Truth, goodness, beauty, jazz and stuff...

So here's an observation that I continue to wrestle with:  there is a type of musical creation that I value and appreciate in my mind, but cannot listen to for any length of time because it offends my soul. Or more simply: I dig some creativity intellectually but can't endure it aesthetically. In this, I find myself a part a school of Christian aesthetics deeply indebted to Trinitarian theology. My starting point is the Reformed artist-theologian, Mako Fujumura, and includes C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesteron, Francis Schaeffer, Paul Tillich, Hans von Balthassar and Gregory Wolfe along with the tradition's mystics like Francis, Hildegard of Bingen and Richard Rohr. This summer, in addition to my work on the upright bass - and some reading of the jazz tradition - I also want to work my way through David Bentley Hart's masterpiece: The Beauty of the Infinite.

Two quick notes: my choice of theological comrades is qualitatively conservative and Orthodox. They are almost all Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, too. Oh, well. The Reformed tradition has been woefully inadequate in this realm until recently. Further, as Jeremy Begbie notes, too many Protestants treat the arts with a sentimentality that not only distorts the beauty of God's complicated truths but trivializes evil. 

These deficiencies include the misrepresentation of reality by the evasion or trivialization of evil, emotional self-indulgence, and the avoidance of appropriate costly action. "The sentimentalist loves and hates, grieves or pities not for the sake of the other but for the sake of enjoying love, hate, grief or pity." (51) This is the cruel side of sentimentality in that the anger over injustice does not result in action to right the injustice. The pictures of children starving in Africa may evoke pity or concern, but if it does not provoke action, than the felt pity becomes more important than the very real human needs.  (Reformation 21 @

Begbie and Fujimura are wonderful exceptions - and the work being done by International Arts Movement and others offers a long overdue corrective - but the Reformed tradition remains locked in a Platonic dualism that refuses to take incarnation seriously. (Check out the highly accessible Reformed collection, For the Beauty of the Church, ed. W. David Taylor as another helpful alternative.) So, I embrace my allies wherever I find them!

What prompted this too complicated prelude was my recent introduction to the free jazz of Albert Ayler. Man, I can't listen to his playing! I grasp why it has value. As he said of himself: "Trane was the Father, Pharaoh (Sanders) was the Son... and I am the Holy Ghost." Please put any theological challenges to such bravado on hold and consider what Ayler was saying. He is part of the evolving free jazz realm that takes up what Coltrane started and Sanders and Sun Ra developed. And what he created was once described something "like a Salvation Army band on LSD." Why? Because Ayler "insisted that it's not about notes anymore. Indeed, it was only about the music's 'spiritual dimension." (Bivins, Spirits Rejoice)

Maybe - but only in a postmodernist groove - where all metanarrative is rejected as a subjective
truth or a manipulative lie. Ayler's music is totally wild and free - that's his gift - and the intellectual beauty. But, man, try listening to his stuff for any length of time and I have to pull the plug! He does nothing to nourish my commitment to compassion. He evokes no sense of either community or hope. And his vision does not move me towards faith, hope or love but just the opposite: despair. And this is mostly because I find no beauty or goodness in the truths he is working so hard to create. I find the artwork of Francis Bacon disturbing in their brutal truths but they speak to the horrors of violence and war - so I am willing to take time with their truth. I find the music of Coltrane challenging because it often assaults my sense of order, but I know he is in search of a sacred goodness. Besides, while he is searching on the sax, his compatriots are creating a beautiful, rhythmic context that I can connect with. Even the jarring cinematic work of Bunuel uses traditional aspects of beauty in shocking ways to point towards solidarity with the poor and suffering of the world. 

But try as I might, I can't make the connections with Ayler. I trust from those who cherish him, that he was on a spiritual quest. And so I will make no judgment re: the integrity of his journey. But the way he expresses this sojourn does nothing for me. My hunch is that he, like others before him, became lost in the naturual limits of subjectivity . My further hunch is that our art and creativity communicate at a deeper level only when we are grounded in the transcendentals of truth, beauty and goodness.
+ Mako, Golden Sea
+ Bacon, Three Studies of a Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne


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