Copy and Paste: the work of fear

Arts and TheologyOften the church tries to copy and paste from previous performances (unimaginatively reflecting their favorite decade/century), even trying its best to remove individuality all together. Our created uniqueness is not some enemy of truth, it is just another part of the truth we believe and hold to.

My previous post was a call to re-imagine the familiar. Specifically, for the church to continually mine out the new realities of ancient truths. If something is truly universal, it will always have an aspect of the new in it. Universal truth will always be able to be contextualized into the present time.

But this can be risky. We can (and will) easily mess up and make mistakes. In the church this is really frowned upon. Sometimes the unwritten rule of being a member of a church is just that: don’t mess up. But that’s not what we’re really called to.

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Creeds and Freedom or The Jazz Rhythm Section and the Soloist

Arts and TheologyIn explaining some of the church’s confessions and creeds to my Worship Leading class, I used an example I often go to: jazz.  Jazz (and I have in mind more straigh-ahead jazz from the 40s to the 70s, like Miles or Coltrane or Brubeck or Parker) has much to offer our lives beyond its music (which is good by itself, too).

I’ve kind of breached the subject on freedom already but there’s so much more to cover in this intersection of music and theology.  And our focus right now is the Creeds of the Church, in general.  More often than not, the major creeds define things negatively- what the subject in question is not. A great example of this is the person of Christ as defined by the four councils of Chalcedon. The four councils mark out what the person of Christ is not- Christ is not only God, Christ is not only man, Christ is not more or less than one person, Christ has nothing more or less than two natures.  This creates four lines, demarcating the lines of where we cannot go outside of.  But these four lines form an area like a square, inside of which we can have freedom to move around and see exactly who the person of Christ is- the positive definition. This is the task left to us.

Jesus and John Coltrane

Jesus and John Coltrane have more in common than what we

So where does jazz come in? Jazz comes in as a great metaphor for something we do every day in this arena of positively spelling out our theology.  Let’s look at a typical jazz rhythm section, there’s the drummer, the bassist and the piano player.  The drummer is laying down the tempo, the rhythm, the groove.  The bassist is establishing the tonal foundation, the lowest tones we’ll hear, giving a base for the chords.  The piano player lays out the rest of the chord.  Each are filling in the emptiness the others have and each are contributing to the overall mood of the song.  Now here comes the saxophone soloist.  He hears all these things as boundaries or limits to where this particular song will go.  There’s a tempo, a key, a mood, a length of verse and chorus. The soloist hears these and uses these to create the melody, the solo.  The notes are all within the boundaries, but when put together by this soloist, the melody (and the complete overall sound) is something completely unique.  When it’s the other soloist’s chance to play, she hears the drummer, bassist and pianist and plays another melody line, all within the established boundaries, and also completely unique.  Each soloist is unique, depending on instrument, timbre, influences, what one wants to say versus another, and therefore, each overall sound will be unique.  But none of these have to break the established rules to be unique. This seems to be opposite our culture’s view of what is unique or authentic and what is not.

So this jazz soloist is you and it is me.  When we go about our lives, doing our daily things, we are positively asserting what our theology is. When we choose to sacrifice ourselves and love someone, it is something unique to our situation and easily within the boundaries of what love or humility is. Our creeds and most of theology proper give us the right boundaries for us to positively live out what life is truly meant to be. All of our individual songs will end up sounding different, even if we have the same rhythm section playing the same thing.  They are different and they are good (if keeping within the boundaries).

Hopefully we have the correct boundaries. And if we do, hopefully we will stay within them. The funny thing is, we know when we get outside the boundaries.  We might try and rationalize it, but there’s a dissonance that rings inside of us. But what about when we play bad notes? What happens when a jazz player plays a wrong note, something that goes outside of the established rules? What happens when he or she intentionally goes outside the rules? This will be the subject of the next post.

Holy War and God’s Use of Means

I was lecturing on holy war in my Old Testament class yesterday and today- specifically in Exodus.  I have been relying heavily on Bruce Waltke’s Old Testament Theology- not only because it’s incredibly awesome, but it covers the areas I want to focus on (literary and biblical perspectives).

An aspect of holy war that I think is interesting is God’s use of means.  During the exodus, God is the one fighting the Egyptians, throwing the waters over their chariots.  But later on Israel gets direction on how to carry out holy war. When the Israelites attack the Amalekites, God uses Israel to do the actual fighting.  The victory in both examples (against the Egyptians, against the Amalekites) depends on faith in God.  So the ends stay the same- God determines the outcome, but in holy war, God uses Israel to carry out His purposes.

This can really help to inform us on our freedom.  We often think that freedom is living without constraints (hello, Sartre) but true freedom needs limits.  True freedom is being able to express who who really are.  If we are in love with someone, we feel free, free to be who we are without reservation.  But this love does put contraints upon us, we now think of the other person and their needs sometimes at our expense.  We have constraints and limits, but limits in themselves don’t necessarily inhibit freedom- indeed, they can free us.

Freedom has no better illustration than in jazz.  There will be plenty of posts in the future about our freedom and jazz music (hello, Begbie).  But here’s the basic idea: the soloist has room to create music when proper limits are put upon him/her. Limits such as tempo, tone, rhythm, key, etc.  There will be more specific posts on this to come.

So let’s not think that boundaries are fundamentally opposed to freedom.  If one does not have boundaries, one doesn’t care about anything, and actions must all be arbitrary.  But if one has the right boundaries, one is free to be who they are.

And God actually wants this- he ordains this use of means to carry out His end.  We have creative power to build up His kingdom.  Although it might be lacking in emphasis, this is the common reformed and Calvinist view of our lives.  God ordains the ends, yes, and he also ordains us to carry out the means.

So holy war and music might have more in common than what we think.

More on freedom

Arts and TheologyWith much of my recent posts on freedom, I found the following from Tim Keller’s book, The Reason for God, very helpful. On page 46, he writes:

In many areas of life, freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones, the liberating restrictions. Those that fit with the reality of our nature and the world produce greater power and scope for our abilities and a deeper joy and fulfillment

Keller goes on to say that the ultimate liberating restriction is the love of God. Having that placed before and around us allows us to live as we should- fully human.

This makes total sense to me as a musician, as placing a certain amount of restrictions, be it key or tempo or mood or timbre, really allows one the freedom to create music. I need to think about this.

Theology Through Music: Freedom

Arts and TheologyNow that I finished my paper for Reggie’s Worship class, I can (hopefully) make more sense in these theology through music posts. On the concept of freedom, Jeremy Begbie wrote about the goodness of constraints in Theology, Music and Time. There’s this idea that freedom means liberation from all possible constraints, as in that would be a good thing. But we often get our identity and behavior in working within constraints, especially those that we cannot change. Take time, for example. We are all temporal beings, subject to the presentness of existence. We (especially Americans) are constantly in battle with this thing called time…it’s always “working against” us. We treat any boundary as a bad thing. We shouldn’t.
Time has been created by God, was present before the fall (as far as we assume), and should be a good thing. A very good illustration of this works out in music, especially in jazz improvisation.
We have a time signature, a key, a groove, a pocket, all these things in place to make good music. Once we understand where the boundaries are, what key and time, when to play, when not to play, when to slow down, speed up, get quiet, etc. that is when we can make good music. It’s when the improviser, not paying attention to the band, starts going off in a wild direction, that we would probably classify as bad music. Some people might object, and say, “Well, what about free jazz? There’s often not a specified key or time.” But there are still constraints- one of those constraints would be: make music like it doesn’t have a key or a time.
So the key to real freedom is understanding one’s boundaries in which to live. Listening to where the band is will allow one to create beautiful music.

There’s a lot more that could be said: the importance of practice, how to rightfully test the boundaries, when to “break the rules” (especially in jazz improvisation), but I think this will be good for now.