Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith

  • Robert Gelinas
  • Jan 13, 2010
  • Series: Volume 13 - 2010
Book: Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith

Robert Gelinas, Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith.  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009. 218 pages. $14.99. ISBN: 978-0-310-28252-5.

There have been too many attempts to link Christianity to something else in order to jazz it up—as if the Gospel itself was not sufficiently compelling. Those both on the liberal and conservative ends of the theological spectrum—and even those in the middle—have been guilty of this. The “Christian atheism” of the middle 1960s took this to an absurd extreme. Jesus has been likened to a CEO, a therapist, a salesman, and so on, in order to pad his paltry resume. At best, these efforts highlight something in Jesus not previously apparent. At worst, they deny Christianity and replace it with an ersatz religion that has no gospel at all (see Romans 1:16-17; Galatians 1:6-11). Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord of the cosmos, does not need to be jazzed up. Nor does Christianity need a make over.

Robert Gelinas avoids these pitfalls by showing that jazz can teach much about following Jesus. In fact, we should “compose a jazz-shaped faith.” Gelinas, a Denver pastor and graduate of Denver Seminary, neither twists the gospel, nor forces jazz into an alien religious mold. Instead, he finds in jazz deep and fascinating themes that resonate with the adventure and challenge of Christian living. Although he is not a musician, Gelinas discovered jazz in college and loves “the gospel in jazz.” Readers of this revealing book will come to know more of jazz and more about being a disciple of Jesus Christ.

After recounting his initiation into jazz, Gelinas briefly explains the nature of the music. Louis Armstrong said, “Jazz is jazz,” but this does not go too far. Jazz grew largely out of the music of African-American slaves. African music was mixed with Christian themes learned from their oppressors. “Pain gave way to the blues, and the blues gave way to jazz—they are all connected.” Gelinas, an African American, says that “to talk about jazz it to talk about race”—and the plight of African Americans, who were, in the words of Ralph Ellison, “un-free in a free land.”

The origin and nature of jazz is a deeply contested subject. While one cannot deny that jazz was born and grew up from the African American experience, it has roots and variations that place it beyond any one racial ethos. Gelinas never claims that “jazz is black” or that non-blacks have not contributed greatly to jazz. However, his narrative overemphasizes the racial element somewhat. Later in the book, Gelinas states that “jazz was produced by those who were ‘un-free in a free land,’” thus excluding those musicians who were freer in a free land because they were not black. White musicians such as Benny Goodman (who led one of the first racially integrated jazz bands), Harry James, Dave Brubeck, and many others filled out the multicolored pallet of jazz. Despite this minor caveat, Gelinas explores a vital aspect of the music: jazz as a form of life seeking freedom and justice for those wrongly denied it.

Jazz displays many creative, ennobling, and beautiful elements. Gelinas emphasizes its roots in the blues, syncopation, improvisation, ensemble cooperation, and creative tension—all modes of being that should be applied to the Christian life.

The blues are rooted in the pain of living in a fallen world, but refuse to wallow there. The old slave songs and spirituals lamented a life lived in chains, but transcended the bondage through song itself, and hoped for those chains to unbound one day. The blues roots of jazz give it a gritty sense of hope for a fallen world crying out for redemption. We, too, should see life for what it is, lament the losses, but press on with vision for better things through the power of God today and tomorrow and in the End.

Syncopation is what makes jazz swing. The jazz rhythm emphasizes the off beat, and, as Duke Ellington put it in a song title, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” To transpose this to the Christian life, syncopating means emphasizing the off-beat, finding novelty, and having “en eye and ear for that which goes unnoticed and unheard in life,” as Gelinas puts it. Jesus syncopated when he saw what others missed and reached out to the socially invisible or ostracized. A jazz-shaped faith does the same thing: it learns how to swing.

Improvisation is also constitutive of jazz. “Improvisation is what allows jazz to exist in a continual state of renewal,” Gelinas notes. A player improvises within the theme of a piece of music, but brings something new and distinctively his or her own to the old. Louis Armstrong went so far as to say, “Jazz is music that’s never played the same way once.” Every jazz solo is an adventure of self-expression that must, nevertheless, harmonize with the self-expression of the other musicians. This collaborative aspect of jazz is what Gelinas calls “life in concert.” Each musician contributes something unique himself or herself, but never in isolation from the larger group. The metaphor from jazz is rich for Christian existence. We must find out own voice (or calling), but never merely for our own sake, but for the sake of the group (the Body of Christ) and before the audience (the listening world of unbelievers).

Thus far, I have been appreciative of Gelinas’s explanation of jazz themes and how they radiate models of Christian living. He gets inside of jazz and pulls out some hip chops. As a jazz lover and Christian, I say, “Pastor, you swing!” However, as a philosopher, I must address a few missed notes found in the chapter “Creative Tension.” Gelinas rightly emphasizes that jazz thrives on tension and does not fear it. Being creative—as genuine jazz always is—means being willing to risk on stage. If one improvises on a melody, one may miss the melody entirely. Wrong notes are hit—and then cannot be hidden or retracted. As jazz critic, Ted Gioia puts it, jazz is “the imperfect art” because it requires composing on the spot during solos; those accompanying improvise as well. Gelinas tells of John Coltrane’s pursuit of musical excellence and the tensions he had to face and overcome in that musical and spiritual journey. So far, Gelinas is solidly in the groove.

But he goes out of key by applying the ideas of tension and especially paradox to Christian living and theology. One the one hand, a tension may pull us in two directions simultaneously and to good effect. For example, Christians are to be in the world, but not of it. There is no contradiction here. We should not escape cultural involvement (Matthew 5:13-16), but we should not be defined and defiled by the ways of the fallen world (Romans 12:1-2; 1 John 2:15-17, etc.). As Gelinas notes, a suspension bridge stays up precisely because of the tension supporting it.

Nonetheless, when Gelinas speaks of paradoxes he threatens to undermine the coherence and truthfulness of Scripture, of theology, and of apologetics. Gelinas writes that “I believe in absolute truth, and I believe that truth can be known.” Moreover, he believes the Bible is true. Yet Gelinas claims that the Bible affirms many paradoxes. He cites James Lucas’s ominously entitled book, Knowing the Unknowable God: “Resist your enemies and love them; ignore hypocritical spiritual leaders and obey them…” Gelinas calls these paradoxes “impossible possibilities,” which, of course, sounds contradictory. Gelinas writes that “I no longer read books that offer the Scriptures devoid of seeming contradictions. I take them for what they are—the words of the most creative being in the universe.” Yet he affirms that the Bible contains no real contradictions. Can we make sense of this?

A contradiction occurs when one statement is logically incompatible with another statement. Consider: (1) Doug Groothuis can play the tenor saxophone solo on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and (2) Doug Groothuis cannot play tenor saxophone solo on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” If someone told you that both (1) and (2) were true, because this is a paradox (and not a contradiction), you would send them off to the woodshed for more practice in logic. There is no reason to think that the conjunction of (1) and (2) could be true without some plausible way of resolving the opposition between (1) and (2).

Now, if the Bible is true in all that it affirms, it cannot contradict itself (or any truth outside of what is stated in the Bible). One may try to rescue or protect the Bible from apparent contradiction by invoking the category of paradox, but unless there are plausible ways of resolving the paradoxes, they appear more like flat-out contradictions. And if any two statements contradict each other (in the Bible or elsewhere), they cannot both be true. At least one of them must be false. Even Charlie Parker would not improvise his way out of that kind of tension.

This issue is tremendously important for theology and apologetics. A necessary criterion for theology is that Scripture must be viewed as a system, a coherent set of truth claims. If any theology affirms that a proposition is both affirmed and denied in Scripture, then that theology is contradictory; and it is, therefore, false. In apologetics (the rational defense of Christianity as true and knowable), noncontradiction is likewise a necessary criterion for truth. In commending the Christian worldview, the apologist must present it as a logically coherent model of reality. For example, the apologist cannot claim that the idea of the Incarnation (Christ as both human and divine) is an irresolvable paradox and hope to draw anyone closer to Christianity through reasoning. Apologetics needs a strategy to argue that the doctrine of the God-Man is logically coherent. (On this, see the section on the Incarnation in Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest’s Integrative Theology.)

One can appreciate Gelinas’s recognition of paradoxes in the Bible and his desire to stay true to Scripture by not imposing a false coherence upon biblical teaching. One can also agree that the Christian life presents us with some difficult existential tensions. However, if one is left with a Bible rife with irresolvable paradoxes, then there is no reason to think that Scripture affirms truth that is absolute, noncontradictory, and knowable (as Gelinas commendably does). As the philosopher Gordon Clark said, “A paradox is a Charlie Horse between the ears.” As such, paradoxes should be dissolved, not embraced.

Gelinas does briefly write dealing with paradoxes by finding a tertium quid (third way), but he does not seem to realize that this strategy resolves the paradox. (The philosopher Blaise Pascal was a master of this method.) Soon after mentioning the tertium quid strategy, Gelinas continues to write of “embracing tensions.” But the tertium quid strategy releases tension by providing a logically satisfying solution to the apparent contradiction (that is, paradox).

Despite my philosopher’s complaint against about five pages of this 218-page book, I applaud Pastor Gelinas’s creative, knowledgeable, and winsome way of bringing jazz and Christianity together. While I wish he had developed the biblical concept of justification by faith in more detail in connection with the meaning of the Cross of Christ, I am happy to report that his next book will be called Strange Fruit: A Jazz Theology of the Cross

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Denver Seminary
January 2010

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