‘It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing.’ -Duke Ellington
On recommendation from a friend (via Twitter, of course!) , I picked up Robert Gelinas’ Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith...which has turned out to be a greatly missional, thought-provoking book.
The power of music is no secret. The emotion of a country-twanged Telecaster. The low-down feel of a 12-bar blues progression in Emaj. The feel-good pop bubblegum hooks from the Top 40 list. Even the fist-pumping, windows-down, volume-at-11 rock anthems of power chords and Tube Screamers.
But jazz is altogether different. If you’ve ever watched a jazz trio, you’ve seen it happen. You watch the pianist and think he’s off in a different neighborhood than the saxophonist. And, on the surface, the drummer strangely swinging, pressing forward for whatever may be coming next. (Accenting what has always been there, but never been quite heard…) Then, seemingly out of nowhere, these different factors converge and settle together in an unexpected space and become strangely beautiful. Whitney Balliet says jazz is ‘the sound of surprise’. IMO, jazz is basically an awkward adolescent trying to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up…
It makes me think there is something in this for the body of Christ. It’s a way of thinking, living, communicating–a way of being. A groove, but not a rut. Gelinas asks a foundational question to this: “What if you and I experienced church like a jazz ensemble [listening to the beat of the image of God in each of us] and community meant that you and I felt connected, not only to those we can see, but also with those who have followed [in past generations] and have yet [in future generations] to follow Jesus?”
What if we experienced the Word of God as a song that sets us free to compose, free to join our voices with the ancients? What if every moment of life with Jesus is pregnant promise and potential? What if we could find, and live, in that groove?
…Funny thing is that the term ‘jazz’ comes from the derogatory ‘jackass’. Literally, when some bigoted slave owners noticed slaves playing and dancing to this type of music and remarked ‘Look at that jackass’. It wasn’t long before ‘jackass’ became ‘jass’…then ‘jazz’. Historically, like rap music, it began as a segregated genre but quickly integrated across ethnic and economic lines. In the early days, rich and poor, black and white, slave and free found themselves packed into nightclubs together…even sharing the stage as equals…all in the name of jazz.
What’s funny about that? That God uses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise…and here I am giving my life to a faith that has been called the ‘opiate of the masses’, among other things.
I love jazz in my music. But I love it more in my faith. Watching God’s people listen to the beat. Following the rise and fall. The ‘sound of surprise’ when Scripture brings together tax collectors, whores, orphans, widows, …and freedom. (Jesus was a master at noticing the unnoticed. Remember the drummer earlier?..)
In a jazz-shaped faith, improvisation is expected (unlike in a hymn-shaped faith)…just as God composes in the moment. Although He knows all things to be sure, we have interaction with him and He seems to be very open to interaction with us. Just look at the life of Abraham. Moses. Jonah. All with strange, beautiful precision that leaves me thirsty for a little bit more.
I know there’s more to come. But Duke Ellington just came on the speakers at this little coffee shop where I study. I should probably pay attention to the groove…