Misplaced Jesus, Pop Culture — June 8, 2011 at 7:38 pm

(Blue Like) Jazz & Christianity


Near the end of Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller summarizes his book by saying, “Christianity is more like Jazz; something you feel.”

Miller is correct, to a degree. Jazz is something that you feel. But if you know anything about improvisational Jazz, you realize that undergirding the creativity and emotion of Jazz is a theoretical framework. Musicians train in Jazz improvisation, they learn theory, they are mentored by seasoned Jazz artists. Great Jazz artists don’t just pick up an instrument and play.

Miles Davis, one of the most creative musicians in American history, didn’t produce The Complete Birth of Cool or Kind of Blue by picking up his trumpet and just playing. He practiced and developed a framework that was based upon some of the essential elements–both theoretically and culturally–of Jazz.

Similarly, Christianity is something you feel. We cannot divorce our faith from our emotional connection with God. Love is not merely understood, it is felt. But faith is more than feeling and Christianity is only Christianity in a certain theological framework. A Christian does not develop by just assuming elements. A Christian learns faith through the interplay of experience, scripture, tradition, and reason. From these elements they create the music of their individual faith. True Christianity (and Christian orthopraxy) is rooted in the pursuit of truth and orthodoxy, not just in feeling.

I have heard people try to just pick up a trumpet and play. They sound terrible. Some have more raw ability than others, but for most, it sounds more like they are killing a duck — if they can get noise out at all. Moreover, I have heard novice trumpet players try to play Jazz. They get up and try to put some notes together. Sometimes they sound bearable, but those occasions are rare. They are “feeling” the music, but the music isn’t feeling them.

There are other musicians who can read Jazz on paper, but not improve their sound. This is where Miller’s point applies. Those “Christian” and religious folk who know how to stick to the script may look good, they may have their ducks in a row, but they aren’t always living full Christian lives. They understand the concepts, but haven’t communed with Christ. That relationship is something that is foreign. Certainly, there are those who earnestly feel emotional when the music is scripted. The scripted music is still valuable; people play the scripted music because it is beautiful. Likewise, there are Christians who earnestly live vigorously in Christ, but that seem rigid because they stick to the script. Perhaps for them the structure helps them experience the emotion of their relationship with God.

If we focus too much on the emotion of Jazz (or Christianity), then it becomes something we do for our own consumption rather than because of its beauty. And if Jazz veered away from its roots and began to sound exactly like classical music or sounded too much like grunge rock it would no longer be Jazz.  Likewise, Christianity that looks like generic spirituality is no longer Christianity

But if we are too attached to the rigidness of a score then we allow religiosity to override our relationship with God. The music becomes a set of rules and regulations rather than lifestyle that emerges from who we are and dictates who we are becoming.  The mature Christian life, like good Jazz, spawns from the marriage of knowledge and feeling. It is an expression of faith.


  • These are some abstract ideas which deserve a more in-depth look, in less analogous terms.

    I have nothing against scripted music. I’m a musician myself, and I often like to do songs close to the originals and I don’t have a great love of improvising, perhaps due to lack of practice. But using those metaphors for the Christian life, while providing a nice introduction to the conversation are not coherent arguments in and of themselves.

    If we are speaking into our [evangelical] Christian sub-culture today, then there is a huge conversation to have about this. One of the issues I see is that many Christians are hostile toward improvisation. Deviation from the[ir] “script” is at the very least hit over the head if not outright condemned. Scripted musicians might like playing it a certain way, but they can usually recognize the beauty and skill involved in other forms of musicianship. We don’t have that in Christianity.

    One related thought is that Christianity has never historically played out like a scripted performance. People may like it that way or even think of it that way, but it has always been messy. There have always been disputes, disagreements, and confusion. So the entire premise is in question. Does the analogy really apply? Are the various scripts that people have followed true symphonies? Because to me they seem more like children practicing chopsticks over and over. Of course, that’s just a playful jab and not a serious criticism, because it is mere metaphor and not a direct or in-depth look at what’s really going on.

    What do you or others think?

  • “We cannot divorce our faith from our emotional connection with God” – so true. I like what you have to say here, Joshua. When I separate my heart and emotions from my faith – it becomes something I do because I SHOULD, not out of love, affection, trust and beauty. Thanks!

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