No image, no passion - or do we really have to drive on, ride it out and sing in silence?

MP3 (before downloading this file do please read Stephen Dunn's poem "At the Smithville Methodist Church" - for starters it's simply a good poem but since it provides me with a key theme which I explore in this address it's fairly important to have read.)

Much of what I say in this address also comes from my experience as a jazz musician - both as a player and educator - and as, I hope, an entertaining start to this address - here is a recent performance of "I'll Remember April" with Mark Crooks on tenor, Chris Ingham on piano, Russ Morgan on drums and yours truly on bass.

A theme I return to again and again is the need for religious liberals to stop prevaricating and to step out into the world, to get down and dirty and once again learn how to live and act in it with hope and confidence. But I am acutely aware that our post-enlightenment culture has for a long time encouraged us to live at a dangerously sceptical distance from the world and this, in turn, has meant that our lives often have the feel of being more observed and theoretical than actually lived ones. The religious life for many liberals has become simply a theoretical model - always on the drawing board but never quite put into prototype form and actually sent out in the world to be tested. 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 prototype - Jesus of Nazareth - in whom we who used to have absolute confidence as being able to help us learn how we ourselves might live fully and passionately in the world.

Today I want to remind us that to become fully human we need human exemplars to follow who can help us frame and ground our potentialities. The only way I know how to show you what I means is through my work in teaching people how to play jazz and, particularly, jazz-bass. One of my own role-models as a bass player was Chuck Israels, especially in his work with the great pianist Bill Evans' trio of the late 60s. He summarises an experience many of us have had 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" (from An Unpopular Perspective on Jazz Education).

Like Israels, nearly every year I find a number of such students standing before me claiming to want to play jazz but knowing 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, Israels believes (and I agree with him) that the student is 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).

I know from experience 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 - they include (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 religious. But 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 to begin to learn how to be religious liberally.

So as mentor - whether as a music teacher or minister - I find my role is often reduced 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 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 begin the real task of imitating that model and of figuring out how and that player is playing the things he or she does. 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 you haven't got a role model about whose playing you are very excited then you will have 'no image and no passion' and this huge task quickly becomes 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 turn out to be directionless players with no substantial grip on anything real about the music. At best they will be mediocre players at worst they will experience feelings of utter frustration, hopelessness and failure. Another solution some try to use is to start to believe that the good players have some magic about them - that they have somehow had something like magic dust sprinkled on them at birth. (Of course we know many religions argue that this is true of their founding figures).

The same is true in 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 you will never get a real grip on what you need to be doing in any religious life. Everything will remain terribly unfocussed and unfulfilling; there will be no attainment and no progression. At best you will be mediocre in the matter of living, at worst you 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 - I, too, have a number of other figures who continue to hold my loyalty (see the side bar of my blog for a few of them) - it is simply that historically Jesus just happens to be our particular family of faith's trusted primary model. (Importantly one can learn as much from the mistakes our models made as from their wonderful examples - Jesus did some dumb, even bad things, just as my musical heroes made some dumb and bad albums. Models are not, in any absolute sense, about arriving at perfection - either in the religious life or music - just about living/playing as well as YOU can).

Now, I am aware that some here 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 - but this is not a true model. The true model frees us because it is precisely in the process of modelling oneself on something tangible that you are helped into the real world to test and experience it yourself. The conception of following Jesus I have in mind is much more like the exciting and fruitful relationship I continue to have with my musical heroes. It was only by copying them that I learnt how to move from an idea or theory about how to play jazz to playing jazz. I don't sound precisely like any of my heroes but without them I could not be free to be me, Andrew Brown, jazz musician.

However, once personally freed you cannot then simply bequeath others who follow you (such as our children) - with no cost or effort - your freedom. You also have to offer them real models to follow themselves and make sure they are 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 on to 'A Love Supreme' and 'Ascension'; the Beatles and the wonderful story of their transition from 'Love Me Do' to 'A Day in the Life'; the Bee Gees and the wonderful story of their transition from 6os psychedelia to R'n'B Disco heroes. In this pulpit I try to offer you a variety of models to learn to love but primarily I hold fast to offering up the example of Jesus and the wonderful stories about him that we have in the Gospel narratives.

The tragedy of institutional Christianity was to turn Jesus from a startling and inspiring human model and story into a dead dogmatically held metaphysical theory about the world. Standing up for that kind of Jesus - with its associated slavish support of the institutions that support these theories - that is something I, too, am profoundly uncomfortable about. But we, unlike Dunn's parents in his poem, don't have to drive on, ride it out and sing in silence - no! We can show our children (and ourselves) how to sing (improvise) another kind of song.

The genius of our liberal tradition was to see that when Jesus was followed, as a true human exemplar, Jesus inspired and enabled a person to begin experience, not a pale imitation of Jesus' life nor that of some religious institution, whether the Temple or the Church, but their own life in all its fullness - the only life any of us can experience.

The truth is we don't have to become crippled with worry about affirming Jesus as a model because, when followed with imagination, intelligence, wisdom and some real anarchic rebelliousness, his example still provides us with a practical method of entering fully into the world beyond all theories and beyond all religions (Jesus as a model need not be tied here to any kind of Christian metaphysic or belief - cf. my sermon on Christian Atheism). We, too, can still stand up for Jesus but for us, if we sing our own song properly then this is simply to help every man and woman begin to stand up in their own ways as truly free sons and daughters of God and together to improvise a better future for all.


After giving this address I later on went down to the local Methodist Church at the other end of the road to lead the evening service on the subject of "James Martineau and Unitarian and Free Christian Spirituality." Their minister is on sabbatical at the moment and they are having a series of services on different kinds of Christian spirituality. It was very kind of them to invite me. If you want to read this click on the link below where by later on today (Monday 2nd May), I will have put up a scanned pdf of my text.

"James Martineau and Unitarian and Free Christian Spirituality."


Anonymous said…
One thing I do not understand: why if you claim to be a Christian atheist, (which immediately sounds somewhat oxymoronic to me) do you keep mentioning God?
Dear Anon,

Thanks for your clear question. I answer it in a proper post immediately following this one.

Warmest wishes,

Anonymous said…
Andrew thank you so much for this.
I think the key you identify is the having of a model. What you are arguing for is a model which is a standard, against which the student can test themselves and learn the truth of themselves. The model you prescribe is a person (with all the mystery that that entails), but Person is not the only form of model. Another way of finding the truth of oneself is to pledge oneself to a Rule, such as the well known Rule of Benedict. Both methods are fruitful once the commitment is made and adhered to.