Joni Mitchell

Kathleen and I have been watching specials about and interviews with Joni Mitchell. I have been listening to her music, especially from her jazz period: “Shadows and Light” and “Mingus.” On the former, her band is Pat Metheny, guitar, Jaco Pastorius on bass, Lyle Mays on keys, Don Alias on drums and percussion, and Michael Brecker on tenor sax. Let that sink in your consciousness. Better: let the music itself sink in. She has also recorded with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.

One inept interviewer pivoted any time Joni said something philosophical, which was often. He was more concerned with her relationship to fame (which she hates) and her creative process. She is a painter and a poet and a songstress. As an artist, she had the courage to never rest on her laurels, which are considerable. Like John Coltrane, she restlessly seeks more.

As far as I can tell, she has a Buddhist worldview mixed with astrology and with an appreciation for Nietzsche, who she quotes from memory.. She said, “I’m doomed by astrology to be a deep thinker.” What a sad viewpoint. Astrology dooms no one, since God is the “lord of the star fields, Ancient of Days” (Bruce Cockburn). She is seething with words and images and music. Who knows, but I imagine her words-to-length-of-songs ratio is very high (at least in one period of her career) when compared to other singers. She says a lot about many matters, and always poetically.

Oh, Joni Mitchell! Your songs are our companions. Your voice is unparalleled. Your sorrows run deep. She said her basic message was “You’re on your own. And that’s OK.” But we aren’t, and thinking otherwise is not OK. One of her songs has the lyric, “We’re gonna raise up Jesus from the dead.” What an odd idea. Too late! He has been raised and he will come again, bringing his own with him in great glory, a glory that makes the majesty of Joni Mitchell’s voice seem as almost nothing.

I wish I had an hour–at least–to listen to and talk with Joni Mitchell–and not because she is famous or talented or beautiful. Of all her words, some have spoken of God or the church. In the 1980’s she was angry about “snake bite evangelists.” So was I. Of all her words, I cannot think of any that recognized, let alone worshiped, the God who gave her the gift of being “a deep thinker” and the gift of being a singer extraordinaire. But I don’t know here entire oeuvre—so many words, moods, textures, voices.

Perhaps, I really don’t know Joni Mitchell at all.

Book Review: Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith

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 conserve 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 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 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 what saw 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 tensionmay 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 ofparadoxeshe threatens to undermine the coherence and truthfulness of Scripture, 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 andlove them; ignore hypocritical spiritual leaders andobey 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 oppositionbetween (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 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 coherenceupon biblical teaching. One can also agree that the Christian life presents us with some difficult existentialtensions. 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 resolvesthe paradox. (The philosopher Blaise Pascal was a master of this method.) Soon after mentioning the tertium quidstrategy, 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.

 

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.