>Answer quickly: How many seminary professors do you know who are also professional jazz musicians?
Dr. William Edgar is Chairman of the Faculty and Coordinator of the Apologetics Department at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and Professeur Associé at the Faculté Libre de Théologie Réformée, in Aix-en-Provence, France. He serves on several boards, serving as President of the Huguenot Fellowship. He is a regular speaker in the Veritas Forum programs. He is ordained in the PCA, is a frequent conference speaker and the author of several books, including The Face of Truth: Lifting the Veil; Reasons of the Heart: Recovering Christian Persuasion; and Truth in All Its Glory: Commending the Reformed Faith. Dr. Edgar is also a professional jazz musician.
For my 2006 Christian Renewal series on “Christians in the Arts,” I read some of his work and interacted with him via email. The result was this interview reflecting his interest in jazz, his view of entertainment, and his perspective on the arts.
GM: You’re Professor of Apologetics, Coordinator of the Apologetics Department, and Chairman of the Faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia; you’re also a pianist who regularly plays with a professional jazz band. That’s an unusual combination. How does your faith intersect with your interest in jazz?
WE: Martin Luther once remarked that if it couldn’t be sung, it wasn’t good theology! Jazz is a kind of music that not only has Christian roots, but carries a Christian worldview. It articulates the sense of deep misery, but also the inextinguishable joy of the Christian life. It is sad that the churches, both Black and White, have kept themselves aloof from this marvelous music, because they fear secularization. It is true that jazz is not always performed in the most holy places. But the music itself rises above the circumstances.
GM: Does the same thing apply to the blues?
WE: The blues is stark and realistic, and it would be easy to conclude that this type of music is without hope or redemption. The realism of the blues does not stand opposed to hopefulness, but to sentimentality. The blues tells us how to live on earth in order to prepare for heaven.
The Bible never pretends that evil and suffering are easy. But it gives them meaning. God’s revelation never underestimates the power and the cruelty of the trials wrought by a fallen world. But it tells us that He is in control.
Truth is the highest virtue in the blues. The foremost blues singer of the Old Testament is surely Job. While his suffering appeared to him to have no purpose, he was vindicated in the end by a God who owed no accounts to him, but who nevertheless is incapable of injustice.
GM: What do you say to people who worry about improvisation?
WE: Jazz is improvised. This does not mean playing what you feel like. It means weaving a narrative over the constraints of the tune. In Black American experience such improvisation was the constant skill required to approach the obstacles of oppression and the opportunities for freedom. Is this not similar to God’s dealings with His people? The sinful world which God, by His love, desires to redeem, would appear to throw up an impasse. How can God remain just and yet the justifier of the ungodly? The answer is the greatest improvisation of all time: the cross of His son, Jesus Christ. Could it be that God himself is the first and greatest jazz musician?
GM: Would you mind telling the readers of Christian Renewal about your jazz group?
WE: Our jazz group is called Renewal. We’ve been playing together for about 10 years. When we play as a trio, we feature a lead vocalist, the piano and a bass. Our regular singer is the renowned Ruth Naomi Floyd, one of the great gospel-jazz voices of Philadelphia, who is a composer and widely featured in concerts and radio around the world. Check out her work at http://www.contourrecords.com/. Our bass player is C. J. Vonderahe. I’m the pianist and speaker. To the trio we like to add Michael Kelly on percussion, and the amazing Kathleen Kilpatrick on reeds and tap shoes. The full band has five players: vocals, saxophone, piano, bass and drums.
Our philosophy is that jazz ought to entertain, but that its background is in the spiritual experience of African-American people, reared in slavery and nurtured on the Gospel. It carries the twin themes of suffering and hope, so characteristic of Black culture. We hope our audiences will sense the realism, the passion and the joy as we perform.
Specifically, we take the audience through some of the history of African-American music, both sacred and secular, mixing narrative with music. We outline the challenge of finding spiritual roots in the music, and then go on to explore specific genres.
Again, our theme in our presentations is that the theological background for jazz, and for much great music in any genre, is deep misery with inextinguishable joy.
GM: How would you respond to Christians who regard entertainment as of little value?
WE: The problem is not entertainment. It is the secularization of entertainment. And that, ironically, is the fruit of the secularization of work. At the Reformation in the 16th century, work was understood to be noble, a calling for everyone, yet flawed, never a panacea. Work is a divine calling, going back to Genesis 1:28.
These days work is either looked at as pure duty, or, the opposite, a messianic hope. Our modern culture has often turned work into drudgery, a necessary evil. An equal but opposite error is to exaggerate the value of work. And so, we try to find relief from this drudgery, in the form of a hedonistic entertainment industry. Entertainment for its own sake is a plain distraction (Proverbs 20:1; 21:25).
There is a better way. It is to recover true entertainment. And that is done, first, by recovering the lost notion of work as noble-yet-flawed. The fourth commandment gets the balance right. God wants us to work. But He gives us a day in which we remember Him in a special way. The Sabbath is a sign, placed right into the structure of our weekly schedule, a forecast of heaven. To enter into final rest is to be fully with our savior God (Hebrews 4:1). Work cannot save; only God can. But authentic rest is not pure leisure; it is a moment of grace!
“Entertain” is quite an interesting word. It is from the French, entretenir, which means to maintain, or to converse. To be entertained is to maintain a conversation. Negatively, it is mere babble, or chatter. But in the biblical sense, it is a conversation—with eternity. Amazingly, while you are a sojourner here on earth, you may still keep a conversation going with heaven.
Real entertainment, then, is a profound reflection of the presence of God, which we now have (already recognized), and will have in full measure (not yet fully appropriated).
GM: What, then, are some of the legitimate forms of entertainment for the serious, hard-working believer of today?
WE: Well, to begin with, God has “richly furnished us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17), but still we must choose. Though there are many others, four forms stand out for me.
The first is laughter. Of course, laughter can be cruel, or cynical, and certainly perverted. But it doesn’t have to be. Large parts of creation are just funny, or, better, delightful. We get a sense of this from Psalm 104. Birds sing. Wine and oil lift our spirits. Leviathan frolics. All in God’s wisdom. Of course, part of what makes us laugh in delight is the element of surprise. Sadly, we Christians are sometimes dreadfully predictable. What if we learned to laugh a lot at laughable things? It might make us more believable.
The second example is sports. Considering the abuses in our culture, why not avoid athletics altogether? Because, for one thing, we would be disregarding a wise saying in the New Testament. Paul notes to Timothy that physical exercise is of some value (1 Timothy 4:8). He often used the analogy of the athlete for the Christian life. Like laughter, sports and other games remind us that there is more to life than horizontal, functional purpose.
A third type of legitimate entertainment is the meal. I have spent half my life in France. The French really understand the value of a great meal. It’s not just the food, although that is certainly a gift (God could have given us pills!). But it is the fellowship, the conversation, the simple enjoyment of a moment away from the stresses of work.
Fourthly, the arts are wonderful entertainment. Much art today is problematic. But that should not blind us to the marvelous exceptions. Many Christians would limit the use of the arts to ones that have an evangelistic function.
There is nothing wrong with the right kind of message-driven art. But there is far more to the purpose of art than mere message. I have invested a good deal of my life in the art of music. I find there is nothing quite like the succession of sounds, “well-ordered to the glory of God,” as Bach used to say, for entertainment.
If we want a life in imitation of the divine pattern, we will choose to follow Christ, “for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from His” (Hebrews 4:10). As we do, we converse with eternity, as we wait to enter fully into His joy.
GM: How would you define a Reformed perspective on the arts?
WE: One move the reformers made was to simplify the use of the arts within worship, while at the same time stressing their importance for everyday life. They criticized the sacred-secular dichotomy of the Middle Ages. Thus, you did not need a “sacred” subject, like the cross or a miracle, to be Christian in your painting. Rembrandt, for example, steeped in Reformed Holland, could paint a side of beef in a way that clearly glorifies the Creator.
C. S. Lewis, who was basically Reformed in his theology, once said that the Christian writer must have blood in his veins, not ink. So many Christians will write “with a message,” rather than simply enjoying words. The difference is critical.
As Lewis argues in several places, especially An Experiment in Criticism, when there is too strong a message, a work of fiction thins out and becomes propaganda rather than narrative. Good art, be it in the form of paintings, music, or novels, must be persuasive of truth, without preaching.
Our culture needs books, music and art that will encourage us to greater imagination, to greater art. Those are not things that will in themselves effect transformation. But they surely will help to persuade. Not moralism, nor propaganda, but good, well-crafted artistic persuasion.
Today, we see things upside down. Good art can help us see things right side up. According to the Book of Revelation, heaven is coming down to earth, and will soon replace the old heaven and the old earth (21:10).
May we be urged to work quietly with our hands and hearts, crafting true stories, appealing to the imagination, for the sake of the truth. May we see small but real changes, which one day may add up to significant cultural transformation.
* * *
Essential Books on Christianity and the Arts, recommended by Dr. William Edgar
Jeremy Begbie, editor: Beholding the Glory, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000
Jeremy S. Begbie: Voicing Creation’s Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991
Hillary Brand & Adrienne Chaplin: Art & Soul:Signposts for Christians in the Arts, Carlisle: Piquant/Inter-Varsity, 2001
Madeleine l’Engle: Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, Wheaton: Harold Shaw, 1980
Flannery O’Connor: Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1962
H. R. Rookmaaker: The Complete Works, Piquant
H. R. Rookmaaker: Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970
Calvin Seerveld: Rainbows for the Fallen World, Toronto: I.R.S.S., 1980
Calvin Seerveld: Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves: Alternative Steps in Understanding Art, Piquant/Tuppence, 2000
Gene Edward Veith: State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe, Wheaton: Crossway, 1991
Gregory Wolfe, editor: The New Religious Humanists: A Reader, New York: The Free Press, 1997
Albert M. Wolters: Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985
The above is a slightly updated version of an article that appeared in the September 27, 2006 issue of Christian Renewal.
© Glenda Mathes 2006, 2010