In the world of jazz, it is common to perform and record songs written by other jazz artists. Some songs are classics, or in jazz parlance, standards. These standards are (or should be) always different and new from one another, with each artist or band baking their individual flavors into it. At the same time, there is a sense of familiarity to them, because they are standards. How can something be new and familiar at the same time?
Let’s look specifically at the jazz standard, about exactly what is new and what is familiar. The newness of a standard comes from the individual and corporate voices in a specific occasion (space and time). These things are always changing, and that makes every recording unique. The instruments being played, how they are being played, harmony choices, the solo sections, etc.
What’s familiar? The fundamentals of the melody, chord changes, and rhythm. Though there will be variations, the fundamentals are the jumping off point, from where the uniqueness deviates.
This is an important metaphor for Christianity. The church is in the business of re-imagining standards. We have the fundamental “melodies, chord structures and rhythms”. What do its variations look like? The overarching motif of redemption has a world of exploration just waiting to be unearthed and resounded. The church, however, is often viewed not as a creative agent, but as an institution that holds back humanity from its creativity, from all that it can be. This is the opposite of its task. The church is invited to call human beings to all that it can be, to something more, not something less.
A well written song lends itself to a long life, with performers exploring the notes and the spaces between in new ways. Christianity has the best written “songs” (the ancient stories of Scripture) with inexhaustible possibilities to explore (how they apply and give life in our present lives). The church’s job is to encourage this exploration and equip human beings to perform these unique familiarities.
For those in the church, we must be about creating more for those who have already “bought in” to the church, to those who have already accepted its fundamentals. We have been given something that is actually compelling, let’s explore that in depth. It is that kind of imaginative living that is not only life-giving to Christians, it draws others in as well.
For those who consider themselves outside the church, I hope you get to experience multiple performances of many standards. There is no song quite like the song of redemption, it is new and familiar all at once.