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.

The Kingdom of God is a Mess: a book review

The Kingdom of God is a beautiful mess.  It is beautiful because it represents the coming rule of Christ–when creation will be restored and all will be as it should be. It is a mess because it enters into our sin-sickness, brokenness and sorrow.  In this brand new edition of This Beautiful MessRick McKinley helps us discover the kingdom, re-vision life in the Kingdom and practice the presence of the Kingdom.

My first introduction to  McKinley was in the pages of Blue Like Jazz. He pastors the church in Portland that Don Miller attends. Miller writes the forward for this book and praises McKinley for unfolding the reality of the Kingdom for him with humor and wisdom.  And he does. He avoids popular but mistaken notions of the church ‘building the kingdom’ and instead focuses on how the Kingdom names a new reality which we welcome in and seek to live in light of.

And that is essentially what is great about this book. McKinley doesn’t really say anything that isn’t said elsewhere by others who talk about the Kingdom (i.e. Gordon Ladd, Donald Kraybill, N.T. Wright, Dallas Willard, etc.). What makes this book important is that McKinley manages to describe the Kingdom in a winsome and an engaging way.  This is the kind of book you can give to anyone and they will come away with a deeper understanding of the Kingdom. McKinley doesn’t talk over anyone’s head but he says a lot of deep, wonderful things worth reading. Each chapter reflects on a Kingdom related passage from the gospels (my guess is that this book first saw life in sermons because that’s how preachers write books). But McKinley moves deftly from the text to real-world examples of Kingdom living. This book ignites imagination of how another world is possible.

My favorite chapters of this book are chapter 6-‘the Kingdom of Peace’ and the final chapter ‘Slow Train Coming.’ In ‘the Kingdom of Peace’ McKinley uses a literary analogy, Tolkien’s the Silmarillion to describe how God is a conductor that uses even our chaos and cacophony to make his beautiful symphony.  “Slow Train Coming” gives a compelling vision of the coming kingdom which is not static, sanitized and boring but names the good things God has in store for us in Christ.

At the end of most chapters in this book are poems (presumably written by the folks of Imago Dei?). These add to the picture McKinley is painting. I give this book 5 stars with the caveat that some of my more academic friends would probably wish for a different sort of book than this. For what this book is, I think it is great.

Thank you to Waterbrook Multnomah for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.


What Would Dawkins Do?: a book review

Charles Sheldon’s book In His Steps inspired many Christians to ask, “What Would Jesus Do?” if Jesus were in your situation. Author Robbie Dawkins turns that question on its head in his book, Do What Jesus DidWhile Sheldon’s classic novel focused on living out your faith with integrity and modeling your character on the life of Christ, Dawkins has a somewhat different tack. Dawkins urges Christians to actually do what Jesus did–things like healing the sick, speaking prophetic words, casting out demons or raising the dead.  It isn’t that Dawkins doesn’t appreciate how Christ models moral perfection for us to imitate, but he challenges Christians to experience the supernatural character of the Kingdom of God.

Dawkins is the pastor of a Vineyard church in Aurora, Illinois which ministers among the urban poor. In his capacity as pastor (and police chaplain for the city of Aurora) he has witnessed God change the lives of  all kinds of people (including leaders of the notorious Latin Kings gang).  God’s supernatural healing has broken into people’s lives as Dawkins (and other members of his church have prayed). He has seen people delivered from demonic oppression and God has blessed people through prophetic words. In this book, he offers practical advise for entering into supernatural ministry (in the tradition of John Wimber’s Power Evangelism).

Whenever I read a book like this that is chocked full of stories of healing and deliverance,  my first reaction is to be a little skeptical. I didn’t  know of Robbie Dawkins before reading this book and some of his stories are outlandish (as all miracle stories are). However Dawkins doesn’t just include success stories. There are stories of heartbreak and failure as well. In Dawkins’s chapter on raising the dead, he tells a succession of stories about praying for people to be raised from the dead, but none of the people he prays for are raised.  Dawkins talks about this as ‘pushing to failure,’ borrowing a term from the weightlifting world. In other words he says we should train ourselves by praying risky prayers for big things (like raising the dead), and we will grow in our capacity to see God move miraculously. There is a certain amount of practical wisdom in this: if you want to see God move miraculously in the lives of your community, then you should habitually pray for it.

I liked this book and hearing how God is working in Aurora was inspiring.  There are areas of this book I would critique (for example, I am suspicious of the reliance on techniques to effect miracles); yet I appreciated the tenor of this book. I am a quiet charismatic and affirm the reality of healing, deliverance, and prophecy for today. I appreciated Dawkins balanced presentation, though I felt the character/moral aspects of Jesus’ life were under-emphasized.  Dawkins comments several times how ‘if God can use him, he can use anyone.’ This is a humble and true statement about God, but can easily become an excuse for not developing one’s own character.  I think we should pursue holiness with the same tenacity that Dawkins pursues the supernatural.  These  criticisms aside, I give this book 4 stars.

I received this book from Chosen Books in exchange for my honest review.

Community Theology of the Kingdom: a book review

The proclamation of Jesus was that ‘the Kingdom of God is at hand.” However a lot of ink has been spilled trying to explain what the ‘Kingdom of God’ actually is. The classical liberal position was that the Kingdom denoted God himself in his power. Others (like Walter Rauschenbush) implied that the Kingdom was embodied by righteous life and action. Liberation theologians and others  claim the Kingdom is a challenge to current social structures while theonomists and reconstructionists argue that the kingdom is a restoration of Israel’s law (21-23). The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, understood the Kingdom of God as an idealist ethic which we ought to live out.  Emergent Christian definitions of the kingdom often denote a present reality without much of a future orientation. Certainly there are aspects of truth to all of these models but none does justice to the richness of the Biblical material and theological tradition.

The Kingdom of God edited by Christopher W. Morgan and Robert Peterson

Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson have edited a book on the kingdom of God, which they’ve creatively titled,  The Kingdom of God. This book is part of their “Theology in Community” series (from Crossway) which gathers together a team of biblical scholars and theologians to reflect on particular themes. Their conviction is that theology is done best in teams. I have not read the other books in the series, so I cannot comment on how successfully they achieved their aim, but this book is exceptional for the depth, insights and cohesiveness. Each of the scholars in this book  affirm that ‘the kingdom’ implies ‘the reign’ of God and ‘the realm of God (his presence and sphere of influence). They also agree that the kingdom of God is both a present reality and a future hope (the already and the not yet). However they all bring their own unique insights from their fields of study (Old Testament, New Testament, Historical Theology, Systematic theology.  Theological ethics, etc).  The rich insights spill from one chapter to the next and force you to consider the meaning of the kingdom from several different angles.  The book begins with a short introduction from Morgan and Peterson which describes the theme and structure. Stephen Nichols explains the variegated understanding of the kingdom in Church history and in contemporary contexts (chapter one).  Bruce Waltke puts the Kingdom in the context of the Old Testament and the covenant (chapters 2-3). Robert Yarbrough examines the variety of references to the kingdom in the New Testament (chapters 4-5). After Waltke and Yarbrough have laid the biblical foundation, the subsequent chapters turn to theological matters. Clinton Arnold discusses how healing and exorcism in the New Testament demonstrates a ‘breaking in’ of the Kingdom into the present reality. However all miracles are transitory and point forward to a future fulfillment (where God’s in-breaking is the norm not the exception).  Gregg Allison relates the concept of church to kingdom and what it means for mission (particularly the ministry of reconciliation).  Gerald Bray explores eschatology and the Kingdom. The final chapter is by Anthony Bradley and explores the ethical implications of the Kingdom (orthopraxy). This book will enrich your understanding of what the Kingdom is and will further evangelical, scholarly discussion. It is a tribute to a book that upon finishing it, I found myself re-reading parts of it immediately. There is a lot here to reflect on and process. Stephen Nichols and Bruce Waltke’s chapters are particularly good (but there is not really a weak essay).  Whether you are wanting  to beef up your theological understanding of the Kingdom or gain some exegetical insights, this is worth reading. I give it five stars: ★★★★★ Thank you to Crossway publications for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Back in Black: It’s Thursday But Friday’s Coming!

Black Friday is the high holy day of conspicuous consumption. Thanksgiving is supposed to be the day that we look toward God in gratitude for his provision. Instead we glut ourselves and whet our appetites for a day at the mall. It is the Friday after Thanksgiving when most retail stores go from being in ‘the red’ (owing) to ‘in the black’ (turning a profit). We awake from our tryptophan-induced slumbers to hunt for the best prices, the biggest and best Christmas gifts (some of which are for ourselves).  We will push carts through the crowd and will maneuver to get what we want. We will hunt for the gifts that say, “You are special and we love you” at the least personal cost to us. Nothing says I love you like a new blender for $14.99

In previous years I have abstained from Black Friday, at the very least avoiding big stores and shopping malls.  This year I am working at a hardware store and have set up the displays for tomorrow’s sale. I am complicit in the mass consumption.  Others will participate by going to the mall or big box stores because of the promise of the best prices (or best shot of getting the item you want).

I find the name ‘Black Friday’ ironic. There is another Friday we call Good where the sun disappeared from the sky, the ground shook and God died. We call that Good Friday because through such a death God opened up the way to new life for humanity. A day of buying and selling of goods, we call Black Friday and the name communicates more than the move from credits to the debits. Black Friday has left an indelible mark on our souls.

In Desiring the Kingdom (2009) James K.A. Smith explores how the ‘liturgy of the shopping mall’ both reflects what matters to us and shape what matters to us (93).  The telos of the mall is antithetical to the Kingdom of God and represents an alternative vision. Smith observes that the mall’s version of the Kingdom carries  an implicit notion of human brokenness (I’m broken, therefore I shop), a strange configuration of sociality (we size up people based on our own shopping habits), promises the hope of redemption through consumption (always something newer, better, shinier), and provides an unsustainable vision of human flourishing (96 ff).

Smith uses the mall as an example of a secular liturgy. His project  is to get us to pay attention to our practices of worship and the implications for Christian education (and formation). My question is, if Smith is right about the mall both reflecting what matters to us and shaping what matters to us, what does it say about us that we begin our Advent season every year with a day of mass-consumption? If our participation in Black Friday shapes us into good consumer capitalists, how are we being shaped as citizens of God’s Kingdom? What practices nourish us? Where can we find an alternative vision of the mall?

Black Friday has muddied our souls and still many of us will brave crowded parking lots and long lines tomorrow. No judgement. If you come into my store tomorrow, I will sell you a power tool you don’t need for someone who doesn’t really want it. I want you to know that consumerism is a lie which subverts the truth and dulls your senses. Shop if you must, but guard your heart.

Prayers for Veterans Day

A few miles north of me my Canadian friends observe Remembrance Day–a solemn day which honors those who have fallen in service to their country. Here in the United States, today is a day to honor the living soldiers who have served and on Memorial Day (in May) we honor our dead. However there is a certain bleed through with the two holidays. When we honor those scarred by war, we also acknowledge the reality of war, the wounds and the wounding, the death and dying. For all who have been touched by the ravages of war, Lord have mercy:

Almighty  and Living God,

    we rise with thanks for those whose sacrifice purchased our freedom,
      those who died in service of the nation, and those who have returned

        and have struggled to rebuild their lives.

Our hearts brim with gratitude and ache with sadness–

      We are grateful for all they’ve done
      We cry for all that they have suffered

Prince of Peace

    We pray for the wounds they carry–
      The horrors that haunt them,
      injuries, lost friends, PTSD.
    We cry out for your healing and full restoration
    of all whose souls are ravaged by war.

Spirit of Peace-

    provide rest for these weary souls
    and hasten the day when sword will be plowshares
    and Your Peace reigns on the earth.

On the Day After. . .

This morning many Americans awoke to the knowledge that Barack Hussein Obama had secured another term as President of the United States. Others stayed up too late last night to watch Romney’s concession speech and Obama’s victory speech. They were great. I always love the election night speeches because we get to hear American politicians at their most conciliatory and generous to their opponents (except in the 2000 with Gore/Bush race).

But what about today? What about the next four years? Obama won both the electoral college  (by a landslide) and the popular vote, but however you slice the pie, half the country woke up happy with last night’s results and about half did not. Some feel vindicated, others feel like we are stuck with four more years. Some feel like Obama’s policies are destroying America, either economically or socially.  Others are grateful that given the outcome, Obamacare will not be repealed and the military will not have more horses and bayonets.  In an election year, millions of Americans get caught up in campaigns that demonize the other side, and then on Wednesday morning we have to come to terms with the results.

What is the Christian responsibility to government? How are those who are unhappy with the results to respond to their presidential leader? Last night I read through all the Facebook updates of my very conservative (and very liberal) friends to see what kind of rhetoric they were employing. The language employed by some would make you think that we have just re-elected the Anti-Christ who will plunge America and the world into utter and complete darkness. Really?  My own Ana-Baptist leanings makes me wonder if the Mormon Church is now better off because they remain a marginal religious group and having failed to enter into the Constantinian compromise.

Whatever your feelings about the elections, I find it challenging that Paul addressed how we are to respond to government officials, only the government he had in mind was Rome. If you think Obama is leading the country into sexual debauchery and moral collapse, take a look at Ancient Rome. Or when you think of the ‘secularist agenda’ of the democratic government, think of the way Rome co-opted every religious system as their own, persecuted Christians and Jews (for not being co-optible), and worshiped their leader as a god (oh wait, we do that). And yet Paul penned these words:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. (Romans 13:1-5)

The Roman leaders, even the leaders who were diametrically opposed to Christianity in lifestyle, conviction and policy, were leaders put in authority by God and called his servant. Or consider when Paul instructs in Thesselonians 4:10-11, “to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” The prophetic stance against pagan Rome was not repudiation but conscience work and generous lives worthy of respect.

If you are upset this morning, remind yourself that Jesus is still king of the universe and his will, will never be defeated in a popular election (much less an electoral college). Remind yourself of your duty to love both your neighbor and enemy and answer the call to prayer for our country and our leaders. Obama (not a Muslim) needs the wisdom of God and the grace of Christ to lead well. We should pray for that. We should pray for a global, persecuted Church who’s suffering is often exasperated by American foreign policy (created and enacted by leaders from both sides of the aisle). And we should prayerfully seek ways to live at peace with our neighbor, even if their politics are different from our own.

Monday night on the eve of the election I sat in a pub with a friend having a far ranging conversation which touched on politics and theology and bad evangelism. We were discussing the Christian doctrine of the atonement when my friend said he is no longer sure that he can give a simple answer of what Jesus did for us. I said, in a way that clarified my own thinking, that I am at the point where when someone asks me what Jesus did, I would say, “I’ll tell you what he did, but first let me tell you who he is.” Captured in the gospel story is the reality that Jesus is the God incarnate that his life, death and resurrection subvert every other story. Jesus was the new Israel who fulfilled the hopes of God’s people. He was the Triune God’s answer to human sinfulness. He was a servant acquainted with suffering and grief. He was and is, the Resurrection in the Life. He is the King.

Both of us guys (who on Tuesday voted for different people) had read enough N.T. Wright that we understood that ‘gospel’ in the Greco-Roman context was the announcement that Caesar was King (and divine). In the hands of the disciples it became they announcement that Jesus, the incarnate God, was the real king.  Whatever your feelings about Tuesday, today Jesus is King. Tomorrow Jesus is King. And in January when Barack’s second term begins, Jesus is King.