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Jeremy Begbie: What can Jazz teach us about being a Christian?

Jeremy Begbie: What can Jazz teach us about being a Christian?
K. Shackelford By

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Jazz has long conciliated a sonic language that speaks of the nubilous, mystifying aspects of the human journey. Through jazz, we find the evocation of diverse emotions of the human spirit—depression, happiness, pain and love—sonically conjured through its dissonant chords and jagged rhythmic constructions. Indeed, the deepest and most hidden emotions are provoked and dealt with, sensitizing a greater awareness about ourselves which can elicit self-reflection and divine peace. In this way, a jazz piece can have a spiritually anodynic or healing power.

I recall that many jazz musicians had strong ties to the church; some whose music posthumously pointed to their Christian experience throughout their careers. Many musicians exhibited through harmony, tone, technique, and meter, a deep understanding of how their music and faith were, oftentimes, inseparably intertwined. Through a jazz artist's musical creativity, divine reverence and spiritual honesty manifests. A few examples would include the work of Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, who was a Catholic, and Donald Byrd who recorded Duke Pearson's "Cristo Redentor" (Christ the Redeemer) on New Perspective (Blue Note Records, 1963).

Consequently, some of 2014's most exciting albums have titles that reference scripture or point to the Christian life through fresh and complex compositions. Take for example Ambrose Akinmusire's "J.E. Nilmah (Ecclesiastes 6:10)" from The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint (Blue Note), and drummer Otis Brown III's highly anticipated debut album, The Thought of You (Blue Note/Revive). The Thought of You features several faith inspired pieces such as "I Love You Lord / We Exalt Thee" and "The Two Shall Become One" which is a line found in the book of Genesis and the Gospel According to Mark. And last year, we even heard Kendrick Scott praying the famous prayer of St. Francis of Assisi on Conviction (Concord).

Thus with jazz, in conversation with Christian theology, one can further explore the mystery and splendor of God through delving deeper into its theory, looking inside the music at the rhythms, chord progressions, etc. This can be done through engaging themes that are explicitly spiritual and also those that are not. As a result, we find dazzling maxims and metaphorical associations concerning Christ's suffering on the cross, His resurrection and other biblical truths. Is there a connection between the Christian message and jazz? Is God telling us something about God's self or our lives through jazz music?

I sought out world renowned theologian Dr. Jeremy Begbie to further explore this phenomenon in jazz because he has a unique verve for probing the interconnection between theology and music. Begbie has an encapsulating way of thinking about music and the arts, that is, well, simply fascinating. After watching Begbie discuss theology, music, and the "jazz factor" in a video for church leadership, I was sure he could enlighten us on the issue. In the video, he gave viewers the challenge of finding coruscating theological truths by looking deeper into the music.

This is what makes him great. In addition to being a theologian, Begbie's notable experience includes being a brilliant author, a conscientious pastor, refulgent pianist and top-notch professor. He brings all his gifts and talents to his writings which exhibit enriched and innovative theological thought towards classical music and other genres such as rock, pop, and—jazz. In one of his talks, for example, one may easily get a music lesson that may engage Bach, Sufjan Stevens and a sermon—all rolled up into one. For this reason, he's become one of the top and most intriguing arts theologians in the world.

Over the past twenty six years, Begbie has penned many groundbreaking and dynamic works, taking the discourse on theology and arts higher to profusely engaging levels. Some of these include Theology, Music and Time, Voicing Creation's Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, and his latest book, Music, Modernity and God. Resounding Truth received the 2008 Book Award in the Theology/Ethics category by Christianity Today.

Currently, Begbie teaches at Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC. In this interview, I engage him about the interface between jazz, pneumatological matters and the Gospel of Christ.

All About Jazz: What would you say is the connection between the deep pathos found within jazz music and the biblical notion of the seat of emotion?

Jeremy Begbie: A great deal of jazz has a streak of pathos, a kind of dark color to it, however joyful or celebratory the piece as a whole may be. A part of that is the pervasiveness of the blues, the blues scale, which brings a tinge of lament and restlessness to the music. Moreover, the blues brings to us the awareness of the fragility and sometimes the injustice of life. Jazz at its best faces up to these things, and actually incorporates those darker tones into a "bigger picture." That's the real miracle of this music: the way it can take up dissonance into a dynamic of hope. I think that's what the best kinds of jazz are doing.

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