Cultural critic and wise professor, Gerald Early, once famously said, “I think there are only three things America will be known for in 2,000 years from now when they study this civilization: the Constitution, jazz music, and baseball.” Three quintessential American creations. We can’t know Jesus’ thoughts on the Constitution and baseball (although I’d like to hope that he would approve, although both are imperfect), but I do think we have some insights into Jesus’ take on jazz. It all comes down to the Hebrew idea of midrash.
Let me take a step back for a second. Just in case you are not familiar, Jazz is a musical genre born of African Americans in New Orleans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Characterized by dynamic improvisational instrumental expression around many different and changing rhythms. A good jazz musician can hear the beat and the key and improvise in and out with beautiful and inventive ease. Take a moment and watch the video below of Mile Davis stunningly riffing and expanding upon the music around him in such a masterful way.
The Hebrew idea of midrash is similar, in that it takes the scriptural text, the context, the implications of the text, what is not said in the text, and what the possibilities of the text are and explores a dynamic dialogue with a holy text. The Talmud is a collection of Jewish scholars wrestling with the Hebrew Scriptures through the centuries and bringing new insights to their communities. When Jesus gathered with his disciples on the night before his crucifixion for the Passover feast, he was performing a new type of midrash! In Luke 22:15, Jesus says “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer”. He then took the bread and wine and instead of talking about the lamb that would be slain and the blood being put on the doorposts of the house to protect the first born of the Jewish households in Egypt, he astonished them by making this imagery about himself! He is pronouncing a new midrash of meaning upon an old Hebrew story. He is taking the rhythm of the Torah and bringing a whole new innovative understanding to the word of God through Jesus, the Word of God.
The justice of God displayed in the rescue of the enslaved Israelite people, is now at work in Jesus, bringing liberation to all of humanity enslaved to sin through his death and resurrection. Then when the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, they discover the joy of God – the heart of God’s desire for how humans will interact with God and each other as found in the Ten Commandments. Back to the New Testament, fifty days after Jesus’ death and resurrection at Easter, we have Pentecost, where the Church is born and the joy of God’s desire for humanity is revealed in the equipping of people to share God’s love beyond cultural boundaries to the entire world. So the Passover and Jesus’ Last Supper display God’s JUSTICE and Mount Sinai and Pentecost bring clarity to God’s JOY for how humans are to live in relationship. Do you see it? The midrash, the jazz of God.
So, we don’t know if Jesus played a musical instrument, but he certainly played a beautiful and holy jazz improvisation on the scared, well known themes of the Hebrew Scriptures. To be a good jazz musician, you must first learn your instrument and know the traditional songs and how to play them before you improvise. The greatest of jazz musicians were always incredibly disciplined in their approach to their craft. Similarly, Jesus knew his tradition well. Remember when he was just twelve and amazed all the temple priests with his questions and understanding? (Luke 2:41-52) Later, when Jesus was preaching the Sermon on the Mount, he said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17) Before he can fulfill the law in new and profound ways, he must know the law. Before he can improvise, he has to know his stuff! So, we too are also called to read, study and seek understanding of the Bible and Jesus’ life with disciplined dedication before we can be expected to riff on and explore how Jesus is alive in our own lives. And what a discovery that will be!
The music of the Spirit is out there. Can you hear it? It’s been playing since the dawn of creation and is waiting, beckoning for you to take up your instrument and join in with the band. Perhaps you need to work on your scales and chords, or maybe it’s your time to bravely share your creative improvisational skills in the ever changing, ever transforming, ever consuming, ever loving ballad of God. Jazz and Jesus – that would be something. Jazz, Jesus and you – well now, that’s what this whole thing is about!
I'm a follower of Christ, husband, father, friend, pastor, story teller, asker of questions, inspired by biblical narratives, social justice advocate, sports enthusiast, drinker of over priced coffee and general seeker of God's redemptive possibilities. Yeah, that about covers it. (If you discover something else, let me know!)