Monday, September 05, 2005

Jazz Theology in Black and White

To talk about jazz is to talk about race and race relations in America. Jazz initially arose out of the pain of America's original sin of slavery. Inspite of its' emergence from such conditions, it proved to be convergent. Even as the KKK was on the rise and lynchings were commonplace, blacks and whites would find themselves in the same rooms because of jazz. There was a problem, the big band jazz being performed by African-American's was more about how jazz could be more classical than European classical music. In short, jazz emerged a second time in 1959 (more on this in later postings), breaking away from the constraints of classical methods, into the art of a skilled set of musicians so in tune with each other that they can play the same song night after night while never sounding the same. Jazz became all about the moment when musical standards, the audience and musicians converge into something that has never existed before. And even today, one can go to a jazz club and experience this emergence and convergence of sounds, styles, and people. Jazz theology is richly soaked with race as well. It understands that classical theology is good and needed but also recognizes that when one takes a theology textbook off the shelf it almost always has a European bent. Once a jazz theologian has conformed to classical theology, the yearning to improvise becomes unbearable and an emergence takes place...the result is not a rejection of the old but a convergence of moments--What I'm calling Theomoments. What about your theology? From whom does it come? Why is race not discussed along with our theology? Have you ever noticed that the people who tell you about God all look the same? Are you ready for an emergence? For a convergence?


Blogger Gary said...

Go Theo go! This is interesting.

8:20 PM  
Blogger olympiada said...

St Mary of Egypt

There's my godfather's church. Tell him I sent ya.

How ya doing tonight Theo?
Interesting musings. Do you play or sing? I play flute, saxophone and sing. Or should say played. I have no instruments now.

Well considering I have only been a real Christian since October (was in a cult before that), can't really muse on theology too much. But being EO, my theology comes from Greece and Russia...for now.

I am not ready to improv yet, although I draw on Buddhism, Wiccan, Rastafari and a whole host of other religions.

What about you? What well do you draw from?

Oh yeah and congratulations on marrying your soul mate. I can only hope for that one day.

9:18 PM  
Blogger jazztheo said...

Thanks for the link. No i'm not a musician just a lover of music. I'm approaching jazz as a sociology and as a culture.

Jazz theology is interdenominational and inter-cultural, but it is not interfaith.

Improvisation only works if there are first some agreed upon standards that everyone in the group adheres to. If each person in the group is playing by a different set of standards than it's not music, just noise.

So what do I draw from? Christ as revealed in the Bible. Christ is above all, in all and through all.

I'm not sure how one can follow Christ and yet draw upon Buddhism, Wiccan, Rastafari etc.

I praise God for your new found faith in Christ...abide in him.

9:34 PM  
Blogger David Kear said...

That was an excellent analogy between Jazz and Theology. And a beautifully painted picture of the emergent church culture. I will have to visit here some more.

3:12 AM  
Blogger Pete Gall said...

I've read Ellis, and I dig the jazz theology approach you're talking about.

One of the coolest, yet slippery, concepts I've come across from Ellis, and Ellison, has to do with White people being redeemed through interaction with Black people. I understand and agree with the dynamic of forgiveness that's at work behind this, but I sense that there must be more than just that. It seems that forgiveness is somehow different than repentance, especially within the context of an ongoing, redemptive relationship. How central is a jazz theology in that redemptive process? Is it part of a set of changes that take place in the lives of redeemed White lives? Is jazz theology the gift from a gracious Black culture that will set the White musical librarians free?

Also, as I consider the potential differences between classical and jazz theology, there is a question about the natures of each. Is jazz theology a transcendence of theology, not in a way that leaves it behind, but that no longer needs to look to the sheet music? By the same token, is classical theology too small to be lived profoundly?

A final quick one. I see jazz having emerged from a less literate context, certainly less concerned about posterity - not written down, not intended to be performed the same way again later. There is a certain joy in experiencing and consuming the beauty of the moment that I find wildly liberating. If the music is not the consistent aspect, the important thing captured to be passed along, what is (something about a jazz tradition is highly prized)? How does this parallel work with theology, doctrine, and a desire to keep heresies in check for the sake of people who would encounter pain in life for their errors?

6:10 AM  
Blogger olympiada said...

Theo - one can not follow Christ and draw upon Buddhism, Rastafari, and Wiccan, I am a heretic, although one can explore the interface between Buddhism and Christianity, which has been done, and which I am doing.

Do you go to church Jazz Theo? And thanks for the discussion.

8:05 AM  
Blogger Pete Gall said...

Dear [Jazz] Theo:
(We're working on a visual edition of the book of Luke that we're planning on calling "Dear Theo" by the way)

I just purchased a copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin. I've never read it. What would you have me pay attention to as I experience it? Are there aspects you'd expect me to find confusing? What has been your experience with the term Uncle Tom, and how do you think your experience follows or breaks from the meaning intended in the book?

Ngiyabonga kakhuhu, uthisha.

3:18 PM  
Blogger Northern Born Southerner said...

Hey Jazztheo,
It's fun to read your thoughts here and your blend of jazz theory and theology. The comment on the books of theology and having mainly a white European bent. The reality is when we trace our roots of Christianity it is Northern African - Augustine, Ambrose, Origen,and the early church fathers were all North African and not European. They are the ones that have had the greatest forming influence on the church. Unfortunately, that fact has not been highlighted by those that have an agenda to promote a racial religion. The early church was not divided by white and black, but often was Christian Jew and Christian Gentile which was addressed and continued to be addressed throughout the epistles.

Olympiada - careful on the study of eastern thought and pagan faith - it can be interesting, but it can also muddle the Truth that can only be found in Jesus Christ. The problem with Wicca and the like is it places the focus on the ability of the person and using God rather than the ability of God and being used by God.

Hey, keep up the great discussion.

p.s. Jazztheo, I've added you to my blogroll to send you some more traffic if possible. God bless you brother!

8:35 PM  
Blogger jazztheo said...


I do not recall Ellis or Ellison's references to redemptive interactions but I am familiar with the concepts. I have not thought about the implications of jazz theology in that redemptive process. I must ruminate.

No jazz theology is not a transcendence of theology but another way of doing theology. Jazz music is not all about improvisation, it is first about standards. One can purchase a book of "jazz standards" that are the assumed repetoir that provide the assumed starting points for musicians. Hence, Jazz theology takes care of heresy in the same way that a musician who won't follow the standards are no longer allowed to play in the group. It's a self correcting culture of sorts.

On your final note, jazz originally did arise from from a less literate context but then in the early 1900's became a mimic of classical music. Blacks thought that conforming to white culture was the way to make it. Some great music was produced during this time...but it is just jazz trying to conform to the dominate culture. That is why the second emergence was needed.

9:12 PM  
Blogger jazztheo said...


Harriet Beecher Stowe...Jazz theologian extraordinare! She converged who skills, the scriptures and the moment in history that she found herself in and forever changed her world. I believe that she was able to sneak through the back door of the heart of this country with her incredible story.

She took a slave and made him the Christ figure of her book. Scandalous.

So many use the term "Uncle Tom" so flippantly. It is so obvious they have not clue as to who Uncle Tom was. If being someone who loves one's enemies and dies for one's people is an Uncle Tom then call me an Uncle Tom!

9:21 PM  
Blogger jazztheo said...

First of all norther born, your picture is just freaky as a thumbnail! When I enlarge it then it's OK...kind of...

I am so grateful for this format of interaction. Your feedback is very helpful to me and I appreciate your taking some time to interact with these ideas.

I acknowledge that much of our theology can be traced to such giants as Augustine, Ambrose, Origen etc. But jazz theology is a reaction against how theology has been done here in America in a racialized context. Especially as I am seeing emergent theology being done without recognizing it's truly homogeneous nature.

Thanks so much for adding me to your blog. I'll be visiting your blog regulary as well.

9:30 PM  
Blogger fatherneo said...

I like it. People say Christianity is a white man's religion. I disagree. Perhaps we've sold out too much to the Western world. I like your subtle critique of the pomo phenomena. We need grassroots, man, not more disenchanted children of evangelicalism.

4:27 PM  
Blogger 2Pete said...

Theo! Wanted to thank you for visiting my site. This is a great string you've got here - I love Jazz, but admit to knowing very little.

I'm right on the same page as you regarding the "whiteness" not to mention the "maleness" of the emergent conversation. How DOES emergence and postmodernism affect black America? And is our loudly touted attempt at "relevance" doomed to failure?

For instance, I receive Relevant Magazine in the mail, and occasionally write for them, but every cover I have seen so far has featured either a white male artist, or a black male athlete or rapper.

Obviously women and black intellectuals don't exist in Christianity today... or they aren't welcome among us "Good Old Boys."

I hope you will take a step into the conversation arena and articulate some of the perspectives missing from Black America. Obviously, you are just one man with only one perspective, but we're pretty saturated with white people over here!

One of the most powerful books I've read on race in the last few years has been "The Debt: What America Owes To Blacks." Most of my Christian brothers and sisters cringe at the suggestion that THEY could possible OWE Black America something, personally. "That's victimization, and it's bogus," most of them say.

...I say, "Sins of the father..."

In my opinion, Brian McLaren (white-emergent-extraordinare) deals very well with such issues of race, culture, and history. He suggests that in a postmodern worldview, we finally understand how our personal histories are tied up with communal and national histories. The individualistic extremes of American culture begin to fade. Maybe we actually have the humility and courage to say "I'm sorry for the past. I'm sorry for what my ancestors did to your ancestors. I'm sorry for the wounds still-carried in your spirit, and I'm sorry for what I represent to minorities in America." Even further: "I'm sorry for doing little to change the present. I'm sorry that I watch mostly white television, read mostly white writers, and enjoy mostly white artists."

It's a hard thing to do, but there is no excuse for feining clean slates.

Look forward to more dialogue in this vein!

4:59 PM  
Blogger Northern Born Southerner said...

I understand, but I would agree that many of the emergent conversation is trying to reconcile racially. At Luther Seminary I can speak to this especially in the use of African Spirituals. In Lutheranism I can say it's nice to have a little "color" in the sound of singing. It makes real music to my ears. Tonight was one funeral and a visitation of Dr. Wallace. It was a really nice way to honor the life of a great man. A swahili group from the seminary sange at the reception and the spirituals were beautiful during the service. What a glorious celebration of a glorious life.

8:10 PM  
Blogger Northern Born Southerner said...

Oh, the thumbnail is me painted by my middle schoolers at the church I worked at prior to interning with Redeemer.

8:12 PM  
Blogger jazztheo said...


Thanks for the encouragment...this is my meager attempt to move toward an emergent theology for my people while at the same time seeking an African-American contribution to the larger emergent discussion.

I too look forward to more dialogue.

to be continued.

10:17 PM  
Blogger jazztheo said...

Northern born,

Luther sounds like a good place to be.

I'm not so sure the reconciliation is what I'm seeking more than a larger table. This emergent discussion is pretty far down the road but I don't think it is too late to increase the voices. Though to be honest, I'm not sure why it has followed in the shoes of modernity...just moving forward without checking to see who was not invited.

"a glorious life" may the same be said of us.

Lord be with you.

10:23 PM  
Blogger jazztheo said...


To what do I owe the honor? I agree, the disenchantement needs to give way to dreams, visions and hope.

10:49 PM  
Blogger olympiada said...

Jazz Theo - I was thinking about as I looked up the big band sheet music to Fly Me to the Moon by Frank Sinatra. What do you think about Frank Sinatra?

I see someone mentioned Ellis. Well someone mentioned Ellis's American Psycho to me today. Is this the same Ellis?

Oh yeah, you mentioned your people. Who are your people?

Gosh I sure miss band. I dropped out in 8th grade. I really wish I hadn't done that. I miss my flute and my saxophone...:( Now all I have is my voice...which I use, in church.

11:54 AM  
Blogger jazztheo said...


Frank Sinatra...good question, one that I'll have to defer to you on.

Ellis is Carl Ellis. Author of "Free At Last?" A book that first coined the idea that theology could be jazz and needs to be jazz.

"My people?" This is a blog for all who follow Jesus, while at the same time it is exploring what contribution African-Americans unique history can offer to the conversation. Who are my people? Those who live on the hyphen between African and American.

Keep singing Oly.

7:22 PM  
Blogger olympiada said...

Northern Born Southerner, what do you think about the interface between Buddhism and Christianity? It has been explored by monks you know. There have been conferences.

As far as Goddess spirituality goes, most people who are into this are not orientated in the right direction. Scholarly research has been done on it.

I will check your blog.

Thanks for the comment.

5:01 PM  

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