Thursday, October 21, 2010

Jazz Shaped Faith

An American institution; pure music; a metaphor for life. I don't know. I think I am biased. I love jazz. I love to listen to it. I love to play it. I wish I were better at it. I think it has a lot to say to followers of Jesus. If the saying is true that "are imitates life," then it must also be true that jazz is a reflection of the varieties of human experience and faith.

I think it must also be true that had Jesus come to earth in the 20th century, some if not all his parables might have been about jazz instead of farming. For many years I thought being in ministry and holding this deep desire to play jazz were so vastly different that "ne'er the twain shall meet." But about 15 years ago, I remember reading about J.I. Packer, an inscrutable, articulate, reserved British/Anglican theologian teaching at Regent College. He was a huge jazz fan. He had an extensive collection of jazz recordings and even dabbled in playing.

I thought, wow, if J.I. Packer could keep both those things balanced, I ought to be able to as well. After all, jazz really had its roots in the sacred music of Gospel and Spirituals. It's improvisation, free form, collaborative style suits it well as a model for the spiritual life.

It's too bad that back in the 50s, which musically was kind of the heyday of American jazz it got hijacked into a world of drug and alcohol abuse and other somewhat sordid lifestyles. Too bad because many of the jazz artists of the period had their start playing or singing in churches.

A few years ago, Donald Miller wrote a book called blue like jazz. He observed that many people don't like jazz because it doesn't resolve. Faith in God is a lot like jazz because, try as we might, we just can't fit God into a neat little package, resolve every minor discordant doubt or problem. We wish he did. We wish everything in life would turn out on a strong, victorious major chord with an AMEN (I,IV,V) chord progression tagged on for good measure but life just doesn't work that way except in movies.

I used repeat over and over to my wife that "jazz is pure music." She would just roll her eyes and go back to listening to contemporary Christian music. There is nothing wrong with that or with most other forms of music either. What I mean by that statement is that jazz is pure music because it stems directly from a person's heart and life experience. Though it may seem made up on the spot to the casual observer, jazz is a reflection of a deep underlying knowledge of music, a life time of practice, a careful listening to the playing of others, and then bringing one's own interpretation of that tune and basic chord structure into the mix.

I admit it's not for everyone. And in our postmodern culture, it may seem that jazz is to music what postmodern thought is to truth; namely that you can believe and do whatever you want if it works for you. But that really misunderstands the basic nature of the heart of jazz.

Jazz is music in community. When I formed a quintet back in 2007, we struggled for a name. We finally decided on "BY COMMITTEE." It has less to do with the Presbyterian roots each of our members shared at the time and more to do with the understanding that in jazz, each person brings his or her own unique gifts and expression to the piece. It is not unstructured relativism. It is like the Body of Christ. Each person is uniquely gifted to offer their own skills and background to the edification or building up of the others.

Jazz does imitate life. Or perhaps we could even say life imitates jazz. I am not quite sure which is more true. But the fact is that life has blues periods; times when our loss, grief, suffering or pain just cant be neatly resolved. It's okay to express ones self in that way.

But life has many joyous, serendipitous moments as well; moments that are best described as happy, upbeat and joyous. And then there are those in-between times as well. In all of life's experiences, part of God's design for our humanity is that we not perform as a solo act but as part of a combo; part of a group of other believers whose interpretations and applications of God's grace, love and truth, enrich others with their variations on a theme.

Today, I picked up my Denver Seminary Alumni magazine and read about another pastor/graduate of that fine institution. Robert Gelinas describes himself as lead pastor at Colorado Community Church and as a jazz theologian. (he also plays pretty well from some of the video I've seen). There is a lot of theology in jazz. He travels around the country, playing and speaking in jazz clubs about the correlation of the two. I am waiting for the time he comes to Western Washington. I would love to meet someone whose love of jazz and theology of the Gospel seem to be so interwoven and authentic.

One of the myths about jazz that many people have is that it is not rehearsed. Sometimes it is true that a group of musicians who have never played together will somehow get together and begin "jamming" as though they had played together forever. But it would be a mistake to think that much rehearsal had not gone into the outcome of their music. No doubt each of them has brought hours of lessons, practice, performance and knowledge music - both particular tunes and music theory alike - so that their music becomes an existential expression of what's in their heart based on all that lifetime of preparation.

Robert Gelinas, in his website suggests that Christians who have spent all their lives studying theology, the Bible, principles of Christian living, should find ways of sharing the music of their souls in the community of faith. A jazz shaped faith.

As I think about a meeting I have tonight, I am not sure exactly how it will go. However, in some way, I know I will be enriched by what each participant will share just as I hope my variations on the common theme (the meeting is a reunion of our team that traveled together to Zambia a year ago)we all share.

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