jazz, theology, and improvisation

Cynthia Nielsen over at Per Caritatem always has something insightful to say, be it on history, philosophy, music or art, and her posts are frequently an horizon-broadening experience.

This brief post on Benson’s The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue contains:

I wholeheartedly agree with Benson’s take on jazz as “premeditatedspontaneity.” That is, contrary to the common and even “romantic” view of jazz improvisation as a kind of musical ex nihilo creative act, Benson argues that jazz improvisers actual heavily rely on musical ideas worked out in advance which, as it turns out, enables them to be spontaneous.

Now, I am not a musician. The reason for this is that I have not prepared to be a musician. I have not studied it, rehearsed it, or disciplined myself to understand the logic behind it. I do, however, admire musicians who know their craft well enough to musically reason their way through a set they have not previously encountered.

Hopefully the parallels with the craft of theology are obvious. Those who are able to theologically find their way through a previously unencountered set of philosophical (or even practical) suppositions — call it “theological spontaneity” — have probably already studied, rehearsed, and disciplined themselves to understand the formal aspects of theology.

The ability to spontaneously theologize within a formal system while retaining a biblical, systematic, and even historical consistency does not come without study, rehearsal, and discipline. I like this analogy.

Of course, anybody can (and does) theologize. The ability to do so consistently from within an established perimeter is altogether different. Pastors all over the world tackled theodicy after 9/11, but how many did so in a way consistent with a particular systematization like, say, the Reformed recognition of the complete sovereignty of God and without damaging the divine character as biblically revealed and creedally codified?

Real theologians, like real jazz musicians, are impressive in their ability to navigate changing circumstances. But neither achieve that ability apart from serious study and rehearsal.

A fun analogy. But tell me, where does the analogy break down?

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