Black and White—Unlike Jazz

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jazzI have recently come to appreciate the foundational difference between Jazz and Classical music. Jazz is all about improvisation whereas Classical is about obeying the rules. Jazz has a freedom that Classical does not. That is one reason why good Classical music is, well, so good! Further, without the Classical there in fact could be no Jazz. Classical has historical priority. Classical is the foundation on which the improvisation of Jazz is possible. Both kinds of music are legitimate, and I enjoy both, but each has its proper “space.” A hybrid of the two, at least to a purist, would probably be monstrous.

Several years ago Donald Miller wrote a book called Blue like Jazz. I read it two years ago on a trip to India. For the most part I enjoyed it. Miller is a gifted writer who makes you both laugh and reflect at the same time. In his book, Miller seeks to explain his journey as a Christian and his various experiences, with particular reference to church life. It was helpful in some ways. And yet while reading the book it became pretty clear that he prefers a Christianity modelled on improvisation rather than on one that obeys God’s prescribed rules. Miller prefers Jazz over Classical when it comes to the Christian life. But such an approach is ultimately spiritually unhealthy.

Now, we must be thoughtful when considering this issue. After all, there is much in the Christian life that allows for improvisation and such creative expressions are indeed healthy. Where Scripture allows for improvisation we should not be hesitant to bring out the saxophone, break out the bass and be a Miles Davis or an Earl Klugh for Jesus.

Yet where the Scriptures clearly speak concerning how to live life and how to “do church,” we need to use the “instruments” God has given to us in a way that honours the unchangeable symphony He has written. Sometimes the Scriptures call for Bach over Brubeck.

I would be the first to defend the axiom that when it comes to living out our faith, both individually as well as corporately, there is in fact a place for “Jazz”; there is a place for improvisation. For instance, when and how you pray and read the Bible no doubt will be different from individual to individual. When it comes to personal preferences and convictions there will be allowable differences amongst believers. In church gatherings our musical expression and even such mundane things as the service times fall quite legitimately within the motif of “Jazz.” In fact, if you think about it long enough, there are many areas where improvisation is permissible and even spiritually healthy. After all, is this not an underlying supposition in the New Testament concerning various giftings exercised by believers in the local church? Such diversity, coupled with appropriate improvisation, should therefore be encouraged in the Christian and in church life. There is plenty of room for “Jazz” in authentic Christian living.

On the other hand, however, there is much in the Christian life that must remain “Classical.” That is, God has prescribed how He is to be approached and worshipped. And here it is important that the Christian adopt the black-and-white of Scripture rather than seeking to be “blue like Jazz.”

Having recently conducted some conferences on 1 Timothy, I am more persuaded than ever that there is little room for a “Jazzy” approach to much of church life. I would argue that the popular rejection of God’s “Classical” structure for the local church has tragically weakened the church, both locally and globally.

God’s Word is very black and white when it comes to the message of the church, and concerning the elements and manner of corporate worship. God is very clear in His Word concerning the officers of the church and the requirements that they must meet in order to fill and function in those offices. The Scriptures lay down non-negotiable rules for the conduct of the pastor-teachers in the church and equally concerning how the church is to care for one another. I could go on and on but I hope you get the point. God has established the rules for the Christian life and especially concerning corporate church life. To break these rules may earn you the reputation of being “cool like Jazz,” yet the Conductor of the Grand Orchestra will be less than pleased.

Someone recently asked me why it is that there are so many churches in one locale and why there are so many denominations. My answer is that in many (most?) cases such division is the result of people who have improvised rather than simply playing the well-ordered Classical notes of Scripture. And let’s face it: Jazz for many is a lot easier to enjoy than Classical. It takes a lot less effort and it often affirms one’s “mood.”  Perhaps therefore Miller’s book would be more accurately titled, Individualistic like Jazz.

If the church will experience both local and global reformation then the leaders of local churches will need to discipline themselves to know how to use the saxophone and flute of biblical revelation. They will need to grow in wisdom concerning when it is biblically legitimate to improvise and when it is not. How biblical doctrine is respected as it is “played out” in the church will make all the difference in the world. After all, Maretha on the flute and Samantha on the saxophone Sunday mornings will look much different than Ian Anderson (aka Jethro Tull) and Kenny G doing so on Friday night. And that is how it should be.

Thank God for the gift of Jazz. Improvisation can be a wonderful expression of God’s creative image in man. But let’s keep in mind that the black-and-white of Classical is what makes “blue like Jazz” possible.

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