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A Theology of Sevenths

As I sat in the now-closed Green Dolphin in Cape Town listening to some high-quality old school jazz, I mused. I like jazz and I love the church. Can the jazz world articulate what I already have an inkling of? Can jazz help me put into words what I sense about God’s people? I came up with three metaphors.
Jazz uses suspended or unfinished chords. The seventh, ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords that make up jazz music always lean towards completion but never quite reach it. A friend of mine remarked: “Jazz music is the music of heaven, it just never ends!”
It’s true. Jazz is perpetually incomplete, much like the church and its knowledge of God. We glimpse the Triune God. As an Eastern Orthodox theologian put it:

“When we enter the Trinity, we must put on the diving suit of our theology and enter the vast ocean of God’s being. So when the church reads about God in the Bible, we know enough to know that God loves us, but we are always stuck in seventh, waiting for a resolution at the end.”

Jazz also has an immense respect for music theory, but it uses it to create moments. From the first forms of ragtime, jazz music has always demanded a firm grip on theory. But all the theory in the world would not produce an impromptu, live jazz improvisation. Improvisation blows life into the theory, making history in the moment.

Thomas “Fats” Waller was once asked, “What is jazz?” He replied, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” The church follows the same logic. It respects those who taught us the faith. Yet, in worship the Holy Spirit pulls tradition into a space of vitality, a place where we experience God, where the things our forebears wrote about become alive again. To paraphrase Louis Armstrong: if you have to ask, “What is the church?” you will never know.

And jazz ensembles play at each other and not to a crowd. I am amazed at how jazz musicians appreciate each other’s solos and tone colors while playing. It does not make it less enjoyable for the audience. To the contrary, it makes it more enjoyable. When a band plays at us, we get an uneasy feeling that we have to respond. With jazz, it’s as if we are looking into a world we want to be part of. The ensemble pulls us in.
The church is very similar. Recall the apostle Paul’s metaphor of the body. In the church we appreciate each other’s gifts and create space for each one to “solo.” It creates a pull on people outside the church too. The church does not play to an audience (God is the audience), it plays towards each other, and to others who might enter the sacred space.

Jazz has an inner tension that creates a space where old traditions can become vital in the moment, where the gaps in the music tell us that there is still more to come, that we do not fully grasp everything, and that we can appreciate each other’s uniqueness, while pulling others into the magic. The church may be more like jazz than we think. So let us sit back, smoke a cigar, and toast the God Triune, as He writes His general revelation like music notes on paper for all to see.

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