Religion and Jazz…


I’ve been reading through Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell. In the book Dennett attempts to offer an explanation of religion as a Natural, or perhaps even an evolutionary, Phenomenon. So far I’ve found Breaking the Spell to be very readable, intriguing, enlightening, and incredibly insightful. I came across a few passages that I found to be particularly interesting and while I may only have a few comments to interject, I thought they would certainly be worth sharing.

Dennett makes a great analogy between music and religion.
[F]olk religion turned into organized religion much the same way folk music spawned what we might call organized music: professional musicians and composers, written representations and rules, concert halls, critics, agents, and the rest.
As both religion and music became more organized they each in turn became increasing formalized, each undergoing a kind of canonical concretization. The boundaries were drawn by the institutional edicts of key, meter, scripture and liturgy. The Commons began closing.
Dennett goes on to say that,
Every minster in every faith is like a Jazz musician, keeping traditions alive by playing the beloved standards the way they are supposed to be played, but also incessantly gauging and deciding, slowing the pace or speeding up, deleting or adding another phrase to a prayer, mixing familiarity and novelty in just the right proportions to grab the minds and hearts of the listeners in attendance.

Robert Mesle has made a similar analogy suggesting that

[P]rocess theology…becomes like music improvised by a jazz combo. The musicians have some idea where they are going, and the choices they have made so far suggest directions for the future. But the whole point of improvisation is that they are making up the music as they go.

For me the analogy breaks down, not because it doesn’t work but, perhaps, because it works too well. Though not quite in the way Dennett or Mesle intended. The analogy as it has been presented is something of a fictionalization, not because it isn’t true but, because the truth is greatly exaggerated, overinflated, and made grander then what it is in actuality.

I think it is accurate to liken religion to music. I also think its accurate to portray ministers of every faith as Jazz musicians but, it must come with the understanding that not every ‘church’ or house of worship is great music dive or a hip jazz club. More often than not, religious institutions are just that, institutions, and as such they are more like a conservatory than an eclectic venue. Musical conservatories and religious institutions are more interested in instruction, rehearsal, and repetition than experimental performance. The church, rather than being a hot bed of collective collaboration and creativity, has extinguished the fire of passionate improvisation and, instead, has embraced the cold and methodical calculations of technical proficiency.
This analogy must also come with the understanding that though every minister may be like a Jazz musicians, not every minister is John Coltrane, Miles Davis, or Dizzy Gilespie. Quite the contrary, ‘minister’ musicians are more like lounge band or cover band musicians. They do not grasp the hearts and minds of listeners but, merely conjure nostalgia by providing background music, atmosphere, and ambiance. There is no novelty in their performance. There is no bravado, no tension, no danger. They are only replaying the greatest hits, clinging rigidly to what has been, emphasizing the past.
It seems to me that there is something of a polemic here. Recounting the radicality of the past is not the equivalent to assigning subversiveness to the present. Reminiscing of what once held disruptive capabilities is not an affirmation of radical capacities but rather a deeper negation of them, as it more implicitly emphasizes dormant latency. It is passivity cloaked in nostalgia. It does not reclaim radicality but systematically subverts it. In this capacity remembrance is functioning as a mechanism for the maintenance of the status quo and the perpetuation of complacency. We revel in the controversy of what once was but in actuality our doing so is the means by which we concretize the continuance of conformity. It is the one hit wonder, the washed up music star remembering the glory days of times gone by at the top of the charts, now wallowing in the mire of mediocrity. The Lion domesticated and complicit in captivity, barely a threat, no longer the mighty predator, the King of the jungle deposed and dethroned.
Thus, when we discuss radical origins it should not be done in a way that preserves the tradition that perverted what was once its radical core but rather as a confrontational call to it’s confession, a demand that we admit our addictive assent to an unquestioning acquiescence. If we are serious about surveying the site of where subversion once stood we must equally welcome the revelation of the loss of the radical. The veil of the holiest of holies was rent in order to reveal the emptiness it hid. We must aggressively resist the desire to piece back together the fabric that hides the abyss. We must boldly stare into the void knowing that the nothingness stares back. We must not avert our attention from ‘the man behind the curtain,’ we must unmask the charade of Oz. Baptism, Communion, sacraments, liturgy, regardless of their past, in their current forms are not disruptive. They are no longer radical. What is needed is a violent and catastrophic overturning of the structural tables. While the question of what made these things radical in their earliest forms is an important question it is not as important as asking why they are not radical now, and not nearly as important as asking what would make them radical again. For communion to be uniquely disruptive in our era it would necessitate something more graphic than simply bread and wine and a radical 21st century baptism would require something far more menacing then sprinkles of water and the names of an Oedipal and impotent absentee father, an insurrectionist son co-opted and striped of all his revolutionary rebellion, and a Holy spirit exorcised and cast out of our houses. Sacraments were initially scripted to be of service to their time. We must begin to wonder…What would it look like for sacraments and liturgy to be truly radical here and now?
The best musicians, those that are the most creative, the ones that leave a lasting revolutionary mark, the musicians that make the greatest impact, are the ones that know that the rules are meant to be broken. While the ‘standards’ may be their launching pad, these improvisers are unafraid to depart from them, knowing that they must be abandoned if something new is to emerge.  What is needed then is the radical embrace of this kind of improvisation and experimentation, becoming unafraid to relinquish reliance upon the ‘standards’. Let go of tradition and grasp tightly to the Blue notes, the wrong notes, all the wrong notes, and only the wrong notes.

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