Thoughts on Pentecost and jazz and disembodied spirituality...

This Sunday is Pentecost: a time to reflect on the gift of the Holy Spirit that has been given to Christ's church forever and a gift that each congregation and believer receives repeatedly, too. In his often insightful blog, Faith and Theology, Benjamin Myers laments our current obsession with "spirituality" and our collective neglect of faith communities.  This is simultaneously a profound critique of the 21st century church rigidity and shallowness AND the natural consequence of "late capitalism's only moral value:  choice."  Karl Marx would have a field day with this form of religion - Spirit Lite - " a market phenomenon... a product for consumers... therapy that is purely retail." (check it out:

He then offers three correctives that are worth considering, not only because it is essential for critics to suggest alternatives rather than merely carp and complain; but because his thoughts speak to the renewal of Christ's body.  Without a tradition and community to ground and guide us, our spiritual life usually remains disembodied.  As Denis Donoghue's essay about Emerson reminds us, while this great American scholar cherished the notion of the Spirit guiding individuals into their highest calling, he also "had very little interest in people at large.  He despised the masses..." (The American Classics, p. 36) His was an abstract - even disinterested - notion of Spirit - the polar opposite of Pentecost.  Small wonder that in 1930 John Dewey said "of American religion 'that nowhere in the world at any time has religion been so thoroughly respectable as with us - and so nearly totally disconnected from life.'" ( p. 37)

And while Dewey often tempts the church to err on the side of programs, measurable results, utilitarian busyness and all the rest - a path antithetical to apocalyptic poetry and patience - his insight stands. Phillip Yancey cuts to the chase in dramatic form when he tells the story of an encounter with a prostitute:

This woman came to me in wretched straights, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for herself or her two-year old daughter. And through her sobs and tears told me that she had been renting out her baby… because she could make more money pimping her daughter than she could selling herself… So I asked her if she had ever tried to find help – have you tried going to the church for help – and I will never forget the look of pure, na├»ve shock that crossed her face. “CHURCH!” she cried. “Why would I EVER go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself and they would just make me feel worse.” Now… what struck me is that in his day, women like this fled toward Jesus not away from him. The worse a person felt about herself, the more she saw Jesus as a refuge. How has the church lost this gift? Evidently the down and out, who flocked to Jesus when he lived on earth, no longer feel welcome among his followers.

There IS something broken - wrong - and terribly wounded about the contemporary Western church. You can see it in the current break in the ranks of the once monolithic Evangelical community.  Rob Bell is just the most visible expression of those who are seeking the radical grace of Christ that resonates far deeper than judgmental theologies of simplistic Calvinism. Shane Claibourne's "new monk" experiment shows much the same thing, too (even if it needs a healthy does of modesty from time to time.) And God knows the fact that Bono is more respected in the under 40 Evangelical world than Robertson et al suggests that there is something broken and being healed by the Spirit.  Same is true in the liturgical traditions of the West where more people are coming together for "spontaneous Eucharistic" festivals at midnight on a Saturday night in a variety of cities where the traditional church has died.  Cut to the words of Myers re: a true spirituality for our times:

First, it will be a humane spirituality. It will be warm and welcoming, life-giving and earth-affirming. There will be none of Trollope’s odious clergyman Mr Slope in Barchester Towers about it, who “regards the greater part of the world as being infinitely too bad for his care,” nor any of Joanne Harris’ repressed priest in Chocolat, who regards physical pleasure as “the crack into which the devil sends his roots.” It will be holistic, keeping together what Spirit Lite would put asunder, recognising that the worlds of the prosaic and the miraculous intermingle – that, as spiritual director Eugene Peterson so graphically puts it, “’Pass the broccoli’ and ‘Hear the word of the Lord’ carry equal weight in conversations among the people of God” (adapted). Thus it will also be a humorous spirituality. And it will be honest too. So there will be a rigorous recognition of sin, but particularly sin in its insidious form of ecclesiastical self-righteousness and self-certainty. Hence the brilliant title of a book by the American feminist theologian Carter Heyward: it’s called Saving Jesus from Those Who Are Right.

Second, it will be a heterogeneous spirituality (give me a break – I’m trying to string together some aitches!) – heterogeneous meaning diverse, varied, plural, inclusive. There will be nothing “gated” or sectarian about it, no  pre-defining approaches according to our tastes or dispositions, no reducing community to a projection of ourselves, no getting rid of what displeases or even offends us. Rightly it has been said that “Sectarianism is to the community what heresy is to orthodoxy, a willful removal of a part from the whole” (Eugene Peterson). Rather we will honour the different, value the strange, and pay particular attention to voices long silenced or marginalized, as well as to non-Christian voices too. We will be “catholic” in the best sense of the word.

And, third, it will be a heuristic spirituality, from the Greek word for “discovery”; that is, it will be a spirituality of pilgrimage. There will be nothing of the “we have all the answers” about it, rather the church will be what R. S. Thomas called a “laboratory of the Spirit”, fearlessly testing the truths we tease out in our tentative detections of divinity. But our explorations won’t be into anywhere else than the place where we are, nor into any other time than the present moment. And though we will be determined, we will not be in a hurry, we will be patient, and we will find time to waste time and play. Finally, we will resist the temptation of thinking that there can be spiritual progress in isolation from our relationships with fellow seekers, including the dawdlers, nor will we dictate the pace, for the head cannot move without the tail.

Last night, at our final band meeting before heading to Istanbul, Turkey - while sharing Armenian wine (no local Raki was available) - we talked a bit about jazz theory and context.
I had a hunch from playing with these guys for 8 months about their take on this, but was curious to see how they articulated an answer to the question:  what IS jazz? 

In a recent documentary, ICONS AMONG US, this questions was battled between "traditionalists" like the Marsailis brothers - who essentially denigrate much of what has taken place since the late 1950s - and those who have been infused with the soul of Bebop, Modal or even Fusion or Free jazz.  A quote by Bill Frisell - in the later camp - gave me a voice for playing jazz:

It is a way of being totally in the moment - experimenting with ALL the possibilities - in a place and style where no body gets hurt.

FREAKIN' brilliant - good theology - great jazz wisdom, too.  Yes, jazz has got to have a place of improvisation and it has to swing (as the jazz historians insist.)  But it also points to a way of living and sharing in the world, as Herbie Hancock says, "that serves humanity." In other words, it ain't no club and aches to break down barriers so that ALL of God's children might be free and whole and holy.  (And this clip from my fav Cinematic Orchestra seems to bring it all together, too.)

This journey to Turkey, therefore, is a pilgrimage of sorts for me: it is an embodied act of trust that sharing our deepest love will open doors of understanding. It is embodied prayer for me, too, whether any holy words are spoken:  playing in this group - being fully present and creative - while respecting and really listening to the others brings healing and cleansing and even a bit of resurrection to my body/soul/mind.  And doing it all in the spirit of celebration... well, it is the feast made flesh in ways that cut across faith, class, race, gender and everything else.  It is, like the Pentecost story says, the healing of the Tower of Babylon.

credits:  all come from the brilliant work of He Qi - he is a master - please check him out @


Black Pete said…
Wonderful posting, James. You might want to check out Victor Wooten at, and especially his novel, The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music.

He was interviewed on our Canadian radio show Tapestry and showed himself to be that combo of earth/spirit that you suggested in your posting.
RJ said…
I LOVE that book, Peter. We found it on a weekend in VT last year and I devored it - and go back to often. Thanks, my man!

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