“Get a model. Find a prototype. Without this there is no image and no passion” — and so no powerful and effective liberal religious life of your own

16th cent. Polish Unitarian medal showing Jesus as a human exemplar
Every few years or so I give a version of this address which tries to introduce  you to, or remind you of, something that lies at the heart of my own teaching concerning how to become a genuine and effective religious liberal. I give it again today because I recounted it’s main theme for someone last week and because it dovetails closely with what I said in my Christmas Day address concerning loyalty to the event. As always, it’s my view of things and, therefore, you are at perfect liberty to disagree with me.   

READINGS: 1 Peter 2:21

“For to this [life] you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps”.

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 
sufficiently dead, 

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 Hallelujah 

and one in which they had to jump up and down 
for Jesus. 
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 
in silence. 



A continuing, major problem for many modern British and North American liberals is that religion has increasingly become for them simply a general, abstract theory about life that doesn’t require any deep, personal active commitment and loyalty to some specific, situated role model. Historically and culturally considered our central role model has always been Jesus of Nazareth but, as the poem by Stephen Dunn we heard in our readings poignantly reveals, many of us have developed crippling fears about following him in any way. Despite these (often understandable) fears I remain convinced that in our own liberal religious circles it remains vitally important to embrace, explore and loyally commit in some way to the role model of the human Jesus. The best way I can show you why I think this is important is via an example drawn from my own work teaching people how to play jazz bass. 

Time Remembered double-lp (1983)
As most of you know before I entered the ministry I worked professionally as a jazz bassist and today I still occasionally find time to play, record and teach music. My key role model when I was learning to play double bass was Chuck Israels, especially his playing in the trios led by the pianist Bill Evans between 1961 and 1966. The moment, aged 18, I heard his playing on a double-LP called “Time Remembered” I was hooked — I finally knew how I wanted to play. Israels is today also a teacher and he 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 unpublished essay, “An Unpopular Perspective on Jazz Education”).

Like Israels, every year I would find a number of such students standing before me. So what is going on here? Well, despite the obvious negative aspects of this state of affairs, Israels believes (and I agree with him) that the student is at least 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 (ibid).

After seventeen years of ministerial experience I know intimately that people who walk through the church doors or the door of my study in order to find out about a liberal church tradition are also motivated by many worthwhile things. For example, the belief that here they might be able gain a certain sense of mental and spiritual stability and insight, a sense of belonging to a community with a long and venerable radical and progressive history and lastly, but not leastly, that they will be able to develop a personal, creative, confident religious openness to the wonderful, plural, complex and contingent nature of our world. But, as good as all these things are, together they form such a broad canvas that, alone they, too, are wholly “insufficient to serve as a focus for attainment.” Consequently, as mentor – whether as a music teacher or minister of religion – I often find my primary role is simply to help people find something to love, to get a model and find a prototype.

In the case of my music students I introduce them to some recordings and then, when they find a particular bass player they actually like, we can begin to get going by imitating that model and figuring out just exactly how he or she is playing the things they are. To the disappointment of many of my students this turns out to be harder work than they imagined and so every so often I had gently to remind them that this is why they needed a role model about whose playing they were truly excited because, without that image and passion, what is already a huge task will quickly become far too difficult to see through to the end. Without this they will continue to be directionless players with no substantial grip on anything real about the music. At best they will become mediocre players and, at worst, they will simply come to experience feelings of utter frustration, hopelessness and failure. 

In an attempt to get out of this difficulty one solution, often unconsciously adopted by some students, is to begin believing that the really good jazz bassists have simply had something like “magic dust” sprinkled on them at birth and, in desperation, they foolishly begin to turn human examples into little less than gods and themselves into second-rate human beings. As we in liberal religious circles know only too well, many religious traditions have done likewise by turning their own founding human, all too human figures into something little less than the gods and, in the case of Jesus, even into “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God” (Nicene Creed).

Now, it seems to me that all that I have said above about jazz is also true in many Unitarian, Universalist and Free Christian circles. Any person who enters into one of our communities desiring the fruits of a liberal religion and who then fails seriously to follow or imitate a religious prototype or model of that faith in action will never get a real grip on what it is to become a liberal religious person. Everything will remain for them terribly unfocused and unfulfilling; there will be no attainment and no progression. At best they will be mediocre in the matter of living a liberal life, at worst they will experience feelings of utter frustration, hopelessness and failure. 

You see, learning to become a liberal religious person is at least as difficult as it is to become a good jazz bass player and without an image and passion, a role model to follow, what is already a huge task quickly becomes far too difficult to see through to the end. Experience has shown me that in these cases many will give-up on liberal religion altogether as being too difficult whilst others will let themselves seduced into involvement with a religion headed-up by a super-human saviour figure whom they believe has been liberally sprinkled with “magic dust.”

It is true, of course, that in liberal religious traditions other than our own (for example the Brahmo Samaj in India) there are other models or prototypes one might follow rather than Jesus and I want to be clear that I’m not making here some covert claim for Jesus’ absolute uniqueness and value of him over all other great religious teachers. I would also point out that there available a variety of more or less congenial liberal “versions” of Jesus a person could adopt. (In passing, those of you who know me well know that I long ago adopted something close to the vision of Jesus articulated by Tolstoy.) All I am saying here is that, in one form or another, the human Jesus is, without doubt, our own particular British and North American tradition’s primary religious model, our initiating image and passion that got us going in the world as the kind of liberal religious community we are. Consequently, for many straightforward, sensible historical and cultural reasons, his example remains an excellent place for us together to begin to learn how to live a genuinely liberal religious life. Once you have actually got going in such a form of life there is, of course, absolutely nothing to stop you exploring other religious teachers in the same way that, after seriously imitating Chuck Israels for a year or so, I began to explore aspects of the playing of dozens of other bass players. 

However, I am aware that some religious liberals will seek to resist the basic message of this address because of a feeling that such a concentrated process of imitation only ties a person down and dangerously limits their freedom. But a model only ties and represses when it is made into a thing absolutely fixed and formalised, as something merely slavishly to be repeated without any variation or play. But, in truth all repetition always produces difference and so copying a role model, properly understood, is always capable of freeing us because it is precisely in the process of modelling ourselves on something tangible that we are enabled to push further out into the world and, with increasing confidence, eventually to take the risk to go beyond the model to test and experience reality ourselves at first-hand and so discovering new possibilities of being and acting as we go. In short, the conception of following Jesus I have in mind, and which I encourage here, is much more like the exciting, fruitful, inspiring and open relationship I had, and continue to have, with my musical role models than it is like the rigid, fixed dogmatic relationship to Jesus encouraged by most Christian orthodoxies.

Recording "Time Remembered"
To my music students I try to make it clear that it was only by, in the first instance, imitating Chuck Israels that I was able to learn how to move from a vague idea or theory about how to play jazz to actually playing jazz. By extension, when I then go on to play for my students I can also show that, despite all my copying, I really don’t sound exactly like any of my role models but, for good or ill, only like me, Andrew Brown.

[A fact which, should you be interested, you can hear by comparing the two links below:  

What is true in the world of jazz is also true in the world of liberal religion but the tragedy of Christianity in its global, institutional, and more conservative and orthodox forms is that it turned, and still obsessively turns Jesus from being a startling and inspiring human role model into a dead, dogmatically held metaphysical theory about the world. Standing up (like the child in Dunn’s poem) for this latter kind of “magic dust” sprinkled, divine God-man Jesus (with an associated slavish support of the institutions that support these theories) is something I remain profoundly uncomfortable about and against which I will continue to protest. But, unlike the parents in Dunn’s poem we, in our own Unitarian, Universalist and Free Christian traditions, are not forced merely to “drive on, ride it out and sing in silence” – No! — we can, instead, choose to show our children, ourselves and others another way to stand up for a Jesus by singing a very different kind of liberating, inspiring, improvisational liberal religious humanist song.

I strongly feel that the genius of our tradition is found in that over nearly four-and-a-half centuries it has been able consistently to help people to see that when Jesus is followed, as a true human exemplar, this enables a person to begin to experience, not a pale imitation of Jesus’ life, nor some dogmatic set of religious beliefs but, instead, the creative flowering of their own beautiful, complex, contingent life in all its local fullness, abundance an openness to the future.

So in this local religious setting my final call today is please, please heed Chuck Israels’ words to his students and “Get a model. Find a prototype. Without this there is no image and no passion” — and so no way to achieve a powerful and effective liberal religious life of your own.