C. S. Lewis attended church with some regularity but could only endure the music. That’s not an uncommon feeling. A little jazz, rarely heard in church, might fix this.
Lewis was the Oxford don who came to Christ at the age of 32, owing to the influence of J. R. R. Tolkien and other friends. He joined the Anglican Communion. But he didn’t like going to church. Lewis found the sermons often dull. He disliked organ music, which he described as “one long roar.”1 He considered hymns “to be fifth rate poems set to sixth rate music.” In Letters of Malcolm, he said the few parishioners who keep going to church “merely endure” the music.
I share some of Lewis’ sentiments. In reading Alister McGrath’s highly acclaimed C. S. Lewis: A Life, I wonder if Lewis felt that most church music doesn’t resonate with real life. I say this because Lewis’ life was often contradictory, improvised, and messy.
Lewis’ beloved mother Flora died when he was nine. He never got along with his father, Albert, who sent him away to a miserable boarding school. Lewis never learned to drive or type because he was too clumsy. He was a shabby dresser. His house was a mess.
Lewis could also be a bit of a contradiction. He displayed an interest in sadomasochism during his youth. He read the writings of the Marquis de Sade; once became drunk at a party and begged people to allow him to whip them. According to McGrath’s biography, Lewis signed three letters to friend Arthur Greeves with the closing “lover of the whip.”
Lewis fought in the horrific trenches of World War I. There, he made a promise to his fellow soldier and friend Paddy Moore. If Paddy didn’t survive, Lewis would take care of Moore’s mother. Paddy was killed. After returning home, Lewis moved in with Paddy’s mother, Janie Moore. The exact nature of their relationship is a mystery to this day but it was drain on Lewis. As Moore aged, she lapsed into dementia, adding to Lewis’ demands as he was also caring for his alcoholic brother, Warnie.
After Moore’s death, Lewis met and fell in love with Joy Davidman, an American writer who befriended Lewis by letter. They wed in 1956. Four years later, Joy died of cancer at age 45 with Lewis at her bedside. Afterward, Lewis wrote A Grief Observed, reflections on the pain of losing Joy. He likens it to dentistry. “It doesn’t really matter whether you grip the arms of the dentist’s chair or let your hands lie in your lap. The drill drills on.”
In the late 1800s, church music became sentimentalized. No messes. Lewis had to endure these romanticized hymns. In the late twentieth century, church music shifted to over-the-top exuberance. The Jars of Clay singer/songwriter Matt Odmark describes it as “happyhappyhappyallthetime.” I suspect Lewis would not have endured this music.
Jazz music is different. It’s improvised and messy. Miles Davis, often called “a spiritual chemist,” is perhaps the most revered and successful jazz musician of the twentieth century. He directed his energies toward finding the finest musicians and letting them improvise. The musicians “went together” in one direction with everybody feeling their way along. As Davis put it, “The music belongs to the guys in the band. They make the music—it’s not just my thing.”2 It’s similar to what Wynton Marsalis says. “Jazz is not just ‘Well, man, this is what I feel like playing.’ It’s a very structured thing that comes down from a tradition and requires a lot of thought and study.”
The ancient gospel—creation, fall, redemption, and restoration—comes from a long tradition. It requires a lot of thought and study. But it plays like a convoluted, messy, disruptive, exploratory, improvisational song. It sounds like jazz. I bet exiles—Christians who feel they can no longer endure church—might return if the service included a little jazz. If your church doesn’t have any jazz players, play it on Pandora.
“Jazz is improvised and messy.” So says John Raymond, a jazz trumpeter and composer. Since moving to New York City in 2009, John has performed with some of the most well respected names in jazz. His new album, Real Feels, releases February 12. That’s a bit too late for Lewis who passed away in 1963. However, the odds are good that jazz is being played in the best clubs in heaven. If so, Lewis is no longer enduring worship music but enjoying it as he hoists a pint and praises the Lord.
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1 Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Biography (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1974), p. 104.
2 Bob Gluck, The Miles Davis Lost Quintet and Other Revolutionary Ensembles (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), p. 14.