Jazz and the Mode of Hopeful Transgression
Wesley White, PhD
Presented at Scottish Universities Theological Forum, May, 2006
Breaking rules understandably arouses precautionary sentiments. It is generally assumed that biblically informed thinking and behaviour usually advocate and demonstrate against it. In spite of an ecclesially generated self-loathing because of the common failure to measure up, in most circles certain degrees of rule keeping are nevertheless interpreted as indicative of religious ardency and devotion. In various settings the rules may be spoken or written, while in others they may be unstated, understated, or simply taken for granted, but in either case it is expected that they will be adhered to.
I want to suggest that such a view, even if it is ubiquitous, is limited, biased, possibly dishonest, or maybe simply uninformed. It does little justice to the scope of transgression, both negatively and positively, that is more broadly represented in the narrative of the Bible, to say nothing of the long history of those whose messianic zeal has led them to invoke disequilibrium as much as anything else. For some, perhaps many, transgression is entertained not as an act of defiance in and of itself, but in the hopeful mode of a changed and better future. In many cases such a mode requires that rules be broken rather than maintained.
The storied pages of Scripture contain numerous examples of transgression of this commendable sort. Four come to mind as particularly instructive here. The prophet Isaiah (62:1-7) rejects the rule of respectable silence in favour of verbal prodding that is meant to inspire anticipatory acts in sync with the dawning of a new order. Furthermore, the silence is additionally defied by the praying of those who will not be deterred until the people of God have become a praise in the earth. In Numbers 22, an ass is enabled to engage in the extraordinary exactness of human dialogue, invested with human language skill in such a way that both the rule of nature and political hegemony are defied. The miraculous by definition breaks with natural order, but the strange account of Balaam and his domestic animal borders on supernatural gimmickry. It is, of course, in the interest of transgression as pedagogy.
In the New Testament, Peter and John and their friends (Acts 4:19; 5:29) opt for civil disobedience in favour of obedience to God. Similarly, the Apostle Paul draws upon the adverbial comparison of “much” (Ï€Î¿Î»Î»Î·Î½) confidence in Christ and combines it with the strength of the infinitive (ÎµÏ€Î¹Ï„Î±ÏƒÏƒÎµÎ¹Î½) with the rhetorical intent of highlighting his prerogative of ordering his fellow-Christian to ignore unjust societal rules and relate to Onesimus, the slave, as a free man. (Philemon 8) Transgression, in other words, is sometimes preferred, sometimes demanded, not in contradiction to, but in deference to a theologically credible understanding of the God of the Old and New Testaments.
In Praise of Transgression
It can rightly be argued that many and differing types of transgression are simply expressions of human creativity. For example, creative expression may assume the form of resistance to all that mitigates against meaning and purpose. Even that which is intended to convey meaninglessness or formlessness depends on creative license and interaction, after all, to render some notion of meaninglessness. George Steiner, for one, argues that the way in which human beings demonstrate a proclivity for creative expression is nothing less than a wager on transcendence that is a form of rightful resistance to emptiness.
Artistic creativity, in particular, exalts in its capacity to limit human dependence on what is easily explainable and that which is categorized by independent reason. It promotes, in other words, the validity of all in the human spirit that delights in transgressing the hegemony of systematic rationalization. Steiner, again, reminds us that this inheres from the unique human ability to appreciate artistic endeavors at all. Without it, the wide array of artistic expression could hardly be received. That is to say that artistic creativity depends upon the human community that is willing to engage in defiance.
We are not restricted, however, to the dissecting of creative acts to discover displays of healthy transgression in the material and social worlds that we regularly inhabit. It is endemic, for example, in the games of language in which the human community not only frolics, but also depends upon for understanding, cooperation and some sense of direction. There is a vectorial dimension to human existence that Steiner, once more, considers in his lucid examination of the nature of language, After Babel. “The status of the future of the verb is at the core of existence.” “It shapes the image we carry of the meaning of life,” he suggests, “and of our personal place in that meaning.” It essentially reflects an instinctual but nonetheless deliberate disregard for the givenness of the present that allows tomorrow to be imagined. In the course of re-imaging the future, the human community can entertain the possibility of change, but it requires a range of language that concedes the place of disparaging words when referring to existence that is narrowly defined by the present.
Amidst a variety of arenas, the propensity of language to shape and encourage alternative futures is particularly evident in the study of literary genre, with specific attention to fantasy. It is a mode most succinctly defined by what Bauckham and Hart refer to as a “wanton transgression of the rules.” Recent scholarly work in the discipline bears this out. Rosemary Jackson, for example, refers to fantasy in contrast to literary frameworks generally determined by epistemological and ontological limits. As such, it “exposes a culture’s definitions of that which can be,” disturbing the rules of artistic representation and particularly reconfiguring literatures’ reproduction of the real. It is, in fact, delightful as a genre type precisely because of the way it embraces negative subjunctivity, purposefully contravening the real and violating it.
This, however, is more than inventive storytelling. The potentiality of human relations and ideals are at stake as fantasy occasions the coinciding of literary and social functions. They coincide at that point where in both cases a transgression of the given (law) is determined to be imperative. In his critically acclaimed work, Tzvetan Todorov suggests that if this coinciding of social and literary domains is to be productive, the intrusion of something other-worldly is always demanded. “Whether it is in social life or in narrative, the intervention of the supernatural element always constitutes a break in the system of pre-established rules, and in doing so finds its justification.” William Irwin cloaks it, once again, in the playful metaphor of language games, though he too understands it to be a high-stakes field, indeed, in which the ramifications may stretch well beyond the seemingly innocent pages of a piece of literature.
The need for some form (or a variety of forms) of resistance is all the more apparent in light of an ongoing “fascination with despair,” so descriptively depicted by William Lynch in the mid-1960’s. The dominance of despair has continued unabated, only in exacerbated ways. It remains rampant, and, in spite of the many advantages occasioned by the dual developments of postmodernity and postmodernism, it is nonetheless evidenced in what Bauckham and Hart rightly qualify as high levels of religious, aesthetic, moral and epistemic relativism that undergird “the thought of ultimate Nothingness” that have followed in their wake.
Scholarship helpfully traces these developments at least as far back as the early demoralizing trend (most notably articulated by Nietzsche) suggested in the concept of eternal recurrence. The perpetual turning of the hourglass in this scheme hardly leaves room for hopeful possibilities. A purposeful future easily gets lost in “the unconditional and infinitely repeated course of all things,” promoting the present moment, the finite, and the individual to a status wherein little else is of any meaningful significance.
If such Nietzschean ideas and their progeny are taken seriously, as they apparently (maybe unconsciously) have been, one of the inevitable outcomes is the unrestrained reign of a consumerist mentality, at least in those regions of the world where the luxury of consuming is available and therefore craved. It provides little value to life other than perhaps the dubious masking of despair with commercial illusions of happiness. The poets of contemporary lyrics are at least honest enough to challenge the illusions, as a recent song reveals:
Preference for illusion, however, should not be misinterpreted as any type of healthy exercise of imagination. Quite to the contrary, we can trace a blatant decline in the imaginative life and a corresponding demise of the sense of hope that imaginative undertakings normally procure.
Pascal went so far as to contend that “imagination decides everything: it creates beauty, justice and happiness, which is the world’s supreme good.” This, however, is far from commonly realized. Rorty’s suggestion as to the disappointing outcomes of misplaced trust in metaphysical comforts has had the corresponding effect of severely limiting the imaginative freedom that metaphysical thought usually provokes. Apart from even minimal aspirations aroused by metaphysical concerns, we are left with a social milieu that John Caputo describes as being routinely “absorbed by rational management techniques.” One of the more unfortunate consequences of trends such as these, I suggest, is restriction rather than emancipation of the imagination.
Extravagant suspicion of metanarrative (not only in terms of particular convictions, but even broad interpretive structures that supply meaning) is culpable to a certain degree. The adventuresome spirit that defines humanness (at least in part) is discovering an unhappy sense of confinement as a result of recent emphases on local stories alone. It soon becomes tedious, if not simply uninteresting and lending to the experience of boredom. Within such confining situations, the bards who captivate our imaginations with “an imagery of heroes and elves and gods” no longer have a place or value in our midst.
In its place, we foolishly rely upon the essentially solitary provinces of cyberspace and ipods and falsely believe them to be imaginative ventures. When, however, we reenter communal contexts as social beings we find that we have merely been experiencing technical simulations that are illusory and immediately fading, having contributed nothing at all to the world around us. Because of this, Richard Kearney indicts the postmodern imagination as distinctly unethical. It fosters the propriety of the “eventual loss of the other,” encouraging detachment, advancing privatism and minimizing ethical obligation simply because public heroes, and the tales of their noble adventures, are no longer needed or appreciated. Apathy, not imaginatively-inspired social care, is bred.
In a climate characterized by the selfish and the apathetic, transgressing the progress of imaginative drain-flow becomes a paramount missional consideration for Christian communities. Healthy Christian doctrine asserts that faith is not merely an affirmation of cognitive belief, but is more an engaging, stretching and enabling of the imagination “to accommodate a vision of a meaningful and hopeful future for the world, a meaning which could never be had by extrapolating the circumstances of the tragic drama of history itself.” As JÃ¼rgen Moltmann offers, faith construed as hope “causes not rest but unrest,” as the imaginative capacity is awakened to future possibilities in such a way that cannot help but challenge the status quo, protesting the giveness of the present as fresh possibilities are pursued. Hope of this kind, in other words, is the natural outgrowth of an active imagination generated by faith.
Furthermore, historic and broad ecclesial understandings of the meaning, extent and application of incarnational doctrine bear significantly upon the Spirit-empowered imagination as represented in communities of faith. The Eastern Church, for example, has long taught that all art (any imaginative endeavor) is incarnational, flowing out of the beauty made known in Christ. It represents the reflexive response of the soul that inherently reflects the image of the Creator.
Incarnational doctrine, of course, deliberately and rightly focuses on the historically situated person and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Amos Wilder, in particular, has accentuated the imaginative and eschatological intent implicit in what he terms the “symbolics” which underlie and explain Jesus’ preference for teaching in parables. In so doing, Wilder contends that Jesus achieves a wholesome contrast with the “modern catastrophic imagination” by offering imaginative possibilities that are entirely informed by the prospect of new creation. These creative visions of the future are potent precisely because they expect and depend upon supernatural empowering. In Wilder’s words, the modern catastrophic imagination “ignores the phase of miraculous renovation and that world affirmation which has gone through the experience of world negation.”
It is apparent, therefore, that the imaginative designs of particular communities of faith have the missional purpose of awakening laden sensibilities that appeal to human longings for a better and hopeful future. When awakenings of this type more often determine the identity of local faith communities, and when they are more and more experienced as normative, they inspire transgression of (rather than acquiescence to) present realities which are increasingly found to be unacceptable. In this way, the emancipated imagination is seen to be an essential part of ethical development. As George MacDonald observes, “The way to develop the aesthetic faculty is to have constantly before our eyes, that is, in the room we most frequent, some work of the best attainable art. This will teach us to refuse the evil and choose the good.”
We have been rehearsing, to this point, the place and need for healthy transgressions and the imaginative capacity that inspires them. It is time to ask, however, how and where these concepts take on any type of concrete form. I want to suggest that a supreme example is to be had in the musical mode that we know as Jazz. It is happily guilty of many of the trespasses we have noted above, and, as such, has much to offer communities that deliberately highlight the imaginative life of the Spirit.
Jazz as a musical mode, after all, is premised on the art of breaking the rules. The best of jazz, in fact, breaks the rules in the most creative of ways; sometimes winsomely, sometimes flagrantly. It audibly elevates that which does not fit and honors it with a revolutionary sound that is meant to question the way things are. It is an expression, in other words, of that imaginative ability which allows human beings to protest the given, encouraging alternative ways of responding to dominant ideology. Jazz, it might be said, is playful protest music, and breaking at least some of the musical rules is its mode.
Protest music is particularly in order because, in the case of jazz, it is birthed out of the setting of oppression, a place of not belonging, that is the tragedy of the Black American experience. The renowned African-American scholar, W.E.B. DuBois, maintains that the essential key to understanding the black music of America is that behind it all is “the voice of exile.” Exilic injustices are responsible for the rise of the musical phenomena commonly known as the blues, which, according to W.C. Handy, are meant to accentuate the expressive pathos of an entire culture drawing from “a deep well of sorrow.” It is hardly coincidental, therefore, that the most salient features of jazz derive directly from the blues.
And yet, like the poetry of the latter prophets of Israel, the performed music in which jazz and the blues overlap is intended to defy exilic acquiescence and arouse passionate longings for home. It borrows from the best of Old Testament exilic theology, refusing to cling to old devastated dreams, but simply referring to them in order to push ahead and envision a new homecoming. In a similar way, Eileen Southern contends that the well of sorrow which produces the blues is not a well of despair. “Almost always,” she says, “there is a note of irony or humor in the blues, as if the blues singer is audaciously challenging fate to mete out further blows.” They conspire, in other words, with the “double voicing” of the spirituals that deceptively refer to homecoming, and many other exilic themes as well, in more ways than one. Jazz inherits much of its impulse from both the spirituals and the blues and shares their insistence on referencing both the painful and unjust episodes of the past and a hoped for future on behalf of anyone who knows what exile feels like.
As a public voice for exiles, jazz invokes a sense of solidarity that necessarily disturbs the benefactors of inequality and isolation. It is disturbing to them only because it is fully capable of giving performed notice to the opposing twin virtues of equity and fraternity. This is in distinction to utopian visions of the same that are noble enough, but lack any semblance of legitimate grounding or any degree of proportional possibility. Jazz, on the other hand, publicly demonstrates them and, in fact, depends upon them for the success of a performance. Soloing equity is allotted to each musician (not just one select soloist or even a few select soloists) in order for jazz to be jazz. Likewise, the selflessness of providing backup sounds and rhythms while the other solos requires a fraternal spirit that is both musical and communal. In a good performance, that is to say, the rules that dictate and manage inequality and isolation are violated.
Finally, jazz dares to lead the way in the urgently needed trespassing of what James Cone called “the heresy of white Christianity.” Rodney Clapp helpfully summarizes these, in relation to jazz, as correctives in relation to “disembodiment, privatization, and the skewing of eschatology.” Each of these, and probably others, bespeak religious-cultural assumptions that, in spite of their dominance, are far from healthy.
Disembodiment, of course, harkens back to Greek dualistic tendencies. Jazz deliberately transgresses the extreme separatism embraced in dualism by encouraging the integration of mind and body, welcoming and relishing bodily responses to the music (handclapping, yelling, dancing) as much as mental appreciation. Similarly, it challenges privatization of all sorts, religious and otherwise, by being a music that flourishes in the midst of people and largely depending upon an existential communal experience in order for it to have meaning. And, jazz refuses to entertain any strict division between sacred and secular, but invites everyone into the eschatological vision of participating in the making of all things new. Dissonance and unresolved tension are freely embraced because, as Craig Werner suggests, jazz “transforms noise into music, challenges us to hear the music in the noise, open our ears, our minds, our lives to things we hadn’t thought about.”
On all these fronts, and maybe others, jazz is guilty, and we are the better for it. It transgresses the rules such that the boundaries of a hoped for future are stretched back to us, within reach and for the grasping. It breaches that order that is only secure in as much as it limits rather than emancipates. Jazz, in fact, is identified by the manner in which it creatively improvises, based on and in the context of freedom, and in so doing it intentionally breaks many rules.
Promoting Eschatological Values
Appreciating the correlation between jazz and a variety of theological concerns, therefore, is invaluable. Missionally, it also encourages the positive interfacing of culture and theology in ways that capitalize on all the best aspects of creative imagination. For this reason, James McClendon rightly asserts, “a theology of jazz is not a scholar’s whimsy,” but “required work.” It shares the creative energy of all the arts (to say nothing of the imaginative products of a host of other disciplines) that has the power to both capture attention and expand vision for transformational purposes. Artistic ventures, in other words, can be starkly, yet positively confrontational, even if their agenda is subtly conveyed. This agenda is commonly a reference to the future and its expansive possibilities, and jazz is simply one art form that more blatantly exposes it.
Of course, all of this infers, in theological terms, an eschatological orientation that is genuinely at the heart of the imaginative life and experience. In this way, creative energy is not an exercise in manipulation, nor is it even an end in itself, but its greater intent is to signify the power of God’s new creation purposes as they extend backwards into the given moment with the ultimate goal of reshaping it.
Jazz, rooted as it is in the spirituals and the blues, reaps the benefit of a similar phenomena expressed in both musically and socially expedient ways, particularly as it draws upon the heritage of double voicing referred to earlier. “Swing low, Sweet Chariot,” for example, undoubtedly expressed release from the suffering of the world via the future prospect of death, but it also signaled the imminent arrival of the Underground Railroad that would transport slaves to the free North or Canada. Likewise, “Steal Away” meant meeting Jesus in an after death experience or even in a therapeutic conception of conversion, but it was also coded language for stealing into the woods for forbidden slave meetings. To this day, jazz reflects this heritage in what might be called anticipatory music that invokes the future so as to impact the experiential now.
A note of anticipation is precisely what ought to be sounded given an appreciation of the eschatological vision of God’s new creation objectives. Such notes, in fact, are all the more significant as they signal the presence of a new order even though ambiguity continues in the midst of re-creational activity. In like manner, jazz incites renewed awareness of new creation longings every time it creates new sounds on the basis of improvisational freedom. Christopher Small underscores this correlation with the suggestion that “when a musician improvises, the act of creation is experienced at first hand, with the active participation of all those present, listeners as well as performers.” (emphasis mine) The same concept belies the remark of Louis Armstrong, probably unintended yet nonetheless indicative, that many accept as the best definition of jazz, when he observed, “Jazz is music that’s never played the same way once.”
Demonstrations of new creation initiatives are necessarily communal. They are about collective ingathering and collective dispersal in the interest of re-creational objectives, rather than noble but solitary acts born out of isolation and individualism. Jazz embraces communal preferences as well, probably more so than most other musical forms of expression. The best setting of the true jazz experience is the intimacy of a small club or pub, not the concert hall where refrained observation is the mode. Furthermore, as Ralph Ellison observes, the making of the music itself celebrates the dance between the individual and the community, but never the one without the other. It must always be some form of tango. This communal emphasis has no doubt come directly out of Africa where those gifted in musical expression worked in the context of village communities in which they were certainly admired and respected, but nonetheless never expected to function apart from the group. “Their function,” according to Christopher Small, “was not to provide completed art works for professionals to play and the community to listen to, but to act as leaders, pacemakers in the communal work of musical and choreographic creation.”
Communal aspirations, I suggest, find their genesis in the evocative Christian resource of Trinitarian theology. Human longing for communal experience is rooted in and ultimately satisfied by the three-in-one God who invites all of creation into relational closeness with himself and with others. Jazz gives voice to these longings and demonstrates at least their partial fulfillment in what might be referred to as performed Trinity that McClendon highlights under the headings of participation, cooperation, recognition, and inclusion. Within this extremely relationally-dependent esprit, the essential jazz elements of freedom and passion are thrust into prominence and flourish, evoking theological virtues as well.
Finally, it should be clear that esteem for eschatological values lends an ethical dimension to every manner of imaginative pursuit. Artists in particular, including the entrepreneurs of jazz, are invited to contribute to community development in what Pope John Paul II referred to as “a spirituality of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people.” This approach to the artistic vocation is rightly understood as an ethical contribution in the service of beauty. Service of this kind borrows from the Platonic concept of ÎºÎ±Î»Î¿Î±Î³Î±Î¸Î¹Î± (beautiful goodness) that applauds the way goodness contributes to beauty for the benefit of the polis. It pursues beauty, however, as defined in the broadest sense, and so is equally appreciative of artistry that recoils from escapism, honestly unveiling contradictions of beauty so as to expose it. Like jazz, in other words, it embraces genuine artistic endeavors that are necessarily raucous and dissonant at times, as well as sonorous, harmonic and pleasant.
Purveyors of Hope
Imaginative freedom is especially sanctioned given our indeterminate setting that must balance the tragic realities of the present world as over and against the hopeful prospects of God’s new creation. It assumes a Christological framework that highlights what Moltmann, for example, understands as the ongoing story of life lived in the space between Christ crucified and risen. Imagination so framed is not merely an exercise in dreaming, but specifically serves as a catalyst for what can be altered in present time and space in anticipation of what is to come. It commends the contribution of artists in particular, but challenges them to actualize their productive capacities by “giving aesthetic form to ideas conceived in the mind.”
The Christian vision of the hoped-for future, therefore, necessitates a healthy approach to mission that eagerly embraces an ongoing dialogue with artists of all sorts. It should, in fact, go further and welcome artists into Christian community, happily giving them seats around the full length of the table where their contributions to communion and community, as well as mission can properly serve in catalytic ways. Communities of faith likewise have the corresponding responsibility of deliberately encouraging poets, writers, sculptors, painters, architects, actors, dancers and musicians, even as they urge them to put their gifts at the service of humanity and its future.
In this manner, the arts should be especially appreciated in Christian community as creatively functioning under the auspices of hope. They transgress prevailing notions of despair as they inspire innovative and alternative points of view that have the capacity of eliciting thoughtful and practical change. Jazz, I suggest, is notable in this regard as it colludes with more avant-garde postmodern tendencies that fiercely demand the freedom to re-create, challenge the idols of market-driven loyalty, and aspire to “explore the deepest recesses of human experience.” They assume, in other words, the legitimacy of hopeful possibilities, and for this they should be applauded and embraced.
Christian eschatological musings are uniquely hopeful, therefore, based on the conviction that the future (prefaced in Christological distinctives) is latent in the present to such a degree that reality can only be partially explained by the familiar and common. The link between the future and the present requires both priestly and prophetic roles in which the participation of the artistic community is urgently needed. The entrepreneurs of jazz, I suggest, are singularly qualified for this task. The imaginative capacity of every sort of artistry, however, has a special ability to incorporate the past in the interest of stirring up the present in order that communities of faith might engage in anticipatory acts that demonstrate God’s good future. It bespeaks the presence of the Spirit who continues to move in the world, leading us on toward the realigning of heaven and earth.