How Jazz Can Shape Apologetics

Jazz is a national treasure, but is no longer a common pastime. First rock and then hip hop eclipsed its popularity long ago. Historian Gerald Early claims that three things uniquely define America: the Constitution, baseball, and jazz. Yet the sale of jazz records accounts for only a small fraction the music market. The last time I checked, it was 4%. Many of my students at Denver Seminary and at other institutions where I teach know very little about it, and are a bit puzzled if not flummoxed by my references to it. Others claim they “do not understand jazz,” perhaps with a twinge of guilt that they should. Last summer, a very intelligent and godly campus minister and long-time friend attended a jazz concert with me. Afterward he said, “The music has a center, but I cannot find it.” I humbly told him that I had found it and that I loved it. I love it for many reasons. One outstanding reason is that it can help inform and reform our apologetics engagements through its distinctive genius. All that is needed is a bit of transposition from the sensibilities of jazz to the skills of apologetics.

My point here is not to evangelize for jazz, or at least not directly. (I do that elsewhere.) Whether or not one likes or understands jazz, the nature of the music is rich in virtues that can be transferred to the art of defending and commending the Christian worldview. By this, I am not arguing that Christians should be jazz musicians or write about jazz. That is true enough, but I am after something else: the essence of jazz itself as an art form and what it tells us about excellence in general and in particular for Christian witness to the truth.

What is Jazz?

The roots of jazz are complex and contested, but all grant that jazz sprung from African American slave songs. These songs of lament and hope were tied to rhythms that aided exhausted workers to rally their strength and cheer each other on. This “call-and-response” is intrinsic to jazz–this musical collaboration and cooperation performed without tightly scripted parts.

In this tradition, a jazz band performs according to a song structure (or a chart) and solos are taken at the proper places. This requires a deep knowledge of the standards of jazz (the musical canon) and how to play them. (See Ted Gioia, Jazz Standards.) Learning these canonical tunes and mastering one’s instrument means spending “time in the woodshed.” This is a jazz term for practicing, refining one’s skills—also known as “chops,” a term coined by Louis Armstrong, one of the seminal jazz pioneers.

However, a true jazz group will never play the same tune the same way twice. (That leaves out Kenny G and most “smooth jazz.”) My colossal John Coltrane collection sports about twenty versions of his interpretation of “My Favorite Things” from “The Sound of Music.” Each is stand unique and very different from every other performance. Improvisation—the marrow of jazz—is what explains this. Jazz players improvise in two main ways.

First, in a jazz performance, one or more musicians take solos which are created on the spot. No two jazz solos by the same player in the same song sound the same, although they are usually similar. This kind of solo is akin to composing on the spot. Jazz writer Ted Gioia calls jazz “the imperfect art” for this reason. The freedom to fail makes way for the freedom to shine. Jazz musicians, such as guitarist Pat Martino, often refer to this as “being in the moment.” We can also think of it as performing without a net (but not without skill).

Second, jazz musicians improvise together, not only during solos. This is known as “group improvisation.” Even as the drummer, pianist, and bass player—the rhythm section—back up a soloist, they adapt their accompaniment by what they hear the soloist playing, whether it be trumpet, saxophone, vibes, or another instrument. Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock is, perhaps, the greatest living master of this skill. Group improvisation is rare and probably unique to jazz or at least to jazz-inflected and jazz-infected music.

Jazz Speaks to Apologetics

What, then, could this emphasis on mastering material and improvising (in both senses above) have to do with apologetics? Just as jazz musicians, apologists need to “know their charts” by having spent much “time in the woodshed.” That is, they need to master the standard apologetic arguments on the nature of truth and faith, the arguments for God’s existence (natural theology), the reliability of the Bible, the deity and resurrection of Christ, the case against rival worldviews (atheism, pantheism, polytheism, Buddhism, Islam) and much more. However, knowing the arguments (the charts) is not the same as offering the arguments in various interpersonal settings. These include one-on-one, in a small group, in a larger group, in a lecture, in a sermon, on line, in a postal card, and more. This demands inventiveness, being prepared “in the moment” to size up the scene, seize the moment, and jam accordingly. Apologetic witness should never be stilted or clichéd, just as jazz is never hidebound to one way of playing a tune. As Phillip Brooks said of preaching long ago, apologetics is “truth through personality.” No one else has your personality and every situation is unique. So make music—in your solos and through group dynamics.

Since jazz music is made through profound interaction, the apologist should solicit reactions from the unbeliever through the “call-and-response.” Transposed from music to speaking, this means dialogue, not monologue. In jazz, a musician does not solo according to a chart while backed by monotonous musicians. Just as jazz musicians, apologists need to “know their charts” by having spent much “time in the woodshed.”  They need to master the standard apologetic arguments on the nature of truth and faith, the arguments for God’s existence, the reliability of the Bible, the deity and resurrection of Christ, the case against rival worldviews and much more. Rather, he improvises along with the group. Mutatis mutandus, thus the apologist does not recite a text with no interaction with the listeners. No, one speaks before one or more listeners, who, in turn, listen and speak back. This apologetic music is made mutually. One desires to be “in the moment” as one leans on God, the Spirit of Truth (John 14:26), moment-by-moment. This does not eliminate errors. Just as jazz is “the imperfect art” (Gioia), apologetics dialogue allows for mistakes, which one hopes can be resolved (or at least minimized) through on ongoing discussion. If more than one Christian is making a case with a non-Christian audience, each can support the other. Herbie Hancock tells of hitting a wrong note on piano while playing in The Miles Davis Group in the mid-1960s. He was rescued when Miles played a note that made his “mistake” the right note after all. Apologetics needs this kind of teamwork as well.

Study and Improvisation

Some wrongly think that inspiration in apologetics or Christian witness in general has little or nothing to do with previous study. This is dead wrong—for both apologetics and jazz. The best improvisers practice the most, such as John Coltrane. This saxophone virtuoso was known to practice incessantly and even right before bed, causing him to fall asleep with his saxophone. When Jesus told his disciples not to worry how they would respond when they were imprisoned for their faith, he did not say not to study, but not to worry (Mark 11:13; Luke 12:11). Moreover, the disciples had studied and lived with the Master Teacher for about three years before his statement. They were already well-equipped to produce under pressure.

Reliance on the Holy Spirit does not mean being an ignoramus, or, in jazz lingo, not “spending time in the woodshed.” Instead of reciting talking points (like talking heads), the apologist should engage conversation points through the exchange of ideas. Sparks fly and may ignite the friendly fires of truth. Truths of God that were initially only opposed or considered may become knowledge through patient persuasion inspirited by the Spirit of Truth.

Syncopation and Salvation

Let us consider one more element of jazz pertinent to apologetics: syncopation. This is a subtle concept. To syncopate means to hit the off-beat instead of the expected down-beat. There is freedom to syncopate, which means to accent the off-beat without throwing off the beat. This is rarely heard in rock-and-roll, which is usually far more flatfooted and predictable. (Progressive rock is another matter, since it is influenced by jazz.) Some wrongly think that inspiration in apologetics or Christian witness in general has little or nothing to do with previous study. This is dead wrong—for both apologetics and jazz. More generally, it means to make surprises work in the moment. Syncopation saves music from being plodding and boring. It is a particularly sublime kind of improvisation. This is why jazz musicians so often look at each other and smile with a twinkle in their eye while performing. Jesus syncopated by doing unexpected yet wonderful things throughout his ministry. (See, Robert Gelinas, Finding the Groove.) Jesus blesses us with many examples, but consider this felicitous encounter.

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him,“Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” (Luke 19:1-7).

Note that Jesus did not intend a visit with Zacchaeus. He was “passing through Jericho.” Hailing little Zacchaeus, who was unceremoniously perched in a tree, was certainly off-beat, especially since these Jewish tax collectors were considered terrible “sinners” because of their collusion with Rome and their extortion of extra money for themselves. But we find in verses 8-10 that Zacchaeus repented publically, causing Jesus to exclaim:

Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost (19:10).

Jesus’ syncopation resulted in salvation.

Francis Schaeffer (1912-84) was an exemplary apologist in many ways. But his greatest strength lay not in public addresses, but in private conversations. William Edgar, now a theologian at Westminster Theological Seminary, reports that Schaeffer was once in a tough conversation with an unbeliever at L’Abri, a Christian study center in the Swizz Alps. A young woman had an odd objection to becoming a Christian. She could not serve a God who required animal sacrifices during the time of the Old Testament. Schaeffer tried a number of approaches, none of which budged the woman from her objection. Then he looked at her shoes, which were made of leather. Schaeffer asked the woman if wearing these leather shoes, taken from an animal, was immoral. She said no. Then the conversation opened up to the truth and goodness of God’s ways with men. Schaeffer, like Jesus, syncopated. I have read thousands of pages on philosophy of religion and apologetics, but no book or article ever suggested a “shoe leather apologetic.” But by being prepared as well as “in the moment,” Schaeffer knew what to do. I take it that the Holy Spirit knows how to jam.

Whether you are (like me) among the “the few, the proud, the jazz aficionados” or not, this musical art has much to instruct us in the way of fruitful and faithful apologetic engagement. Its virtues may become ours. If so, the witness of the church will deepen and widen as the swinging music of eternal life breaks out all around.

Author: Douglas Groothuis

Author of Christian Apologetics, Truth Decay, On Jesus, On Pascal, and others. Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary since 1993. Head of The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree Program and Co-Director of The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. Senior Fellow for Apologetics.com.

3 thoughts

  1. Thank you! I enjoyed reading every word of this post particularly the section on Study and Improvisation. How may you suggest I start my Jazz exploration? Regards.

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