“Improvising in the key of gospel” -Steve R. Holmes

In music – these days, particularly in jazz, but the cadenza of a concerto used to work the same way – improvisation is a fascinating art. Good improvisation is profoundly responsive to what has come before, and in certain ways obedient to the key and to the rhythmic structure of the piece, but at the same time it is deeply inventive. Improvisation is also instinctive: jazz musicians say regularly that your fingers go the right places; the moment you have to think about it, you’ve blown it completely. To improvise instinctively, of course, you have to practice endlessly, playing and playing and playing, till your fingers know where to go without being told. Put another way, you start to indwell the music, knowing instinctively, without thought, what can or must come next, even when there are no notes printed on a score.
For me, living faithfully after Christendom is an exercise in improvising in the key of gospel. We face – daily; hourly – previously-unimagined challenges and situations; a set of rules is too solid, too clunky, to cope. Obeying rules, however well-intentioned and well-written, will make us irrelevant and offensive. Instead, we need to learn to indwell the gospel narrative the way a jazz soloist learns to indwell the music, and to be as responsive to the ever-changing context as a soloist is to the audience and to the previous solos of her fellow players. We need to immediately, instinctively, create new movements that beautifully express one example of what gospel might look like in this particular context.
Of course, it is hard – so hard…
And – we’re talking improv – of course there is no training manual…
But there is that moment in jazz when you hear it (Kind of Blue, anyone?) and know that here is something that is at once both powerfully authentic and immediately relevant, and so that stands as a marker of what it looks like, how amazing it can be, when someone just gets it right.
And when a Pope asks a beggar to hear his confession…
Or when Andrew and Brenda and Nathan print some T-shirts reading ‘I’m sorry’…
Or when Tony throws a birthday party for a prostitute at three o’clock in the morning…
Or when the women of the church I once led said ‘we’re going to give her the mother of all baby showers…’
Or – well, I have some more stories, but what would you add to this list?…
…when these things happen, I swear I hear angels singing as they did in the hills above Bethlehem, and Heaven partying the way only Heaven can – because someone has learnt how to improvise in the key of gospel.

-Steve R. Holmes

Steve R. Holmes: whether you call this “virtue ethics” or “Gospel improv” I don’t know. I just know it’s worth it for you to read the whole thing.

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