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All that Jazz

July 14, 2010

“I never like jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes. After that I liked jazz music…I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve. But that was before any of this happened.”

So begins Donald Miller’s popular book Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thought on Christian Spirituality (2003), and so began the increasingly popular trend of talking about the Christian faith using jazz metaphors. Donald Miller never develops this metaphor in detail, however, like Robert Gelinas does in his book Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith (2009). Gelinas focuses on aspects of jazz performance such as improvisation, playing the blues, and ensemble performance to shed new light on the way we live as Christians. This year, several other books have picked up on this theme, including Ron Martoia’s The Bible as Improv, which stresses that the Bible needs to be performed and performed in community, and Different Eyes: The Art of Living Beautifully by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, who describe the Christian as “a jazz musician who understands the structures and principles and roots behind the tune and so develops the ability to improvise with great skill in harmony with it” (78). These are only a few of the books that feature jazz metaphors in connection with Christian living.

What is the appeal of the jazz metaphor, and why are so many authors using it? I think there are several reasons for this, and why I don’t think the jazz metaphor will disappear anytime soon.

1. Jazz is an art. Christian living is an art. More people are recognizing that Christian living is an art, indeed, that Christian wisdom is the art of skillful living. As a result, jazz is just one of the many forms of art that Christian writers are using as a metaphor to grapple with the complexities of living well.

2. Jazz is improvisational. Christian living is improvisational. Scripture is not a script that tells us exactly how to live, but more like a resource on which to improvise. We can learn from jazz how to be attentive in the moment to everything necessary to live beautiful lives without having everything planned out.

3. Jazz is communal. Christian living is communal. It is possible to play jazz music by yourself, but most common are jazz ensembles, several instruments playing together in improvisational harmony. This is a major emphasis in Finding the Groove and The Bible as Improv: in order to live faithfully we need to be attentive to one another and the gifted performances of others.

4. Jazz has tension. Christian living has tension. As indicated in Donald Miller’s quote above, both jazz and the Christian life lack resolution. Jazz music helps us understand, therefore, what is means to live between the “already” and “not yet” of Christian existence. Salvation has happened, salvation is happening, and yet we are still waiting for salvation to happen.

5. Jazz takes skill. Christian living takes skill. You can’t just pick up a saxophone and expect to be a good jazz player. It takes years of training and discipline. Likewise, Christian living is a matter of acquiring the virtues, skills and habits that enable faithful and fitting performance of the faith.

6. Jazz has a playful groove. Christian living has a playful groove. Both jazz and Christian living take serious skill, but play is also involved. When a jazz musician is in his or her groove, joy exudes from their entire body. We need more of this joy, exuberance, and playful grooving in our Christian lives.

These are just a few ways that jazz provides compelling metaphors for Christian living. Can you think of more? Do you know of any other books or articles that exhibit this transposition between jazz performance and Christian living?

Image- Finding the Groove: Amazon

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ben permalink
    July 14, 2010 10:09 am

    Micheal O’Siadhail is a Christian poet (he visited here last autumn) who frequently uses jazz imagery in his work.

    • July 14, 2010 12:41 pm

      Yes, his most recent collection call Globe has a jazz theme woven throughout. In fact, currently I am drawing my thesis title from a line of one of his poems where he talks about life being lived “between anticipation and fond repeat.”

  2. Jon permalink
    July 14, 2010 5:35 pm

    Also, the great poet himself (Larkin) used to refer to jazz regularly

    • July 14, 2010 7:09 pm

      Indeed, thanks for pointing this out. As far as I am aware, however, Larkin understood jazz as the improvised expression of the unconscious, and whereas the unconscious certainly is involved in jazz improvisation, I would argue that it is more about the skill and discipline that enables a jazz musician to play with fittingness to everything going on, including the unconscious element.

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