Improvisational Theology

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Last week I was in New Orleans for the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) annual conference. Being in New Orleans, Tamara and I took the opportunity to hear some real, authentic, home-grown jazz. As I found out, these days you don’t look for jazz on Bourbon Street, you find it just outside the tourist block on Frenchman Street.

There are many ways you can describe jazz. What makes it unique and beautiful is that it exists in dynamic, improvisational tension. There is structure to the band, and each musician brings technical skill and talent. But what makes it really sing is the ability of the musicians in the band to play off of each other—to improvise.

In his book Resurrection City: A Theology of Improvisation, my friend, Peter Heltzel, who teaches at New York Theological Seminary uses jazz as a metaphor for how Christians are meant to improvise with God and move along with the Spirit:

Jazz is music, multiplicity, and magic all in one. It is a multi-layered experience of the musical dimension of our humanity. It touches the blue note in our heart, but offers a new way of experiencing life – life together. Making music together gives each musician the chance to sing his or her own song. Listening to others songs propels us to sing our own. May our life song bear witness to the jazzlike Creator, whose Spirit continues to hover over, under, in and above creation. Jazz energizes us to move with the Spirit.

It’s a great metaphor and a crucial part of understanding the image of God that we all bear. We are not inert, passive recipients of the gospel. We are active participants in what God is doing in our lives as individuals, in our backyards and around the world.

Jesus put his disciples out in the world to do his work without a lot of specific, detailed instructions at how to accomplish his ways, other than to rely on him and the Spirit he sends. He invited them to work it out in a dynamic and participatory manner.

In Philippians 1:4-6, Paul writes to the church that, “I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus,” and later in 2:12 he tells them to “continue to work out your salvation.”

Acts 2:42-47 describes the fellowship of believers who were devoted to the teaching of the apostles and working out how to live it together. In doing so, “The Lord added to their number daily.” And In 2 Corinthians 5:18 Paul tells us that not only were we reconciled to God, but he has in turn given us the ministry of reconciliation.

The New Testament is replete with passages like these showing the dynamic way in which we join God in his work. God’s artwork in and around us requires our active participation. We are called to know God and his Spirit, to work it out together and improvise in our lives and communities. We are not merely recipients of grace, but agents of grace. Together with God’s Spirit and the church we can create it, dream it and play into God’s ministry for the world.

As Heltzel writes, “May our life song bear witness to the jazzlike Creator, whose Spirit continues to hover over, under, in and above creation.”

Explore more at Static Art vs. Dynamic Art and A Theology of Creativity

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