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.