Slide guitar master Blind Willie Johnson isn’t properly a blues artist but nonetheless his music tends to be catalogued with the great blues artists of the first half of the twentieth century. With his gruff voice – elsewhere cleverly described as “leonine” (lion-like) – he is offputting to some, but he did a few things that were remarkable. One is Dark Was the Night, a haunting and ethereal depiction of Christ’s death without need of lyrics. Another was his recording God Moves On The Water which is about the sinking of the Titanic.
Ah, Lord, ah, Lord
Year of nineteen hundred and twelve, April the fourteenth day
Great Titanic struck an iceberg, people had to run and pray
God moves, moves, God moves, ah, and the people had to run and pray
… Captain Smith gave orders, women and children first
Many of the lifeboats piled right up, many were liable to crush
God moves on, God moves, God moves, ah, and the people had to run and pray.
In today’s faith-based descriptions of calamities God only “moves” for survivors, especially when there are remarkable accounts of their rescues. Clearly, though, God’s moving is different here. God moves with the prerogative to bring both judgment and salvation. So, instead of being a metaphysical fluke, the sinking of the Titanic came from the hand of God, who is not the author of flukes. So it it’s not pointless:
So many had to leave their happy home, all that they possess
Lord Jesus, will you hear us now, help us in our distress
The idea is that God uses calamity to bring otherwise comfortable souls to himself; it’s better to be saved in hardship than damned in luxury. So God moving is not unlike the biblical idea of “the day of the Lord,” described by one commentator as “a day of judgment and wrath for some but of blessing and salvation for others.” (A. Hoekema).
The song goes on to elaborate on why there might be judgment, and does so with a suspicious view of technological progress:
A.G. Smith, mighty man, built a boat that he couldn’t understand
Named it a name of God in a tin, without i-c, Lord, he pulled it in
From the perspective of a simple believer, the Titanic seemed arrogant. Named after Greek gods, thought to be nearly invulnerable, large and lavish, it was a symbol of human progress and, to some, a symbol of human arrogance. Like the Tower of Babel, it was seen as a symbol of human independence, providing a false sense of insulation from the will of God. And, like the Tower of Babel, God would have none of it. This idea seems quaint to a generation holding a computer (smart phone) in one hand and a steering wheel in the other, but you might empathize a little with this view of the Titanic if you have doubts about what’s happening on the cutting edge of genetic engineering.
You may find the song’s theological interpretation of the sinking to be presumptuous and its view of technology to be ignorant. But, whether or not you like the nuances of the message, you should like Johnson’s work on the slide guitar. Last time I checked it was better than DiCaprio’s.