The Christian Faith: Traditioned Innovation or, Learning To Play Jazz

I should probably change the title of this site to “Tuesday Musings” instead of Mondays 🙂

Glad to see you’ve been stopping by!  Today I am picking up where I left off two weeks ago, talking about what Greg Jones has called “Traditioned Innovation.”  If you’re interested in learning more, I encourage you to explore Duke Divinity’s Faith and Leadership articles.  Jones ,along with New Testament Scholar Kavin Rowe, explains the concept well, and they include examples of where Traditioned Innovation is taking place.  But, for today, I want to share a bit about my experiences with this biblical way of thinking that has radically reframed how I live and lead in ministry.

It was Dr. Willie Jennings who really introduced me to jazz.  I had heard jazz before, but it wasn’t the sort of music I particularly enjoyed.  It wasn’t until he played John Coltrane’s famous rendition of My Favorite Things that my interest was peaked. 

Image result for coltrane my favorite thingsGrowing up, my sister loved The Sound of Music, especially the part when Julie Andrews soothes thefrightened children by singing about brown paper packages tied up with string.  I always loved the images that song evoked for me.  Perhaps that is part of the reason why Coltrane’s version resonated with me.  Perhaps, also, it was the ways Jennings compared folk like Coltrane, Ella and Louis, Dizzy and Miles, Duke and Monk to how Christians are called to a particular kind of innovation – one that has first been steeped in and grows out of a particular tradition.

Let me try to explain musically first, then theologically before wrapping up today’s post.

When learning a new instrument, you must first master the basics.  I had to learn to play the piano with one hand before learning to play with two.  I had to learning “Middle C” position before I could learn “G.”  I had to learn notes and scales and rhythm (a lesson I still haven’t grasped.  I’m the guy who can’t sing and clap at the same time!).  I had to learn the fundamentals first: just like an author having to learn the rules of writing, a basketball player how to dribble, a machinist how not to get hurt.  I had to learn the rules before I earned the right to break them. 

That’s how it is with the great Jazz players.  Jazz breaks all the rules, but not before learning (and loving) the tradition from which they break.  I have a friend who is a professional jazz musician.  He spent four years in college studying music of all types, and then a couple more years focusing solely on jazz when earning his master’s degree.  He had to learn not just how to play a song, but about the person who wrote it.  Before he was allowed to critique them, he had to first understand from where they were coming.  In seminary, we called this practice a “charitable reading” as we wrestled with ancient texts and contemporary authors.  Before we could say what we agreed or disagreed with, we first had to be able to articulate the author’s points.  We had to earn the right to disagree.  We had to understand the tradition before we could innovate out of it.  We had to learn to dribble before we could shoot, how to play Row, Row, Row Your Boat before we could play Fur Elise.

That’s one of the reasons why I dislike so many “modern” or “progressive” approaches to appropriating the Christian faith – too many have never taken the time to learn the basics, to first charitably understand the traditions from which they desire to break.  Innovation for innovation’s sake, perhaps.  A 7th grade jazz band compared with the Chicago Symphony.  One just sounds…messy, while the other moves your soul and sets your feet a-tapping.    Tradition, at its best, helps provide the structure necessary for life to thrive, and a particular life at that.  Lest we, like Church Father Irenaeus warns against, rearrange the picture of a king, piece together an image of a fox, and tell the world the fox is king.

On the other hand, in the words of Jaroslav Pelikan, far too many traditionalists have given Tradition a bad name: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead,” he writes. “Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.  And, I suppose, it is traditionalism that gives Tradition such a bad name.”  To put it a different way, some people are so concerned about guarding the sanctity of original that they miss out on all the ways new renditions are bringing joy to a whole new audience.  And, at its worst, traditionalism does not take with equal seriousness the One on the throne who declares, “Behold, I am making all things new.”  Mired in the muck of dead faith of the living – traditionalism.

So, what are we to do?

My hope is to have a conversation with you about what are the foundational traditions of the Christian faith.  What defines the river banks across the sea of Christian thought?  What would you say is “Middle C” for someone just starting to learn what it means to be a Christian?

I want to spend the next week or two exploring those basic tenets, before identifying ways Traditions might give birth to new Innovations.  Once “good enough is good enough,” I will attempt to share a tool that I have found to be incredibly helpful for appropriating Traditioned Innovation into the life of a local church.

Hope to connect with you again next Monday [or Tuesday ;)], and, until then, take a listen to some Coltrane.  My Favorite Things or A Love Supreme are great places to start!






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