While I was in San Diego for the National Pastors Convention, I had the chance to meet Colorado pastor and new author Robert Gelinas, whose book Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Theology had just been released. He was in the early stages of euphoria, understandably, which is always a great time to meet a new author.
Robert is one of the pastors I met in San Diego whose "epiphany of recruitment" proved so compelling to me. He blogs at Reflections of a Jazz Theologian. I was drawn to Robert's book as a former jazz musician (I don't play anymore, but my whole identity used to be caught up in it) and an armchair theologian. Two great tastes that go great together, know what I mean?
Robert's book builds consciously and unapologetically on Carl Ellis's great book Free at Last? (the first leisure reading of an IVP book I did after coming on staff there) and is founded on Ralph Ellison's classic pronouncement that all of America is jazz-shaped. Apparently I batted my eyes at Robert's agent enough that he had the publisher send me a complimentary copy, on the assumption that I would review it here--which I was happy to do.
The connection between jazz and American history and even between jazz and theology is undeniably intriguing. Jazz was quickly recognized in Europe as a significant musical expression and a distinctly American contribution, such that early African American innovators found an eager audience abroad even as they continued to endure Jim Crow laws and discrimination at home. Duke Ellington wrote historically significant sacred music, and John Coltrane publicly sought transcendence; his cult following included a church in California named after him whose liturgy was built around free-jazz saxophone. Jazz history is a story of black innovation, white appropriation, interracial cooperation, paradigm shifting and genre blurring, all in the context of a volatile society experiencing its own regular upheavals. Jazz has moved regularly from background to foreground to background; it may be due for its spotlight again, which may explain why a publisher was willing to take a chance on such a niche book.
Robert lays out the major categories for a jazz understanding of a Christian worldview (improvisation), spiritual disciplines (the "woodshed") and community (listening, riffing). His take on hermeneutics is really intriguing, and his argument that the Harlem Renaissance could be for the American church what the Italian Renaissance was for the European church is wildly appealing. He rightly points out that the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent some of his own woodshed years in Harlem during the Renaissance before returning to wartime Germany and writing some of the most important theology of the twentieth century. I note that the great Thomas Merton also spent a seminal summer in Harlem during roughly the same period before entering the monastery. I've elsewhere called Merton and Bonhoeffer the patron saints of Generation Thee; but I didn't make the connection between them and Harlem. Would the white American church ever allow itself to be taught by the black American church in the way that Merton and Bonhoeffer did?
As usual, I read the book as an editor and couldn't help thinking about how I would change it: deeper into the ethics of improvisation, more on the evolution of jazz over time and the occasional purist backlash, more observations of what a church community might gain from a "combo" or "ensemble" perspective on fellowship and mission. But maybe that's a better task for the community of jazz theologians that I hope Robert will build. Jazz is in exile these days, in a similar way that the Christian faith is in exile. Neither is at the center of American life; each is on the periphery, trying to draw an audience, offering its call and awaiting its response.
Robert has a second book slated for next year: Strange Fruit, on the cross of Christ. I can't help but think that the second book will be the 201 course to this entry-level option. In the meantime, I hope the book generates lots of discussion; I hope Robert gets invited to teach regularly at Denver Seminary and to write lots and lots of articles and to speak broadly at conferences that draw young pastors and church planters. Because I think he's right: America is jazz-shaped, and as such it demands a jazz-shaped theology. That means solo projects like this one, but it also demands an ensemble, and as many of us as are called need to step up to the mike, crack open our real book and take our twelve bars.