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God, and all that jazz

By Trisha Elliott

In 1965, Time magazine reported on shifting trends in worship music: “Churches are coming around to the idea that contemporary worship can have a contemporary beat, and jazz in the liturgy, once a way for adventurous pastors to shock their congregations, is now taken seriously.” Then, jazz was a liturgical infant; a decade earlier, it was considered too worldly for many churches.

Now, jazz vespers are drumming syncopated rhythms out church windows around the globe. Several books have been written on the subject, including God’s Mind in That Music by Jamie Howison, and God, Creation, and All That Jazz by Ann Pederson.The United Church is also getting in on the action. In February, Moderator Rt. Rev. Gary Paterson led a jazz service series with musicians Rev. Peter Woods and Brian Browne. 

For a new breed of theologians, jazz provides a metaphor for understanding our relationship with God. Rev. George Hermanson, director of the Madawaska Institute for Culture and Religion, says God isn’t “eternal and unchanging” as the old hymn goes, but is heavily influenced. “Imagine a jazz group. God sets down the melody. It is passed on to the others in the group, and they get the feel for it,” he writes in a 2010 Observer article. “Each, in turn, adds originality, colour and difference, tweaking the piece to offer it back to God. God now has to work with what was created by the subjective experiences of the players. God has to feel the offering to give it more feeling.” 

Theologians also look to jazz for ecclesiastical inspiration. “The gospel gives us new ears to hear God and one another,” writes jazz theologian Robert Gelinas in Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith. “Jazz helps us, because it is all about listening. It is about hearing what each person has to offer.” Both relationships and jazz require knowing when to play and when to keep silent, when to add harmonies, when to hold the rhythm and when to bust out. Jazz necessitates being in the moment.

A chapter of Gelinas’s book is devoted to the blues, from which jazz originated. Rooted in slave culture, jazz echoes the crucified Christ, teaching listeners not to gloss over the bad stuff but to listen to the painful truth and turn it into something redemptive. “Jazz music isn’t always easy to listen to, and it’s rarely popular music,” he writes. “It was forged in the midst of the pain, grittiness, and rawness of life. . . . A jazz-shaped faith knows how to redeem pain.” Jazz laments, like biblical ones, often have an upbeat, hopeful twist.

Jazz reverberates across a broad Christian spectrum. Many theologians are turning to jazz to reveal the Spirit — from evangelical leaders like Gelinas to theologians like Hermanson. Crank up Brubeck, Coltrane, Davis, Parker and friends. It might just be good for your soul. 

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa.

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