Improvisational Christianity

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If you were going to choose a musical metaphor for Christianity, most people would say that Christianity is like an orchestra: the church is the players; the scripture, tradition, reason, and experience are the score; God is the conductor. For many people this works well because it is orderly and neat and wraps things up in a nice bow. I have a hard time seeing it as reality, maybe someone’s ideal of it, but definitely not the genuine article.

I think Christianity is more like a jazz ensemble. Like classical musicians, jazz players are virtuoso talents and well-schooled in the mechanic behind the music. But jazz is an odd sort of music because it defies category. The are as many forms of jazz as there are jazz musicians and out of all that seeming chaos there is only one constant: improvisation. Even when a jazz musician plays a piece they have done before they hardly ever do it the same way twice. Why? Jazz is responsive to its surroundings. If the crowd is into a piece of music, they draw it out. If the crowd ‘isn’t diggin’ it’, they cut it off and go to something else. If the musician knows the crowd, they tailor the music to that crowd. If they don’t, they might take chances. As long as everyone is in the same key, you’ve got a lot of freedom.

One of my favorite stories about Jazz involves Keith Jarrett and a concert in Köln, Germany. Jarrett’s concert was set up by a young (teenaged) promoter who didn’t understand how to put a show together. Keith was given a second rate, almost nonfunctional piano to play. Some of the octaves were not even functional and many of the keys stuck. He started to leave but decided to improvise around the instrument and use the concert as a teaching moment for promoters to make proper arrangements for musicians. Jarrett’s improvisations ended up being the catalyst for what would be the best-selling Jazz Piano album of all time. Why? He was a master at his craft who worked around the situation. In short, he did what jazz musicians always do. He improvised.

For Christians, life is rarely the formal affair of a symphony where we know what to play, when to play, and what everyone else will play as well. In this way God is like a band leader, setting the tempo and direction but allowing for improvisation on our part as we go. Faith is testing a piece to see how it works with the audience and adjusting as we go. We aren’t called to wait for perfect instruments or perfect crowds to play for. We are called start the music and move with the Spirit, waiting for the right moments, the right situations to play or pass it on to someone else in the band until its time to take up the melody again.

If you really want to listen to a master play, here’s a link to an interview about it and part of the Koln concert: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b0103z8j. If you really want to learn to be a master, get out there and improvise your faith. And play every chance you get.

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