Jazz & Faith

Sam Shellhamer, the former – – at Wheaton College, came in to speak to my College Student Development Class at Taylor University. He offered great wisdom to our class as we are preparing to go into the Student Development Field. One comment that stuck out was the importance to be aware of those things that are spiritually affecting students. With this, he read a passage from Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller. Shellhamer has some serious issues with some of Miller’s conclusions that assume the supremacy of feelings over belief.  I wanted to add some of my own comments. I, like Shellhamer, have my issues with Donald Miller. I struggle with the widespread praise Miller had received for his books. Although he brings up some great questions, sometimes the answers to his questions are ones that I see as insufficient.


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


Miller, in some degree, is correct. 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 take classes in Jazz improvisation, they learn theory and they are mentored by seasoned Jazz artist. Great Jazz artists don’t just pick up and instrument and play. Miles Davis, who is seen as one of the most creative Jazz musicians, 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 worked base upon some of the essential elements, both theoretically and culturally from Jazz.


Similarly, Christianity is something you feel. You cannot divorce our faith from our emotional connection with God.  Our souls emotionally connect with God, love is something not merely understood, but true love is felt. But Christianity is only Christianity in a certain theological framework. A Christian does not develop by just assuming elements. A Christian learns what the Bible say and what faith is and from that they create the music of their individual faith. True Christianity (and Christian orthopraxy) is rooted in Orthodoxy, not just in feeling.


I have heard people try to just pick up a trumpet and play. Honestly, they are horrible. It sounds like they are killing a duck – if they can get noise out at all. Additionally, I have heard novice trumpet players try to play Jazz. They get up and try to put some notes together. Sometimes they sound good, but those occasions are rare and usually the product of mistakes rather than on purpose. They are “feeling” the music, but music isn’t feeling them – at least not by the way it sounds.


Similarly, I have seen people just try to assume Christianity. They try to live what is Christian, but there is a dissonance between what they are saying and doing and what their faith really is. I have seen religious folk call themselves Christian; they can put something together, but they don’t really know what it means to be Christian. They are banking on the culture of their faith and the feeling of what they have always known to be Christian.


Another group includes the musicians who can read Jazz on paper, but not improve it. This is where my thoughts match some with Miller. 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 really aren’t living full Christian life. They understand the concepts, but haven’t interacted with the emotion of a relationship with Christ. That is something that is foreign. Don’t get me wrong, there are those who earnestly feel emotional when they are playing Jazz from a paper. They are not producing music because that is the way it is. They are playing music because it is beautiful. Likewise, there are Christians who earnestly live vigorously in Christ, but that seem rigid because they stick the script. There is nothing wrong with these Christians; perhaps for them the structure of Christian helps them experience the emotion of their relationship with God.


The reality is if we focus too much on the emotion of Jazz (Christianity), than Jazz becomes something we do for our own consumption rather than because of its beauty, but if we are too attached to the rigidness of a script than we have allowed tradition and pious behavior overcomes our relationship with the music (God).


If Jazz veered away from its roots and began to sound exactly like classical music, or sounded too much like Classical music it would no longer be Jazz. Additionally, Christianity that looks like generic spirituality is no longer Christianity. We must realize that real improv. spawns from a solid base and that real spiritual fervor spawns as a result of a correct theological understanding of who God is.


Another note on Jazz, the Jazz Theologian, Robert Gelinas, has just released his book, Finding the Groove,  on pre-order on Amazon. It will be one I am checking out.

  1. Hi blackwasp man.. love your post!

    I’ve been reading Don Miller. I enjoy his writings so far. (BLue Like Jazz and Searching For God Knows What).. I’m glad there’re people who have problems with him, because it means he’s saying something worth reading. I do agree that sometimes I listen to jazz because it’s cool, rather than because it’s beautiful. I am a victim of that lifeboat mentality, where only the coolest and most important gets saved, otherwise you’re left to die in the sinking ship. So I try to be cool, try to be validated by my peers and by society.. rather than do what the heart of my compssionate God tells me to.

    Still, it doesn’t make Jazz any less beautiful. Jazz can take my ignorance. It is dynamic and living enough to accept my dead ears.. Just like God, I think.

    On Miles Davis, I agree that he had to practice the theories and framework for a long time to get the basic and even the advanced techniques in his head.. but then he made the choice to step out of those boundaries and further explore places where music theories don’t go to.. in faith, with courage, and look at the beauty he created. In the image of God we have been created, and so we create our little pieces of music through our lives, emerging from the systems and laws and regulations and doctrines that got us to where we are, a place from which we must journey on from, in the way of Christ.

    And there will be times when we play out of tune and out of time with God’s heartbeat, but he can still make the piece come together for his beautiful, improvised composition.. without this knowledge and security I don’t think I’d ever ‘play in front of people’.. my faith would be so insecure that it WOULD be individual and at best personal, but never public.

    (I also think, with the feeling thing, it depends on your faith tradition. I came from a pretty conservative, dry, intellectual, evangelical upbringing, so to be given encouragement to listen to jazz, to FEEL God’ love – not just know it in my head – is totally refreshing and energizing. I am slowly learning to emerge from my rigid christianity into a more improv spiritual praxis)

    • I actually don’t know if we are in a completely post-modern culture. Or those ideological states like Post-modernity and Modernity even exist to the extent that we discourse about them.

      It is easy to say that we live in a post-modern world – especially in Christian circles- because it is the hot topic. But most of the world still operates by the numbers, rationality and the, mostly linear, thinking of modernity. Just look at how most schools and businesses operate. The post-modern church, post-modern Christianity etc., all of these are somewhat unsettling to me.

      The shift to a Post-modern church means that we had a Modern church, which isn’t what we were supposed to have. The enlightenment in particular did a great deal to shape American Christianity, and I don’t think that the enlightenment value of rationale was every tamed. Faith became more Enlightenment focused than Biblically focused.

      I am not a fan of Modernity or Post-Modernity, not that I believe that either state is intrinsically evil, but more that I don’t think that Christians should tie themselves to any cultural phenomena. Saying that I realize that we are in culture and are affected by it, but I think our line of thinking should not be trans-cultural. I get really frustrated when people label Post-modernity as evil. I ask, well what did Modernity to do faith? It tamed it, the scientific method – a product of modernity – lambasted it, people rationed out God etc.

      I am not going to write the negatives of Post-modernity, but they are present. I don’t think that Christianity needs to redefine itself as post-modern; I think being Christian is something greater than a cultural, ideological state. It is a divine, relationship with God through his Son Jesus and through the guiding of the spirit.
      On McLaren, I struggle. I honestly do value some of the things that he has to say, but he often comes of at radical to be radical. And he is somewhat abrasive in his words. I think to some degree I agree with him, but other times I wonder what is he saying. I think that some of his words are beneficial, but others are a little off. I read a Generous Orthodoxy, and while I valued some of the things he was saying, I felt as if it was mostly complaining on how faith is done. Also some of the positions he took were again a little off. – I have read other books by him and also find value.

      I believe this is another issue in the church. I do think that Orthodoxy is important, as long as we don’t complain about menial things such as drums in the church, or infant baptism – have different beliefs isn’t a make it or brake it issue. I worry because I read reports and hear that most American Christians and even more than 45 percent of evangelical Christians believe that Jesus isn’t the only way to heaven. And that there are multiple roads to salvation. – I am going to blog about this soon. That much of a generous orthodoxy scares me.

  2. itspeterb, thanks for writing.I am actually not a huge fan of Donald Miller, though I have found some good stuff in his books.

    See, don’t think that Jazz artists (Miles Davis included) step out of the frame work of what Jazz it, but I do think that they challenge what is conventional. Those are two different things. Jazz can have “new” elements, that really are just ones that haven’t been focuesd on, but I don’t think Jazz, in its purity totally evolves. There is something essential, something basic that is Jazz. I believe the same thing is so with Christianity. I need to bust out of conventionality, but that doesn’t mean that we compromise what is Biblical.

    I think we are mistaken when we push against the rules for sake of pushing against them. Jesus, in his radicalness, was believed to behave most like a pharasiee. This doesn’t mean he was hypocrical, no, it means he was genuinely Holy. His life wasn’t conventional, but it was the absence of the law either.

    Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. Matt 5:17

    The way of Jesus is righteousness. Now, I think we mix what is righteousness and what has been “made” righteous by Christian culutre. The is a battle well worth fighting, but I think that it is mistaken to think that God doesn’t want us rid ourselves of regulations. Just because people try to bound Jazz on pages doesn’t mean that we should rid ourselves of cord and progression structure.

    I agree with you too. God can bring all things into his composition. That is why he is God, but in my love towards him I want his power to be so present in my that my Jazz is naturally in harmony (knowing that there will be times when I hit the wrong note).

    I am glad you are escaping your rigidity, rigity makes for bad music, I pray you keep purusing an improv based in the music of God through Christ Jesus.

  3. Thanks dude, sorry I haven’t checked WordPress for a while.. thanks for engaging with me

    I heard somewhere that Holiness has a closer meaning to ‘wholeness’ rather than ‘goodness’.. which makes sense to me.. being whole, loving the whole world, living wholesomely.. Often times I fall into the trap of being ‘holy’, subconsciously trying to attain all those cultural appearance and indicators of ‘goodness’ and niceness.. I have found that the big part of becoming wholly for me was to slowly break down the barriers between the sacred and the secular in my mind.. which I find more and more un-biblical..

    Sometimes I feel that Christians worship Jesus like an idol, rather than follow him as a role-model.. that worries me a lot.. does that make sense? What’s happened to that original excitement of following The Way that brings true life and could set us free from the yoke of oppression and hatred?

    Have we made a canned soul-less multi-million dollar music industry out of a soulful, real, improvised street jam? And at what cost?

    • I feel you. I think we do get caught up in trying to “attain all those cultural appearances and indicators of goodness”. It is easier to define ourselves culturally than Biblically, and it is easy to view the bible only through our culture. I will say that I think that the Holiness/Wholeness thing is some wordplay that makes sense, but can also be misunderstood. Wholeness seems to be defined by completely embracing what God has made us to be. And I think what God has made us to be is Holy, like Christ. So I think Wholeness and Holiness are the same for the Christian. That being said also think that we have made these fluffy, culturally rooted, shallow views of holiness that focuses on doing for the sake of being rather than doing as a step in the process of being.

      The idol comment does make sense. We worship God and live like Christ. We can get that twisted.

      I love that last line of questioning. Its Jazz man. It becomes a musical industry rather than music. American Christianity has become religion instead of faith. Now i think that music will create an industry, and faith will create religion, but it is when the precedent is set on the former of the former loses its purpose, its depth and its impact.

      We also have to be truly trying model Christ and realize that we can be just as impacted by post-modernity that the previous generations were impacted by modernity, and medievalism. I don’t want our generation to simply be rebellious and different its critical that we look at ourselves and make sure that we are Christ-like.

      I am Diggin this convo.

  4. Hey Blackwasp.. Hope you’ve had a sweet year so far.. I am feeling a bit hopeful about it.

    The conversation around culture and bible is massive.. I keep telling my Christian friends that we ARE postmodernists, it’s nothing to fight against, just like our modernist and medieval ancestors before us, they just WERE the people who live in those times. I mean, is that really difficult to understand?

    Many people in the church fear that postmodernism is going to destroy Christianity.. well if it does destroy the shallow religiosity I have experienced under that name then that’s probably a good thing. But you’re right, the key is not to be radical for the sake of being radical, but to be Christ-like. I’ve found Brian McLaren’s books useful.. what r ur thoughts on him? (I know a fair few who don’t like him that much)

    I believe that Christ’s non-violent, gentle, empowering way is always going to be radical, because love (in the fullest sense of the word) always is. I love the prayer of StFrancis, the bit that says something like: god, please make us fools who believe that we can do the things that others say can’t be done! Take care, bro.

    • peterB
    • February 14th, 2009

    Hey again.. Sorry I haven’t checked your page in ages. I am seriously enjoying this little conversation with you. Your perspectives are fair and you don’t seem so hard-headed like some of the ‘hardcore christians’ I’ve read.

    I guess from the place i was coming from spiritually i really appreciated Brian. I can honestly say that without dudes like Brian I wouldn’t even be interested in engaging with church or maybe even Christians. Does that help to explain why I value what he says?

    Need time to rearrange my thoughts a bit.. but please hit me up on itpserb@gmail.com if you wanna keep talkin’ dude. Or my page:

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