Rampant individualism and obsession with national and personal interests have robbed us of the gift of community, of looking out for each other. Walter Trout in his new album Blues for the Modern Daze asks “Am I my brother’s keeper”?
Walter Trout’s new album, Blues for the Modern Daze, is just terrific, combining as it does contemporary blues-rock with plenty of traditional blues elements. Just in case you’re not familiar with Walter Trout – BBC Radio One named him as number six on their list of the top 20 guitarists of all time and Bob Harris, legendary radio DJ, called Trout “the world’s greatest rock guitarist” in his book The Whispering Years.
Blues for the Modern Daze has got all the virtuoso fast licks you’d expect from Trout, but it’s not just the dazzling technique that seizes you – it’s the intensity and emotion that he never fails to get across in the album. The subject matter is gripping throughout, with songs dealing with addiction, loneliness, powerlessness in the face of big business, the contrast between rich and poor, and the insidious and life-denying effects of television and the advertising industry. Then in the album’s title track, Trout bemoans the loss of neighbourliness – “These times in which we live, it’s dog eat dog in the modern daze…You’ll get yours and I’ll get mine”.
This disappointment with the rampant individualism of the modern era continues in the brilliant “Brother’s Keepers”. The song starts off by asking,
“Are we supposed to be our brother’s keeper,
Are we supposed to hear him when he calls?
Are we supposed to catch him,
Catch him when he calls?”
The song recalls, of course, the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. In a fit of jealousy, Cain rises up against his brother and commits the first murder. When God comes looking for Abel and asks Cain where he is, Cain gets short with the Almighty and says, “Well I don’t know – am I my brother’s keeper?” Here the problems of the first family go from bad to worse. The parents got thrown out of the God’s garden for that business over the apple, but at least Adam, Eve and the boys had each other. Now that relationship, that precious brotherliness, is fractured by Cain’s terrible act of violence.
Cain’s question echoes over the ages – am I my brother’s keeper? Am I supposed to catch him when he falls? Perhaps it’s particularly important to hear that question right now. In an age when technology pushes us more and more into our own individual worlds. Technology enables us to do so much, and to do so much on our own. We can survive without others in a way that previous generations couldn’t or peoples living in less sophisticated environments in the world can’t. On top of that, we’re bombarded by the advertising industry telling us all we need is this or that product to make our lives complete. Result? A fracturing of society, a loss of neighbourliness – with the resultant loneliness and isolation that many people feel – the “modern daze”, as Walter puts it. Individualism and selfishness have become the defining characteristics of our age. Rich nations like the US and those in Europe put their national interest above all else, pursing trade agreements that break developing nations and oppress the poor, and implementing military strategies that have little or no concern for the victims of military action – most often women and childen.
Walter Bruggemann says that our societies suffer from “predatory violence that precludes neighborliness”. He suggests we live in a “global market economy supported by an undisciplined militarism in the service of limitless consumer entitlement”. So stressed and overburdened are we by our technological tools and toys that we end up with “no time left for critical reflection or the nurture of an intentional life of freedom and imagination”. The market greed of our time distracts us and catches us up in its wake leaving us feeling that we no longer have a choice about where are lives are going.
But of course we do. Walter Trout’s song goes on to say:
Jesus said the feed the hungry,
Jesus said to help the poor
We can choose to imagine a different sort of world and can begin to live in ways that actualize that. We can refuse the rat race of anxiety and self-absorption. We can begin to live as true neighbours and, as Bruggemann says, “witness against the predatory values of our society”.
Whatever else we might want to say about Jesus – Walter’s right – he did talk an awful lot about the poor, those in prison, those with no clothes on their backs, the hungry and the sick. Am I my brother’s keeper? Dead right, says Jesus. What was lost by that first family, represented by Cain’s cynical, rhetorical question, was precisely what Jesus came to restore. To give us back our humanity and with it a sense of responsibility for each other. And in the end, that’s what he said we’d be judged on – Jesus’s story about the great heavenly assize in Matthew 25 leaves us in no doubt that God’s favourable judgement is only for those who served the hungry, the sick and the poor.
Brother’s Keeper finishes with a searing criticism of modern “so-called Christians” who “don’t believe in that no more” – i.e. Jesus’s teaching about serving the poor and feeding the hungry. People that are so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly use, to coin an old phrase. People who purport to follow Jesus but allow themselves to be swept along by the tide of selfish acquisitiveness of our present age. How’d we ever get to think that the gospel is just about thoughts and beliefs and what goes on inside us instead of following Jesus into the company of the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized?
The good news is, of course, there are lots of Christians living out their faith doing just that – check out Christian Aid, Tearfund, the Salvation Army, and World Vision for examples. In fact much of the alleviation of suffering in the world is actually done by or funded by Christians. We just need a whole lot more of it. We need to listen to the call of “Brother’s Keeper”:
We’re supposed to be our brother’s keeper,
Supposed to hear him when he calls?
I believe we’re supposed to be help him,
I believe we’re supposed to catch him when he calls?
Walter Trout in Cologne, Germany plays “Brother’s Keeper” in a sold out show in a beautiful, medieval Church .