On A Mission from God:

July 7, 2010

The Gospel According to Jake and Elwood Blues

Elwood: It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.
Jake: Hit it.

The Blues Brothers is one of those movies my friends and I would quote to each other whenever the situation called for it. It is one of the few movies that I still watch repeatedly and never get bored. I even own the two hour and twenty eight minute collectors edition which includes all the less important scenes that never should have gotten cut in the first place. The Blues Brothers was revolutionary with its car chases and car crashes, and it broke new ground as a modern musical, and through the music it revealed a cross section of black and white culture in a time when it was still not popular to do so. Because of the Blues Brothers I discovered the roots of the rock-n-roll I so dearly loved, and I gained a respect and love of black music and black culture that I might not have found otherwise. Since I’ve become a Christian, however, I found my love for The Blues Brothers suspect in many situations. You see, it does have the dreaded ‘R’ rating because it contains multiple uses of the “F” word. But even when I would urge some friends to watch it with me while it was edited for television—so they could experience the joy I knew—some refused claiming it was sacrilegious. I do not want to be one who tempts my brother to sin, so I’ve chosen to keep my love for this film on the down low. However, thirty years after its release, the Catholic Church has finally put their stamp of approval on the film. It seems that The Blues Brothers is finally being recognized for its spiritual value. I grew up on the Blues Brothers. My cousin and I used to dress up like Jake and Elwood and imitate their singing and dancing (unfortunately, some of those dance moves still unexpectedly come out of me today!). The Blues Brothers helped shape my love of music, my understanding of comedy, and, yes, my theology and my faith. When you follow the movie beyond its comedic value, what you have is a classic prodigal son tale of redemption including all the warts and bruises and miracles and lessons from trying to follow God’s plan.

Curtis Blues: Boys, you got to learn not to talk to nuns that way.

We need to start at the beginning. The movie starts with Jake getting an early release from jail for good behavior. Elwood picks up Jake and makes him visit “the Penguin” to fulfill a promise Jake made to her. The Penguin is the nun who ran the orphanage the two grew up in. Jake at first refuses, but Elwood reasons that you can’t lie to a nun. Their visit to her is hilariously disastrous as she tells them the orphanage needs $5,000 to stay open. Jake offers to help and she refuses money gained by criminal means, so he ends up cursing. She pulls out the yardstick and the more she hits them the more they curse until they fall down the stairs outside her office and land at the feet of Curtis Blues. Curtis (played by Cab Calloway) is the janitor and handy man at the orphanage and often becomes the only family for the kids, tucking them into bed and singing them old blues songs. The contrast between Curtis and the Penguin allows for great comedic effect, but even as the characters are foils of one another, they also can represent the dual nature of God. God is Justice and Mercy working together. God’s Justice brought the Law that causes us to realize our need for repentance, but it his Mercy inspired by Love that causes Him to forgive us and allows us access to Him and to love him in return. After Jake and Elwood speak to Curtis, they desire to find a legit way to help the orphanage but feel helpless.

Reverend Cleophus James: And now, people… And now, people… When I woke up this mornin’, I heard a distubin’ sound. I said When I woke up this mornin’, I heard a disturbin’ sound! What I heard was the jingle-jangle of a thousand lost souls! I’m talkin’ ’bout the souls of mortal men and women, departed from this life. Wait a minute! Those lost angry souls roamin’ unseen on the earth, seekin’ to find life they’ll not find, because it’s too late! Tooooo late, yeah! Too late for they’ll never see again the life they choose not to follow. Alright! Alright! Don’t be lost when your time comes! For the day of the Lord cometh as a thief in the night!

Curtis agrees with the Penguin; the boys need “a little churchin’ up.” He encourages them to slide on over to the church of Reverend Cleophus James (played by James Brown). When I was a child I was awestruck at this service. My mom drug me to a church where all I really knew was that I couldn’t make a sound or even put my head down and fall asleep, but this service was wild. It was like a party! I dare to say that while God’s holiness often provokes a deep silence and reverence in our souls, I think that the rejoicing in heaven is much more like the service we see in this movie than what is usually found in the services of most Traditional-Western churches. As a child I thought this service must be extremely exaggerated for the movie; I was pleasantly surprised the first time I had the opportunity to visit a Black Church on Booth St, a run down part of Elkton, MD, and discovered that the service led by James Brown was not so far from reality.

Reverend Cleophus James: DO YOU SEE THE LIGHT?
Jake: THE BAND!

It is at this church that Jake receives his vision and revelation from God: “The band.” It’s simple, they just need to put their old band back together and they’ll be able to raise the money for the orphanage. There is much we can learn from this. Jake is easily one of the most offensive and selfish persons in the movie, yet God chooses to speak to him and reveal his plan. Is this any different from the Apostle Paul? Did not God have a plan to use him while he was approving of the death of Stephen and later dragging more “followers of the Way” to their deaths? We should not despise those around us, no matter who they are; we need to be aware that God uses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise. Look all through scripture and you will see that God prefers to use the underdog to get his work done. As the movie progresses we discover the childlike faith that both Jake and Elwood have. There is much resistance keeping them from their goal, but they literally plow through every obstacle with the security that God is on their side and the expectation that he will get them through. Each time they are met with resistance, whether it’s a reluctant band member (or his wife played by Aretha Franklin) or the cops or a redneck-country-western band or the Nazis, their reply is always the famous line: “they’re not gonna catch us, we’re on a mission from God.” Would that Christians today had the faith of Jake and Elwood Blues! Imagine what God could accomplish through his children if we could only walk into the journey he’s called each of us to with confidence in his power and trusting in the security in his love! What a wonderful world that would be.

Willie ‘Too Big’ Hall: You’ll never get Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy and Mr. Fabulous out of them high-payin’ gigs.
Jake: Oh yeah? Well me and the Lord, we have an understanding.

It turns out that putting the band (all the members are played by professional musicians) back together is not so easy. Jake has been in jail for three years, and most of them have pretty much gone their separate ways. After much work, manipulation and grace, they manage to get the full band back and get their manager to book a show that will make enough money to save the orphanage—if they can fill the concert hall. Despite wrecking havoc throughout the greater Chicago area, they somehow avoid arrest and get enough support to help advertise, and the show is sold out. This teaches that when God is on your side, he will enable you to reach your goal, because it’s His goal. Jake and Elwood had set out to save the orphanage they grew up in; it’s clear in the scriptures that God has a special place in his heart for orphans. When you are confident you are walking in his will, you can trust God to come through for you. God will surround you with people who will support your vision, sometimes without even realizing what they are supporting. Of course, I wouldn’t recommend going about it the way Jake and Elwood did, but then we wouldn’t have half as many laughs in the movie if they had been a bit more conservative.

Jake: First you traded the Cadillac in for a microphone. Then you lied to me about the band. And now you’re gonna put me right back in the joint!
Elwood: They’re not gonna catch us. We’re on a mission from God.

They managed to do such a good job advertising the show, that in addition to their fans, all their enemies showed up as well, including the country-western band, the Nazis and the entire local police department. They were surrounded, and it looked unlikely they would make it out the door, but “if God is for us, who can be against us?” Their job was not finished; they still needed to get the money to the Cook County Property Assessment Office in Chicago. King David often speaks in the Psalms of being surrounded by his enemies on every side, yet trusting in God to save him. Not only did they find a way out, but the man who showed it to them happened to be a record producer who hooked them up with enough money to save the orphanage, pay the band all the money they owed them, and pay off all their debt to Ray’s Music Exchange (the owner played by Ray Charles). This supports the principle that when we are obedient to God, he will do exceedingly and abundantly more than we can ask or imagine. The only thing left to do was to get the money to Chicago before the deadline. This is brings us to the Bluesmobile.

Elwood: It’s got a cop motor, a 440 cubic inch plant, it’s got cop tires, cop suspensions, cop shocks. It’s a model made before catalytic converters so it’ll run good on regular gas. What do you say; is it the new Bluesmobile or what?
Jake: Fix the cigarette lighter.

The Bluesmobile has mythology all to its own. The original one was a Cadillac, but while Jake was in jail, Elwood traded it for a microphone. He was able to pick up an old Dodge police car at an auction to replace it. When Jake protests that his own brother picks him up from jail in a police car, Elwood convinces him that the car is worthy of the title of Bluesmobile by jumping an opening drawbridge. The movie progresses and the car is able to perform greater and greater feats as the police, the country-western band, and the Nazis close in on them. One of the scenes that got cut from the movie implies that the car draws its power from Elwood parking it illegally in a high voltage area near his apartment. However, the end of the famous Police Car Chase Finale (which held the record of most wrecked cars in a movie for a very long time) implies that the power was actually coming from a higher source. The truth is that when we have faith, God will come through for us with miracles. The amazing feats of the Bluesmobile teach us that when human nature fails us, the supernatural will kick in and God will provide us with what it takes to get the job done. However, sometimes he will provide only what we actually need. Once Jake and Elwood made it to the Assessment Office, the car literally fell into a heap as they exited it. This shows that even when we are struggling to survive, God will “hold together” whatever objects or circumstances we need as long as we actually need them. When the Israelites wandered the desert for forty years, the scripture says none of their possessions wore out. True story: after my divorce, I took a risk and followed God’s lead to go back to college and get my teaching degree. Needless to say with two kids to help support, I was poor, and my car, a 1983 Chevy Nova (not the cool Novas, this year’s model was an imitation Honda) got progressively worse during that time but somehow puttered along. When I finally got my first paycheck as a teacher, I was ready to take on car payments, and as I pulled into a used car lot that advertised they would take any trade-in, no matter how bad, the Nova broke down. On that same lot was the exact car I was looking for in great condition and with an affordable price; it was even in my favorite color: a 1997 Forrest Green Jeep Cherokee. Being such a fan of the Blues Brothers, the irony was not lost on me. God does have a sense of humor.

The Cast and Crew: Everybody on the whole cell block / Was dancin’ to the Jailhouse rock!

God loves to laugh, and he is full of joy and love and peace, but he is also holy and righteous, and despite his grace and mercy, like a good father, he allows us to pay the consequences of our actions when we continually act in ways that displease him. I think if it wasn’t for the end of the movie, the sacrilegious argument could be justified. However, after Jake and Elwood pay the $5000 property tax for the orphanage, they end up in jail; they pay the consequences for their careless and foolish actions throughout the film. This doesn’t contradict God’s mercy and grace. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for us gave us access to God with a renewed relationship, but his resurrection gave us the ability to receive the Holy Spirit who gives us a greater power to walk away from sin and into a greater trust in God. We have to make daily choices to follow God and do the right thing. Where Jake and Elwood went wrong on their renewed walk with God was they felt they needed to manipulate certain situations to accomplish their goal. They weren’t mature enough to trust that if they consistently did the right thing, God would still come through in his way and his time. Though most Christians don’t commit offenses nearly as bad as the Blues Brothers did, how often do we get impatient with God and take matters into our own hands only to screw things up in the long run. For the sake of grace and for the sake of accomplishing his will on Earth, God will put up with our foolishness for a time, but unless we get back on track, we will pay the consequences. The more we make right choices, the easier they become, but if God didn’t allow us to suffer the consequences of bad choices; we would never learn how to live righteously. The reality is that even when we are following the Lord’s will, if we screw up and sin in the midst of it, we still have to pay the consequences, but it is for our own good.

Elwood: We certainly hope you all enjoy the show. And remember, people, that no matter who you are and what you do to live, thrive and survive, there’re still some things that makes us all the same. You. Me. Them. Everybody. Everybody…Everybody Needs Somebody to Love…

God is not above using vulgarity to reach people who would never step foot in a church, or even to get his own children’s attention. If you think that statement is sacrilegious, go read Ezekiel 16 and 23 (and most of our modern English translations are translated in the nicest possible way). C.L. Lewis said, “Suppose the image is vulgar. If it gets across to the unbeliever what the unbeliever desperately needs to know, the vulgarity must be endured.” I am by no way advocating that Christians should feel the freedom to use foul language or even make viewing films that clearly contain vulgarity in them a regular part of their lives, but I do believe that the majority of the Church spends so much time fearing the vulgarity of the world that they become closed off to what God could be doing through them to bring truth and light into the darkness of the world. A common Church doctrine tells us that we are to “be in the world, but not of it.” We are not of the world because we follow a higher law of love that Jesus has placed in our hearts, but it is that that law of love that should be causing us to “go out into the world and make disciples of all men.” When I watch The Blues Brothers on television with all the cursing edited out, it is just as funny. There is no reason why Christians shouldn’t be making art that is both as appealing and humerous as The Blues Brothers and also speaks as much truth as it does. John Landis and Dan Akroyd were the principle writers of the movie. I don’t know what kind of faith either of them have. One of them must have at least grown up Catholic, but much of their other work implies the faith didn’t stick. In the very first sermon to the “unchurched” after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the Apostle Peter quotes the Prophet Joel, “In those days I will pour out my spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:14-41). Many interpret this passage to mean that the gospel is for all the peoples and nations of the earth, and while I certainly agree with that truth, I believe the Lord also means something deeper. I believe he often prophetically inspires unbelievers to speak his truth, so that those who refuse to listen to those in the church can have a chance to wonder about a God in heaven and maybe even begin to talk to him and connect with the longing of their souls. John Calvin said, “All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not reject it; for it has come from God.” When Christians reject all art that comes from the world, we are losing opportunities to water the seed of truth that was planted by that art. God once spoke truth through Balaam’s ass, why wouldn’t he take the opportunity to speak through John Landis, Dan Akroyd, and John Belushi in the same way?

The Blues Brothers Band: I got everything I need, almost. I got everything I need, almost. But I don’t got you, and you’re the thing I need the most.

Peter L Richardson
7/1/2010

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2 Responses to “On A Mission from God:”

  1. Steph Says:

    Pete, you have outdone yourself with this parallel. It’s been a long time since I have seen this movie. Obviously, I need to watch it again with your observations in mind.


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