One morning, on her way to class, my sister in law noticed a car in the parking lot with a bumper sticker,”Religion is for people who are afraid of Hell. Spirituality is for those who’ve been through it.” She took the picture and sent it to me because the message reminded her of me and my story. I also think it a true statement that can be applied across the board beyond any denominational ties. Personally, I’ve friends who, when life became too real with divorce and the death of a parent, lost themselves in a prepackaged, conservative Christianity. The illusion of a black and white life and a relgion that comes with a check list is quite comforting like heroin. The salty, asprin drip in the back of the throat and vomiting are ignored while the body is doused in warm butter and slipped into a floating nirvana–until the devastating come down. But that is of no concern. The pushers are available with their get-your-most-out-of-God-in-thirty-days plan, and life can float by with narcotic ease–but for the right price. I’ve sympathy and empathy for these people, I really do. In my adolesence and early adulthood my life was completely unstable, and I dived head first into that empty concrete pool.
After a few years of wandering and breaking my teeth on the frontier, the black and white religion did not offer any satisfactory answers for me. I wanted something different.
In “Miles Ahead,” Mile Davis is sitting at his piano talking to a writer from Rolling Stone about his music. The genius of Davis is realized when he describes listening to and analyzing Stravinski. Once Davis learned the composer’s rules, he broke them, and that breaking brought us such albums as “Sketches of Spain,” “Boplicity,” and “The Complete Birth of Cool.” Davis’ opinion of Stravinski wasn’t lessened as he explored his own music. Stravinski was a teacher, and like all teacher/student relationships they must end so the student can leave and grow in applying the knowledge.
This is the nature of hymns, and Jazz and Blues.
I am a sucker for those old hymns especially the ones written by Charles Wesley. I can hear the joy he has in his faith, and I can feel his love for God. Because the music is easy to sing, I am of the opinion Wesley wrote his hymns in such a way that he wanted everyone to participate regardless of their singing abilities. But the hymns are structured and liturgical, and they are an expression of his story and how he relates to God. Relying on another’s spiritual experience will not give life to your own spirituality.
Because of the individual expression, Jazz and Blues came out of the plantations. African-Americans were never treated with dignity or even as human in our culture, and their voice cries out to God through horns, keys, guitars, beats, and wails seeking justice. Jazz became the hearts unspeakable, broken groans. The Jazz that could be spoken became Gospel music, and out of Gospel music Blues branched out to explore the deeper pain and be free through its expression.
Hymns are in church dictating an already commodified spirituality. One size fits all. That works for an hour or two inside the church walls, but breaks with the struggles of Monday morning. God, faith, and belief cannot be contained in a dogmatic formula. The formulas do serve a purpose. Hymns inside church introduce us to God, but Jazz and Blues is us running out the church doors to catch up with God.
Once Charles Wesley taught me everything he could, I found John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk. Then I found Victor Wooten, Chris Potter, Herbie Hancock, and Sun Ra & His Arkestra. These guys haven’t caught God, but they have touched those divine heals. Except for Sun Ra. While everyone else is covered in God’s dust and shadow, Sun Ra is playing poker with God over a fifth of a 14yr Oban. Their spiritual teaching isn’t safe, but dangerous, smokey, and bloody. But that is the difference between hymns and Jazz, between religion and spirituality, between the Pharisees and Jesus. Jesus was beaten and killed, rose again with his scars intact. My friends, out of fear, hid in religion–hid in the illusion of safety. But there is no resurrection in safety, and there is no growth. Like Jazz, resurrection has no resolution, and keeps pushing the limits to break the barriers and find the arms of God.