“A Love Supreme”
A Review of
Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith.
by Robert Gelinas.
Reviewed by Chad R. Abbott.
One does not have to be a jazz enthusiast, play a trumpet or saxophone, or even know the full history of jazz to appreciate the wisdom that comes from Robert Gelinas’ new book Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith. Suggesting himself to be a “jazz theologian,” Gelinas argues that it is the formula and culture-producing agency of jazz that can help people of faith understand the modern and ancient worlds through new lenses. He writes, “A jazz shaped faith is not about liking the music or introducing smooth jazz versions of hymns into our worship services. Rather, it is about understanding and incorporating the essence of jazz into the way we follow Jesus.” Jazz is “more than music” and is instead a way of being, a way of seeing, or more importantly a sense of rhythm.
The rhythm of which Gelinas speaks that makes jazz relevant to faith comes in three ways: Syncopation, Improvisation and Call-and-Response. Syncopation is the emphasis of the “off beat” in the rhythm of a 4/4 measured song. Placing emphasis on the offbeat creates a swing and rhythm way of life, one that sees something that is present but often goes unnoticed. Gelinas offers the suggestion that Jesus was a “master of noticing the unnoticed.” Improvisation is a reinterpretation of old forms and structures by expressing a new creativity on the fly. Improvisation works within the structure given, but interprets the ancient with a new twist. Gelinas relates this to the attribute of God as a “Creator” and suggests that our relationship with God is not always the same and that interaction with the God of the Bible suggests improvisation as a model of interaction and faithfulness. Finally, the call-and-response rhythm is a conversation taking place among the group. Jazz musicians have this conversation regularly by allowing each instrument to have their turn in sharing a solo within the framework of the song that is playing. Gelinas, again, relates this to God’s entrepreneurial way and creative demand of a dialectical response from creation. The conversation creates new ways of being. Gelinas, coming from the black church tradition, reminds the reader of the deep connection to the slave religion in the early Americas that enlisted this conversational style as a mode of being and continues to this day. These three elements of jazz, essential elements that make it the only uniquely American music, tells the story not only of America, but of the way of the Christian faith.
Gelinas clearly has more than a cursory knowledge of jazz and its many rhythms, which offers the reader a strong foundation from which to engage theology. He is equally well versed in the history of Christianity, theological discourse and the more current language of missional and emergent communities and conversations. Gelinas’ is encouraging and hopeful as he challenges us and offers an ecclesiological vision of how twenty-first century American Christians can be ever increasingly faithful to the Kingdom Way. It is clear that his voice is one that has been missing from the current conversations and theological rumblings from the underground of a new kind of Christianity in the North American context. Having said that, I do admit a disappointment that Gelinas did not draw more upon the strong black theological tradition that has written with great strength regarding the intersection between theological discourse and the rhythms of jazz. While Gelinas does make reference to theologian James Cone, he does not specifically draw upon Cone’s work in his famous The Spirituals and the Blues, which represents a hallmark at the intersection of American music, faith and race. Gelinas specifically draws upon Cone’s work in A Black Theology of Liberation where Cone suggests that “Jesus is Black.” This statement, Gelinas suggests, is jazz and can be used as a way of rethinking our theology. While this analysis is helpful, it is disappointing to not see Cone’s other work present in the conversation, not to mention the works of Anthony Pinn, Cornel West and Dwight Hopkins to name only a few. These theologians represent a current of theological discourse not only inherent to the jazz tradition of which Gelinas speaks, but offer us all a deep analysis of the Church and its history that neither the evangelical nor the emergent conversations have been willing to integrate. I believe an integration of their models into his work would have put this already strong text into a hallmark category of its own. While Gelinas does not draw upon the wealth of theologians that would have made this text carry more depth, it is clear that he has been faithful in allowing the voices of jazz themselves speak with authenticity.
Drawing on the spiritual journeys of many of the jazz greats from Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, Gelinas reminds us that our faith is extremely contextual and relies upon the rhythms of jazz for a continual renewal of our faith and the church. In fact, Gelinas truly believes that American religion has the potential of dying out in all of its fundamentalist and rigid forms if it doesn’t allow itself to take on a jazz-shaped form – i.e., living into the way of Jesus through the rhythms that have opened up new paths for God’s people throughout history. Those rhythms match those of a music, jazz, that gave hope to a people during segregation, war and social upheaval. The church exists in the midst of this strife and must experience a new way. Gelinas suggests that there are many words we might use for this kind of transformation, but the one he chooses to use is “Renaissance.”
By renaissance Gelinas is not referring to the Italian Renaissance that created many of our most world-famous painters, but rather to the “Harlem Renaissance,” which produced the ways of jazz. The rhythms of jazz have the possibility of transforming our faith and our churches, which have been caught in a stagnant way of being. He suggests that if we could “embrace the Harlem Renaissance as our renaissance, then—like our nation’s culture in the middle of the last century — the American church could experience a jazz age.” Encouraging each of us to become jazz theologians in our own right, Gelinas offers a fresh new look into the methodologies of our broken ecclesiologies and missiologies. Finding the Groove is a well-written book with a keen sense of intrigue about how the American church will continue to exist in the twenty-first century. Perhaps by listening to the history of jazz, the music and methodology it produced, and incorporating it into the way of faith, we just might find our own groove and find ourselves in the midst of the next renaissance in America, the renaissance of the Church.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com