Jazz, Jesus & Justice: a book review

The title of Peter Goodwin Heltzel’s book, Resurrection City, riffs off  of two images. The first is historical. In months following MLK’s assassination in 1968, activists from his Poor People’s campaign built a tent city in Washington, D.C. called ‘Resurrection City.’  Poor people and activists partnered in their fight for a livable wage, carrying on King’s legacy. The second image is apocalyptic. It references the city of God described to us in Revelation–a city of shalom. The historical and the eschatological are brought into dialogue under the rubric of improvisation. Heltzel invites us to inhabit the Judeo-Christian story, be shaped by its ethical vision and to play out its themes in context the way jazz musicians take an ‘old standard’ and create something new and fresh (by probing the possibilities already suggested in the original piece).

Jazz, like the blues, is a musical genre born out of the African American experience. The blues (and spirituals) named the reality of suffering and injustice that African Americans faced. Jazz envisioned new possibilities and declared that another world was possible–a ‘call-and-response of the oppressed’ (165).  This musical metaphor helps Heltzel articulate how as Christians concerned with justice ought to live. Heltzel writes:

I believe Christian thinking and social witness can be understood as analogous to jazz music.  Like jazz, Christian thinking is a dramatic and musical performance.  Like jazz, Christian thinking and acting are improvisational, creative,  and hopefully forward-looking.  Like jazz, they exemplify a dynamic of restraint and possibility.  Constrained by the norm of God’s Word, Christians seek to engage their world in light of the Word. In their work and witness, Christians use the materials at hand–principally the language and example of the prophets and Jesus in the context of their life–to creatively riff for justice, love, shalom, in the present and thereby open up a new future. That future that we can experience here and now is the one I describe as Resurrection city. (21)

Heltzel is a professor  of theology, an ordained minister, an author and an activist. Resurrection City blends biblical theological reflection with a concern for justice, a concern for racial, economic and environmental justice, and a belief in the priority of the poor and marginalized. Heltzel also gives his treatment an interdisciplinary flare blending history with personal experience, theology with art and action with music.

The seven chapters of Resurrection City unfold Heltzel’s Prophetic Christian vision. Chapter one explores the ‘resurrection city’ and jazz theology. Chapter two argues that the musical themes that the church picks up as it ‘riffs for justice’ are found in the Hebrew Bible, especially the prophets. The theme of salvation, shalom, and Jubilee give shape to the content of  our songs, although our context will shape our improvisation of the theme. Much like John Coltrane playing ‘Favorite Things,’ intimate knowledge of the original song guides our improving. We see this with Jesus (chapter three) who out works the same themes in his life and mission.

Chapter four through six give us examples of how to play our song in a strange land. Chapter four puts Thomas Jefferson in juxtaposition with Sojourner Truth and shows how notions of ‘freedom’ differ in the hands of the privileged versus in the hands of the oppressed. Whereas Jefferson held that all humans were entitled to freedom and the pursuit of happiness, he lacked the courage to follow his ideals and owned slaves. Truth spoke of a God who knew the struggles of the African American experience.

Chapter five argues for a mystical-prophetic theology through the works of Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Both men were courageous in their stance for justice and work for the ‘beloved city.’ Thurman had painted a picture of Jesus as a member of an oppressed people group in Imperial Rome (see his Jesus & the Disinherited). King ran with Thurman’s vision and pressed people into activism, working for justice. Heltzel argues that if a prophetic stance toward injustice is to be sustained, than there also has to be a mystical awareness of God’s healing presence in community. The mystical and prophetic are both essential elements in our call to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.

Chapter six describes the church as the theater of the oppressed and gives several examples of how the church (and the marginalized) have taken courageous, creative and provocative stands against injustice. Chapter seven provides a spiritual/activist version of the linear notes for John Coltrane’s album, A Love Supreme. After describing Coltrane’s album and the sensibilities that inform it, Heltzel riffs off Coltrane’s themes to help us imagine a more consistent and prophetic Christian witness.

I loved the rich tapestry of Hetzel’s prose. I am a great admirer of MLK and Howard Thurman and loved the way Heltzel synthesized their work. I also think that jazz improvisation provides an apt analogy for Christian social witness. This releases freedom and creativity in our work for justice but it is through immersing ourselves in the music (i.e. the biblical vision of justice and shalom) that we are given the capacity to act. I also appreciate that Heltzel is careful to state that ‘jazz music’ is born from oppression. By extension, theology and activism needs to be done from the margins rather than the center. Jazz is contextualized theology (not academic western theology). He focuses on the American experience (not the wider post colonial experience), but the metaphor of jazz seems to delinate that this book is mostly about the American experience.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in jazz, Jesus and justice. The added benefit of this book is that it will make you pull out your Coltrane CDs or put together a classic jazz playlist. The music permeates the book and notes like these should be heard and not just seen. I give this book four stars: ★★★★.

Notice of material connection, I received this book from the publisher or author via Speakeasy in exchange for my honest review.

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