February 21, 2007

What's a jazz theologian?

What's a jazz theologian?  Let's divide and conquer.

What is jazz?

Most people think of jazz as music, I think that it is more than music.  Music happens to be the realm in which most of us recognize it but I think that Ralph Ellison was correct when he said that all of American life is "jazz-shaped."  Jazz is more than music.  It is a way of thinking and a way of viewing the world.  It is about freedom within community.  It is a culture, that is, a set of values and norms by which we can experience life in general and faith in particular.  It is about how we know things.  Jazz knowing is a knowledge born out of experience.  It is a knowledge based upon taking proposition and living it.  It becomes truth when it is lived.  Jazz is indigenous to the United States of America. 

What is theology?

The study of God.  The interaction with what God has stooped to reveal to His creation.  Often times codified in books and systems.  Theology is the truth we know about God. 

So what is a jazz theologian?

What's a jazz theologian?

This blog has had a lot of new readers as of late and the most asked question that I am recieving is, "What is a jazz theologian?"

One good way to familiarize yourself with some of the concepts would be to check out the Jazz Theololgy 101 category (just click here).  Additionally, I'm going to do a series of posts as to what I mean when I say things like...jazz theology...Discover the Gospel in Jazz... and an indigenous way of following Jesus.

Looking forward to the dialogue.

September 25, 2006


Being a jazz theologian is not good for one's ego.  You may find yourself in Ezekiel 37 and teaching about how God led this prophet to "prophesy" to the very dry bones.  You might even point out how this passage is a great case study on faith and that we should speak when spoken to by God.  Wait for a word from God and then act accordingly.


However, if you are a jazz theologian, there will come a moment when you realize that the meaning of a text is not just in what is being said but also in what is being done.

Continue reading "Beware" »

November 29, 2005

Jazz in Haiku

  • 3 lines
  • Lines One and Three have five syllables, Line Two has 7 syllables
  • No rhyming, similes, metaphors or narration.
  • Usually about nature or a moment.

I'm not that proficient at these but I'd thought I take a shot at putting my thoughts as to what Jazz is, in the form of six Haiku's.

Who am I? Tension. Jazz is Life on the Hyphen. Race. Contradiction.

Jazz is Convergence.
Unity not Uniform.
Out of Many One.

Freedom, Boundaries.
Jazz is Improvisation.

Life in the Moment.
Jazz is the Selah of Life.

Jazz is Listening.
Playing it by Ear.

Jazz is Born of Blues.
Transfigured the Disfigured.
Soulful, Full of Soul.

November 28, 2005

Jazz is...

Whitney Balliett said that jazz is...

“The Sound of Surprise.”

November 27, 2005

Ray Charles, how did you answer the question?

Ray Charles has an answer to what jazz is...he once released a jazz album entitled...

Genius + Soul = Jazz

November 25, 2005

Jazz is...

If we are going to talk jazz theology then we must first ask, "What is jazz?"

Complete the sentence, "Jazz is..."

November 22, 2005

Jazz Theology 101--with visiting professor Carl Ellis (Final Session)

"If the classical approach to theology has been called 'the queen of sciences,' the jazz approach to theology could be called the 'queen of the arts.' The latter investigates God's dealing with people in the joys and trails of daily life...The jazz approach is not so much concerned with the status of theological propositions as with the hurts of oppressed people. It is communicated not so much by a literary tradition as by an oral tradition. And it is not so much concerned with facts as it is with life skills: knowing how rather than knowing that."

"The great advantage of the jazz approach to theology is its requirement that people be involved with Truth.” Jazz theology invites us to participate in the propositions. To enter in to the Biblical story and know the truth so that the truth can set us free.

"Jazz theology is a participation in the basic patterns revealed in biblical life situations. It inquires not only what God did and said but how he said and did it. Further more, it expects him to do it again in a similar way in our lives...Effective Black preachers respond to current situations by theologizing creatively on their feet, just as jazz musicians improvise new music and enliven old songs in response to the feeling and needs of the moment."

When you read the scriptures, what tools or tips have you discovered to enter in to the text and experience the living word? How do you keep theology from being just informational?

November 19, 2005

Jazz Theology 101 with visiting professor Carl Ellis (Session 3)

Ellis puts it this way,

“…God is not just classical. God is jazz. Not only does he have an eternal and unchanging purpose, but he is intimately involved with the difficulties of sparrows and slaves. Within the dynamic of his eternal will, he improvises. God’s providential jazz liberates slaves and weeps over cities. Jazz can be robustly exultant or blue; God has been triumphant and also sad. Jazz portrays the diversity, freedom and eternal freshness of God. The genius of jazz theology is the theology as it is done.”

Theology as it is done.” Something in us tells us that our knowing about God is to be more than an intellectual knowing. The demons could pass any classical theology exam but do they know God? We long for the kind of knowing that goes beyond the intellect without bypassing the intellect. The kind of knowing of God and being known by God that made God take Enoch early. The kind of knowing that rivals Moses and Joshua as they spoke with God face to face. The kind enthrallment with God that kept Jesus up all night in conversation with his Father.

Jazz theology helps with this kind of knowing.

It was J.I. Packer who said in his class work, Knowing God, that it is possible to know a lot about God without ever knowing God. How do we avoid this? How have you avoided this?

November 18, 2005

Jazz Theology 101--with visiting professor Carl Ellis (Session 2)

We need Classical Theology.

Carl Ellis points out its importance.
“Like classical music, the classical approach to theology comprises the formal methods of arranging what we know about God and his world into a reasoned, cogent and consistent system. Classical theology interacts in the critical dialogue with the philosophies of the world. It investigates the attributes of God and communicates primarily through a written tradition.”[1]

We are forever indebted to those who have codified and systematized the substance of our faith. Being able to “Know what we believe and Why We Believe” as Paul Little put it, is essential for being able to “give an answer for the hope that lies within.” Classical theology has done much to build our faith by helping us to see that there are good reasons and not just reasons that sound good for our faith. “Classical theology and classical music reflect God’s oneness. The unity of God’s purpose and providence is reflected in the consistent explanations and consonant harmonies of classical music and classical theology. The genius of classical theology is in the theology as it was formulated.”[2]

Yet most of us are bored with the classical approach to Christianity. Something gets lost in the propositions and proposals. Inspiration to lay our life on the line for Jesus rarely comes from hearing another 10 reasons why the Bible is the Word of God. It isn’t that we don’t care or that these things don’t matter. We need Classical Theology, but it is incomplete.

Classical theology engages our heads Jazz theology awakens our hearts.

[1] Free At Last, Carl Ellis
[2] Ibid., p

November 13, 2005

Jazz Theology 101--with visiting professor Carl Ellis (Session 1)

I have read Carl Ellis’ book, Free At Last?: The Gospel in the African-American Experience, at least once a year for almost a decade now. Save the scriptures, Free at Last?, has influenced my life and ministry more than any other book. One reason is that it speaks viscerally to me when it comes to how God was and is at work in the African-American experience. Carl Ellis does a masterful job of demonstrating how it is possible to “preach ‘the full counsel of God’ through our history, the way Stephen and later Paul were able to preach through Jewish history (Acts 7:2-53; 13:16-41).”[1]

I had never heard of this. I had learned that one can share the gospel through propositions or one's own personal history, that is personal testimony, but I had never considered sharing the gospel through the history of my people…what a radical, Biblical idea! My primary reason for my returning to Carl’s work so often has been not just for what he is saying but for what he is doing—Jazz Theology.

Jazz Theology is an alternative way of approaching ministry, spiritual formation, church and the scriptures.

How do you share the gospel? Propositions? Personal Testimony? Have you ever shared the gospel through the corporate testimony of your people like Stephen and Paul?

[1] Carl Ellis, “Free At Last? The Gospel in the African-American Experience,” (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), p38

September 05, 2005

Jazz Theology in Black and White

To talk about jazz is to talk about race and race relations in America. Jazz initially arose out of the pain of America's original sin of slavery. Inspite of its' emergence from such conditions, it proved to be convergent. Even as the KKK was on the rise and lynchings were commonplace, blacks and whites would find themselves in the same rooms because of jazz.

There was a problem, the big band jazz being performed by African-American's was more about how jazz could be more classical than European classical music. In short, jazz emerged a second time in 1959 (more on this in later postings), breaking away from the constraints of classical methods, into the art of a skilled set of musicians so in tune with each other that they can play the same song night after night while never sounding the same. Jazz became all about the moment when musical standards, the audience and musicians converge into something that has never existed before. And even today, one can go to a jazz club and experience this emergence and convergence of sounds, styles, and people.

Jazz theology is richly soaked with race as well. It understands that classical theology is good and needed but also recognizes that when one takes a theology textbook off the shelf it almost always has a European bent. Once a jazz theologian has conformed to classical theology, the yearning to improvise becomes unbearable and an emergence takes place...the result is not a rejection of the old but a convergence of moments--What I'm calling Theomoments.

What about your theology? From whom does it come? Why is race not discussed along with our theology? Have you ever noticed that the people who tell you about God all look the same? Are you ready for an emergence? For a convergence?

September 03, 2005

Jazz Theology 101--Classical vs. Jazz

Classical music--Formal music performed as written, able to be reproduced. The skill of the musician is measured by one's ability to imitate the original.

Jazz music--Dynamic music, unable to be reproduced. The skill of the musician is measured by one's ability to improvise.

Carl Ellis writes, "Theology bears analogy with music in that it too can be approached as formal or dynamic." Classical theology is concerned with "propositions" while Jazz theology is concerned with what happens when those proposistions interact with pain, life and the moment...God in the moment...God moments: Theomoments.