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

K. Shackelford By

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AAJ: How can we relate this idea to the Gospel?

JB: Well, this is very basic to the Gospel, in that, injustice, suffering, and evil are not ignored but are faced and through the cross taken up into God's purposes. So there are very strong resonances here between jazz and the Christian faith.

AAJ: A lot of jazz musicians got their start playing within the church, and/or many have written jazz pieces as a sacred works, such as John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington. There are really too many to name. Would you say there is a connection between jazz and the divine Spirit?

JB: Well, it's a matter of record that jazz emerged out of spiritual roots. There's no doubt about that. Supremely from the spirituals. And I think God undoubtedly has used jazz for his purposes, over and over again. Having said that, I don't think the minute you play jazz you're necessarily directly in touch with God, but I think we can say that there are things in the way jazz works that make it very suitable for the conveying the Gospel.

In his explications on theology and music, one may often hear Begbie refer to the ideas of order and non-order. In his book, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, he refers to David Ford and Daniel Hardy's concept of "non-order" and the "jazz factor." He speaks of the jazz factor as the "spontaneous element in the world and in human life that reaches its apogee in the unforced, unpredictable creativity of Jesus Christ." (Resounding Truth) In the Christian story, God the Creator works with ideas such as order, disorder, and non-order and within this improvisation is also at play. We asked Begbie to help us understand this.

AAJ: As a theologian and a musician, you've become praised in academia for brilliantly creating a discourse on theology and music. How can jazz help us unlock the great truths of the Gospel?

JB: There are a lot of things. For example, there is what I call the interplay between order and non-order, the predictable and the unpredictable, the regular and the irregular. The special power of jazz arises from the interplay between those two; which of course is the interplay behind improvisation. Why does this have Gospel significance? Because this is the way God operates. The Christian God is faithful. What we see right through scripture and the history of the church is a God who is consistent and faithful, not arbitrary or freakish. But this God also does the new thing, unpredictable and constantly surprising things. He doesn't repeat himself over and over again. The Bible tells the story of the interplay between these two dimensions of God's activity.

The way I like to illustrate this concept is by looking at our own lives. We often think there are really only two ways to live: the one is to live according to a strict order, and the other is to live in chaos or destructive disorder. So if someone comes into my office and it is reasonably tidy, they say, "Oh, this is very impressive Jeremy, it is incredibly well ordered and tidy." But if it's a mess, I apologize and say, "I'm sorry my office is a total tip, but do try and find a seat." The implication behind this example is that we are always shuffling between order and disorder. As if these were the only two options. But there is a third option, which is what we might call "non-order."

AAJ: Fantastic, please tell us more about non-order?

JB: Laughter would be a good example of non-order. Laughter is unpredictable, it bubbles up. You can't really control it easily, it just happens. So it is not ordered. But it is not destructively. It is neither order nor disorder. Speaking in tongues would be another form of non-order. It is unpredictable, you cannot predict that it would happen. But it's very fruitful when used properly; not destructive. Non-order is what David Ford, a Cambridge theologian, calls the "jazz factor." He uses the idea as a way of understanding the work of the Spirit in the world: the way God brings new things out of the old. This dynamic speaks right to the heart of jazz, but not only jazz—almost all music is improvised to a certain extent and involves this interplay between order and non-order. We can take that even further if you want. The Spirit of God takes the givenness of what Christ has achieved through His death and resurrection, and applies this work to our lives in different ways, in different times, and for different people. Thus, the Holy Spirit is the "Great Improviser," taking the givenness of the Gospel in Christ and making it live in different ways.

AAJ: That is great, I suppose the Holy Spirit is the "Great Improviser."

JB: Yes indeed. Moreover, we can learn other things about the Christian life from group improvisation. First, in group improvisation, you learn a great deal about trust. You learn to trust the others in the group, otherwise, the improvisation becomes forced. If we think of the Christian life in terms of improvisation, you can learn a lot about how Christians are meant to love and trust one another.

Second, in improvisation you learn how to receive something from another person and make the best of it, which is what I think Christian ethics is largely about. It is the Christian's job to make something out of everything that is given to us.

Within the Christian life there will be much improvisation. While God is a God of order, there is improvisation always occurring because, as Begbie notes, "the bible doesn't give us instruction for every occasion... it is more like a script in a play that you have to improvise both over and with." For the Christian, these improvisatory "sessions" are directed by the Spirit.

One thing many listeners and musicians love about jazz is that as an improvisatory music, it seems to lift off all constraints. But it is does not, there are constraints. However, the more a musician masters the theory, whether it be complex scales and rhythms, the more he/she is able to express musical freedom and go to higher heights in sonic expression. Begbie compares constraints and improvisation to God's laws. He says, "In the Old Testament, when God gave Israel His laws, they were not to make life hard." God's laws were "given out of love and so that the Israelites could live in a fulfilling and glorifying way." He notes, "So constraints are not an enemy, but negotiating and working within the constraints is where we find freedom." This moils a splendid biblical maxim. Like in jazz, the Christian life must have constraints but they are ultimately designed so that a believer can have more spiritual freedom from the murky, dark ways of a sinful world.


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