|Christ as the Good Shepherd (4th cent. AD) Museo Epigrafico, Rome|
I both need and want to give this address today. I need to because this week the continued need to visit my wife, Susanna, in hospital meant that I simply ran out of time to write a new address and could only revise an earlier one. I want to because what I say here forms the central, simple thing I try to encourage us as a church to do. All the other more complicated stuff I say is to help remove key intellectual philosophical barriers that stand in the way of a meaningful reconnection with the radical Christian tradition in which our group of churches stands.
This address was born out of the fact that for many liberals religion has become simply a theoretical idea – always on the drawing board but never actually lived, tested and made visible in the world. As our reading of “At the Smithville Methodist Church” by Stephen Dunn eloquently showed many of us have developed crippling fears particularly about our own community’s model of the ideal religious life – Jesus of Nazareth. – in whose footsteps we used to have absolute confidence in following in our ongoing attempt to live appropriately, fully and passionately in the world (see 1 Peter 2:21 below the poem).
At The Smithville Methodist Church by Stephen Dunn
It was supposed to be Arts & Crafts for a week,
but when she came home
with the “Jesus Saves” button, we knew what art
was up, what ancient craft.
She liked her little friends. She liked the songs
they sang when they weren't
twisting and folding paper into dolls.
What could be so bad?
Jesus had been a good man, and putting faith
in good men was what
we had to do to stay this side of cynicism,
that other sadness.
OK, we said, One week. But when she came home
singing “Jesus loves me,
the Bible tells me so,” it was time to talk.
Could we say Jesus
doesn't love you? Could I tell her the Bible
is a great book certain people use
to make you feel bad? We sent her back
without a word.
It had been so long since we believed, so long
since we needed Jesus
as our nemesis and friend, that we thought he was
that our children would think of him like Lincoln
or Thomas Jefferson.
Soon it became clear to us: you can't teach disbelief
to a child,
only wonderful stories, and we hadn't a story
nearly as good.
On parents' night there were the Arts & Crafts
all spread out
like appetizers. Then we took our seats
in the church
and the children sang a song about the Ark,
and one in which they had to jump up and down
I can't remember ever feeling so uncertain
about what's comic, what's serious.
Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes.
You can't say to your child
“Evolution loves you.” The story stinks
of extinction and nothing
exciting happens for centuries. I didn't have
a wonderful story for my child
and she was beaming. All the way home in the car
she sang the songs,
occasionally standing up for Jesus.
There was nothing to do
but drive, ride it out, sing along
1 Peter 2:21: For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered [or died] for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps.
I remain convinced that in both secular and religious liberal, left and progressive circles we need to recover our model (and it's a model which, thanks to Nietzsche, Heidegger, Vattimo, Caputo et. al. no longer needs to be under-girded by a traditional monotheistic metaphysics). The best simple way I can show you why is through an example drawn from my work in teaching people how to play jazz and, particularly, jazz-bass. One of my own role-models in this domain was Chuck Israels especially as I encountered him with the great trios led by the pianist Bill Evans between 1961 and 1966 (there's a video of this trio at the end of this post). Israels’ summarises an experience many of us working in this field have had:
Over the years, as I have assumed the role of “Jazz Educator”, both within and outside of “institutions of higher learning” . . . I have learned to ask [of students] a revealing question. “Who is your favourite musician?” It is remarkable that more often than not, I get no clear answer. There is sometimes a period of uncomfortable silence broken by occasional throat clearing noises, while the prospective student searches for a name or perhaps tries to guess what name might create the most effective impression. Sometimes an embarrassed silence yields nothing and occasionally there is an equally uncommitted claim to have listened to and liked “everything” (from An Unpopular Perspective on Jazz Education).
Like Israels, every year a number of such students stand before me claiming to want to play jazz but who know absolutely nothing about the music or who claim to “love it all’ but who are unable to point to any specific example of the music. What is going on? Well, despite the obvious negative aspect of this, Israels believes (and I agree with him) that the student is in fact motivated by something very worthwhile, namely, the ‘idea of the potential pleasures of performing with and for other people, with the attendant rewards of attention and shared activity.’ These are, he notes:
. . . worthwhile values and have served as a part of the motivation of many artists. But this is a broad image which is insufficiently concrete to serve as a focus for attainment. There is no clear place to begin and the mentor is reduced to helping the applicant to find something to love. Get a model. Find a prototype. Without this there is no image and no passion (from An Unpopular Perspective on Jazz Education).
After twelve years of experience I know intimately that people who come to check out a liberal church tradition such as this are motivated by the many worthwhile ideal potential gains they feel such a community should offer – a certain sense of mental and spiritual stability and insight, a sense of belonging to a liberal community with an over four-hundred year history of radical praxis, as well as an exciting and creative openness to the plural, complex and contingent nature of our world. But, good as this is, this general feeling is such a broad canvas that, alone, it is wholly ‘insufficient to serve as a focus for attainment.’ If an individual church or minister allows people to remain at this general level there is simply no clear place for a person to begin to learn how actually to be religious liberally.
As mentor – whether as a music teacher or minister – I often find my role becomes in the first place to helping people find something to love, to get a model and find a prototype.
In the case of my music students I have to give them some recordings and send them away to listen to them and, when they find something there they actually like, to come back to me so we can begin the first important step, namely, the task of imitating that model and of figuring out how that player is playing the things he or she does (if you’re interested my great female role model was the wonderful Carol Kaye). To the disappointment of many of them this turns out to be hard work, a work which takes, I’m afraid, years to complete. But, if a student hasn’t got a role model about whose playing they are very excited then they will have ‘no image and no passion’ and what is already a huge task quickly becomes far too great to see through to the end. That student will either give up or, if they keep playing, will drift around at the general level of wanting all the fruits of being a jazz player without doing any of the required foundational work and, in consequence, they’ll turn out to be directionless players with no substantial grip on anything real about the music. At best they will be mediocre players and, at worst, they will experience feelings of utter frustration, hopelessness and failure. To get out of this bind one solution some of my students try to employ is to start to believe that the good players simply have had something like magic dust sprinkled on them at birth. (We know many religions argue that this is true of their founding figures).
All of the above is also true in many liberal religious circles; merely desiring the fruits of a liberal religion without, at the same time, seriously seeking to follow the religious prototype or model of that faith-in-action means a person will never get a real grip on what they need to be doing in their own religious life. Everything will remain terribly unfocused and unfulfilling; there will be no attainment and no progression. At best they will be mediocre in the matter of living, at worst they will experience feelings of utter frustration, hopelessness and failure to live the abundant life which Jesus promised could be ours.
It is true, of course, that there are other models or prototypes one might follow other than Jesus and I am not making here some covert claim for his absolute uniqueness and value over all other great religious teachers it is simply that Jesus is our particular family of faith’s trusted primary model and the one in whose footsteps I try to follow as a Christian minded to take seriously the post-modernist situation - cf. Caputo's What would Jesus Deconstruct).
Now, I am aware that some people may seek to resist the message of this address because they believe it would tie them down, unduly restrict them. But a model only ties and represses when it becomes fixed, merely to be slavishly repeated without variation and creativity (often thanks to a poor teacher) – but this is not a true model. The true model frees us because it is precisely in the process of firstly modeling oneself on something tangible that we are helped to be able to push out into the real world to test and experience reality ourselves. The conception of following Jesus I have in mind is much more like the exciting, fruitful and open relationship I continue to have with my musical heroes than it is like the rigid, dogmatic relationship envisioned by the Christian right. It was only by in the first instance imitating my heroes that I learnt how to move from a vague idea or theory about how to play jazz to actually playing jazz. Today I don’t sound precisely like any of my heroes but without imitating them in the first place (which is always already repetition with difference) then I simply could not have begun to become free to be me, Andrew Brown, jazz musician.
However, once you have pushed out authentically into the world you cannot then simply bequeath this to others who follow you (such as our children or new members of a congregation) with no cost or effort on their behalf for this kind of truth cannot be said only shown. You must offer them a good and powerful models to follow themselves and make sure it is attached to wonderful stories. In music I offer up Miles Davis and the wonderful story of his journey from the ‘Birth of the Cool’, through ‘Round about Midnight’ on to ‘Kind of Blue’ and then to ‘Bitches Brew’ and beyond; I tell the story of John Coltrane and his move from Miles’ bands of the 1950s on to ‘A Love Supreme’ and the wild ecstasy of ‘Ascension’; I tell the story The Beatles and the wonderful story of their transition from ‘Please Please Me’ to ‘Sgt Pepper’. In this pulpit I try to offer you a variety of models to learn to love but my primary focus remains centred on the example of Jesus and the wonderful stories about him that we have inherited.
The tragedy of Christianity as an institution was to turn Jesus from a startling and inspiring human model into a dead, dogmatically held metaphysical theory about the world. Standing up for this latter kind of Jesus – with its associated slavish support of the institutions that support these theories – that is something I remain profoundly uncomfortable about. But, unlike the parents in Dunn’s poem, we don’t have to drive on, ride it out and sing in silence – no! We can show our children (and ourselves) how to sing another kind of song.
The genius of our liberal Christian tradition was to see that when Jesus was followed, as a true human exemplar, he inspired and enabled a person to begin to experience, not a pale imitation of Jesus’ life nor that of some religious institution, whether the Temple or the Church, but their own complex contingent life in all its fullness – the only life any of us can experience.
And the truth is we don’t have to become crippled with worry about standing up for Jesus because, when followed with imagination, intelligence, wisdom and some real anarchic rebelliousness (as we try to do here), following in his footsteps still provides us with a practical way of entering fully into the world beyond all theories and beyond all formal religions. (It’s vital to see here that taking Jesus as a model need not be tied to any particular kind of Christian metaphysic or belief.) And, if we take care to learn and sing our own song properly, we can truly begin to help our children and ourselves stand up for Jesus in our own authentic ways as truly free sons and daughters of God.
Here's a video of Chuck Israels' performing with Bill Evans (piano) and Larry Bunker (drums):