Aaron Burton’s 2013 release, The Return of Peetie Whitestraw (not to be confused with early bluesman Peetie Wheatstraw), is a terrific album of country blues, driven by Burton’s excellent slide and acoustic chops, and his assured, well-phrased vocals. With fourteen original tracks, the album is a delight, with a range of traditional blues subjects tackled, from unfaithful lovers to travelling and drifting to drinking.
There’s one particularly interesting song in the collection – If That’s Religion, where Burton takes issue with a number of biblical themes or interpretations of the Bible. “The world was created in only seven days? And Abraham’s willing to sacrifice his son?” he sings. Well then, “if that’s religion, I swear I don’t want none.”
We perhaps can sympathize with Burton’s difficulties here, as with the disagreement he has in his song that events like 9-11 point to the “last days.” There are, to be sure, difficulties in readings of the Bible which assume this ancient text should perfectly align with 21st century science – and if it doesn’t, that we should abandon our science. Or with readings that assume that it must have something to say about events in our own lifetimes. The Bible was never meant to tell us about science or about specific events in our own history. And to try and shoehorn it into that role is both unhelpful and distracting from properly understanding its message.
Which is one of love and justice. The Bible tells the story of a world gone wrong, a world full of suffering and injustice. And the story of God’s plan to make things right, to redeem and renew his world. And the opportunity for us to join in with this story, to allow God to make it our own story and then to work for newness and change and justice in God’s world. All this made possible through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But Burton finds the idea that “Jesus rose from the dead” too far-fetched to swallow.
A difficult idea, to be sure. Dead men don’t get up. But however we might interpret the Old Testament stories of the creation or Abraham and Isaac or the ethnic cleansing of the land by Joshua – everything stands or falls on the veracity of this one central story of the resurrection. St. Paul said that if the Messiah wasn’t raised, then there was no point in having faith, we might as well eat, drink and be merry. For him, a Jewish scholar and zealot, who hated the ideas of the new Christian group, solid evidence was needed – which he felt he had in spades from the witness of numerous people who had seen the risen Jesus, and in his own experience on the Damascus road.
If religion’s all about trying to make difficult Old Testament stories somehow fit a modern scientific world view, then Aaron Burton’s right – “if that’s religion, I swear I don’t want none.” But if Jesus really is risen from the dead, then the world is in the process of being transformed and we can share in that process. If that’s religion, then I want some of that.
For more on the idea of Christian hope and the resurrection, check out Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope.