had begun. This was the day of the Spirit. Hadn’t Jesus himself talked about “rivers of living water” pouring out of the person who believed in him,” specifically referring to the Spirit?
This was a theme specifically taken up by Blind Willie Johnson in his song Latter Rain – whose lyrics are often misquoted. What he’s actually singing about in this song is the “latter rain,” a direct reference to Joel 2.23 which refers to early (Autumn) and latter (Spring) rains for the crops. The reference to the latter rain here has often been taken by Christians to refer to the pouring out of the Spirit as a result of Pentecost. Willie Johnson sings “Latter rain done fall on me” and again, quoting an earlier passage in Joel, goes on to say “It for you, it for you and your children too.” He’s singing about the experience of Christians of the promised Spirit – the same Spirit of God which Beth Hart says she’s got, some seventy years after Willie Johnson.
Back to our first Christians – it’s hard to know, but it looks like these early Christian gatherings were pretty lively affairs, and at times more than a little chaotic – judging by the apostle Paul’s attempt to set things straight in his letter to the Christians in Corinth. But for sure, there was a dynamic, a sense of expectancy when they met together, a sense that something was happening amongst them, that they were being changed and that through them the world also could be changed.
That said, Paul wanted the Corinthian Christians to know that while the experience of the Spirit in church could be pretty exciting, there were other things that the Spirit could inspire as well – like selfless love, sexual morality, faithfulness and unity. Part of the purpose of meeting together and celebrating the Spirit amongst them was to encourage them to live well – as Beth puts it, there’s
Nothing like a soul celebration
To set your situation right.
And, if your “mojo ain’t been working” and you’re “broken,” you can learn to get your “strut back up on the street.”
Beth Hart follows up Spirit of God with another Spirit-infused gospel song, There in Your Heart, where the lyric says,
Wherever you go, whatever you do
I will be there inside of you
There in your heart…wherever you go
I will go too.
It’s hard to miss the reference here to Psalm 139, where we have the writer wondering “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” And concluding that even the dark places of the world cannot separate us from the love and protection of the Spirit of God. The song says,
I was there in the beginning, when you took your first breath alone
I’ll be there in the ending when the world’s desire leaves your bones,
And in all of the corners and all the wide open spaces in the dark
I’ll be there in your heart.
Beth Hart has surely known some dark spaces in life, but knows the reality of the presence of the Spirit. When your life’s been turned around like hers – and everybody who’s “got the Spirit of God” – it’s a joyous thing. It sends you “hip shakin’ down the aisle,” for sure. There’s really no excuse for church being dull, is there, if the Spirit of God is transforming people and they are going out from there to transform the world around?