No Image - No Passion or how practising rock and roll moves in the mirror taught me the value of imitation

When I was a kid and learning to play the double-bass and bass-guitar one of life's great past-times was to stand in front of mum's full-length dress mirror practising my rock and roll and jazz moves. I was, of course, trying to imitate my heroes - Paul McCartney of the Beatles, Jack Bruce of Cream, Paul Chambers with John Coltrane's Quartet, Charlie Haden with Ornette Coleman, Scott LaFaro and Chuck Israels with Bill Evans. However, growing up as I did in a generally protestant culture, no matter how much fun I had doing this, I was left with a sense of profound guilt that, somehow, I was merely engaging in the sin of vanity.

This rather icky remembrance lay quietly sublimated for years until I began to become active in liberal religious circles some eighteen years ago when it began to emerge again, not as embarrassing thing from my past but, instead, as a useful way of critiquing some of the practices and attitudes I was discovering had developed there.

Here I need to note that liberal religion as a whole bought heavily into an important tenet of twentieth-century high-modernist culture which was the equation of the good with the new. In our own Unitarian and Free Christian tradition this was often translated into a belief that we were all about moving beyond Christianity to some unspecified and inchoate new universal world religion; the prevailing belief which came to develop was that we were a religious body absolutely free to encourage truly individual new open faiths from scratch without any reference to what was thought to be the restricting baggage of the past.

When I first encountered this attitude - very early on in my involvement in liberal religion - I must confess I was surprised; so surprised, in fact, that I thought I must have misidentified what was going on. Three years at Oxford and eight years of full time ministry here in Cambridge has taught me otherwise because I now realise that the rhetorical power of claiming to be a religious body absolutely free to create truly individual new open faiths from scratch without any reference to the restricting baggage of the past is so incredibly seductive and, on the surface, such an undeniably exciting prospect, that many people really have bought into this view big time.

Now there is an age old adage that 'unanswered questions are far less dangerous than unquestioned answers' and the answer I have just outlined - that one can have a radically open religion completely free from the 'baggage' of the past - is one of liberal religion's great and dangerous unquestioned ones. Now I don't normally deliver things quite so strongly - for I really do believe that each of us has to work out the answers to the big questions of life ourselves - but occasionally my role demands (especially when it is based on good research and experience) that I state quite clearly, like the little boy in Hans Christian Anderson's story, when the King is walking about in the all-together.

I don't know that I would have been able to figure out how to frame this little boy's cry had I not remained a professional musician still playing regularly and also teaching on the music faculty at Anglia Ruskin University. It is my work in jazz-education that has finally enabled me to articulate a critique of this state of affairs and I'll begin with the opening couple of paragraphs from an essay by the great American jazz double-bassist Chuck Israels which summarise the experience of many of us working in this field:

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".

Yet every year there is one such student, standing before me, claiming to want to play jazz but knowing absolutely nothing about the music or claiming to love it all but unable to point to any specific example of the music. What is going on? Well Israels believes (and I agree with him) that the student is probably motivated by 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.

I repeatedly find the same behaviour occurring in liberal religious circles. People come to check out a liberal church tradition such as this motivated by the many worthwhile ideal potential gains such a community offers - including, I hope, wisdom, religious insight, community and a certain sense of mental and spiritual stability as well as an exciting openness to all kinds of ways of being spiritual - but this general feeling alone is such a broad image that it is always utterly 'insufficient to serve as a focus for attainment.' If an individual church leaves things at this point there is simply no clear place to begin.

So as mentor - whether as a music teacher or minister - my role is often reduced to helping people to find something to love, to get a model and find a prototype. In the case of my music students I simply have to send them away to go and listen to something - anything - and, when they have found something they actually like, to come back to me and we can begin the task of copying that model and of figuring out how and that player is playing the things he does. To the disappointment of many of them this turns out to be hard work which takes, I'm afraid, years to complete. If you haven't got a role model about whose playing you are very excited you have 'no image and no passion' and the task quickly becomes too great. 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 with none of the require work and they turn out to be directionless players with nosubstantial grip on anything real. At best they will be mediocre players.

I'm sure you can see what's coming next and perhaps, like some of my students some of you won't like it too much, but merely desiring the fruits of a liberal religion without at the same time seriously seeking to follow a religious exemplar means you will never get a real grip on what you need to be doing in the life of the spirit. Everything will remain terribly unfocussed and unfulfilling. There will be no attainment and progression.

Now my role as minister of a particular radical and liberal Christian tradition is to present you with a model and a prototype and his name is, of course Jesus. I'm absolutely explicit about this. As I say this naturally I affirm that there are other models as equally as good as Jesus but, since this is a Christian church in the radical Christian tradition our corporate normative model and exemplar is and will remain Jesus.

But as I say this remember I'm not some born-again evangelical conservative Christian but, primarily, a jazz-musician - don't let the minister tag get you be confused (Reverend, smeverend). So when I insist my music students adopt a role model and to get passionate about that musician's playing I'm not trying to turn them into mere lifeless unthinking copies of their heroes, no, my ultimate intention is that once they themselves have a grip on this thing called jazz then, and only then, are they able to realise the pleasures of performing with and for other people and to experience the attendant rewards of attention and shared activity. I really do desire to get them closer to the freedom and belonging they desired when they expressed it at a very general and unfocussed level at the beginning of their study.

Likewise when I insist that we remain a community of individuals whose normative model is Jesus for my ultimate intention is not to turn us into unthinking Christians, no, my ultimate intention is that once we ourselves have a grip on this thing called a religious response to life then, and only then, are we able truly to realise the pleasures and freedoms of a liberal religious community and move closer to the freedom and belonging we desired when we expressed it at a very general and unfocussed level at the beginning of our membership of this community. This is the practice of the religion of Jesus and not the religion about Jesus.

You see I'm not actually asking anyone to buy into any particular obscure theological doctrines in this act of following Jesus - not at all - this is an absolutely straightforward and pragmatic project concerned to help people to live truly liberal religious lives. All I'm trying to do is show you how you can get a basic grip on the world so that you can meaningfully and with intention and direction improvise your way creatively and loving through the complex "chord-changes" that make up the world.

To conclude I'll return now to my opening story as one illustration of what I mean. When I am conducting or, as today, partaking in, a communion service I am not engaging in some complex piece of impossible to believe theological mumbo-jumbo, all I am doing is standing in front of my mother's full length dress mirror practising, not my rock and roll moves, but my spiritual ones. I am there because such an imitation helps me experience what it means to be together around a table sharing bread and wine and that this is a good model of living in community; I am there because it helps me directly sense that Jesus' commitment to the cause of true openness, love and justice, even unto death, is what every individual in any decent society should do. I am not there out of vanity but because I know, I really do know, that where there is no following of a prototype or model there is no image and no passion for what one must do to have life and have it abundantly.

As a musician I shamelessly and passionately tried to copy my heroes but you know what? - I don't sound precisely like any of them - I sound like me, a pretty good bass player who has a real grip on how to be a jazz musician. As a religious person I have shamelessly tried to copy Jesus and the many good and faithful men and women who have followed him. And you know what? I don't hold the same beliefs as them nor live and pray quite like them but like me - which, despite my many shortcomings (and there are many) is, I hope you will agree, not too bad a person trying to live a decent and committed liberal religious life. I'm not perfect but then who is? Ours is a religious way that helps us become better human-beings over a whole lifetime; it is not a quick fix religion that brings instant salvation (of course, no such religion really exists, despite the claims of many).

So to all you liberals out there: for crying out loud get a model, find a prototype because without it there really is no image and no passion. If we are really serious about reconstructing a powerful, passionate and committed liberal religion then I recommend you start by copying Jesus. You'll be amazed at what it can do to help you . . .