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.
Messy: I’m resonating with this. Unexpected notes and chords, suspended dissonance and many many times a beautiful resolution.
Worshipping God “… requires a lot of thought and study…” Marsalis summed it up!
For what it’s worth, I’d be pretty excited to find a church service that blended jazz into the reading of scripture and teaching…
“If your church doesn’t have any jazz players, play it on Pandora.” I laughed aloud, heartily, when you hit me with this surprise line! Thank you! I would love to see how a qualified person would integrate jazz with worship and teaching.
That’s a blog entry for the ages – thank you Mike.
Is this really about musical genres, though, or more about who is participating and at what level?
It’s one thing to follow a script (“here’s the score, you play/sing this part here. . . .”); it’s another thing entirely to collaborate with others. Collaboration – or improvisation – is not limited to jazz! Although I suspect you don’t intend us to think that it is. . . .
In other words, jam sessions can extend to folk music, rock and roll and probably even to classical!
Rather than the musical focus here, perhaps we should be looking at the kind of leadership model you were addressing the other evening: imperial vs. interactive. It applies also to the musical element of worship. . . . Worship is not worship if it is something we have to endure being inflicted on us – worship is something that happens only if we participate in it. If our participation is limited to following the leader (or merely listening), I wonder how worshipful we really are.
One of the most moving worship of God I have ever experienced was in the Midwest, in which the members of the church I attended each participated fully in unscripted worship. There would be a starting point (in jazz, too, there’s always a starting point, if only an agreement as to what key we all start in!) – which was often a known song. When it had once been sung through, however, adaptive collaboration followed! It was wonderful. Unpredictable. Worshipful. Freeing. And yes, often rather messy. . . .
I love the quote by Eugene Peterson, that “Worship is the strategy by which we interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves
and attend to the presence of God.”
That might help set the lane marker on the other side, by setting the proper focus.
Loved this idea!
Great thoughts. Reminded me of a jazz band class I took in college, which was taught at the last class period offered, 4 pm I think, (it was 1988 0r 89). The prof was a kind, but burned out, cat from New Orleans. He opened class every day saying, “Ladies and gentle I apologize apologize for how early this session is. Every jazzman knows that no good jazz is created before 9 pm.”
I have some other thoughts…post later tonight
I can almost imagine the sounds reverberating through our Anglo-Catholic cathedral…
I agree churches should experiment with a more serious musical offering like jazz or modern classical music. I have found that many unchurched people think that pop rock (even in softer Americana versions) feels inappropriate for worship. And often the Christian version of pop styles or blended styles is 5th or 6th rate.
I had no idea Lewis was a critic of English traditional hymns and organ based worship.
Jazz in Heaven. YES!
As the author of the new Miles Davis book that Mike quotes from, and also someone who is a rabbi (and a music and academic), I’m quite happy that this is the first citation my book has received. It seems fitting to me, partially because I view music as integrally connected to daily life, and religious expression as integrally connected to the expressive arts. There is, in fact, an Episcopal church in Midtown Manhattan (St. Peters; I recently played there) that has a Jazz Vespers service each week. But the “messiness” between the musicians (which is indeed how I would describe the Davis bands of the 1960s ad 70s) contrasts with the relationship between congregant/listeners and the musicians, which retains some (but not all) of the distance of many church settings. To be fair, the religious culture of congregations vary enormously–it is not by chance that Black churches are aesthetically more like your description of jazz, as opposed to white (at least non-charismatic) Protestant churches, which are often more emotionally distanced. In a sense, the latter can be not unlike orchestral concerts (incidently, I read the Marsalis quotation as reflecting a far less “messy” aesthetic within jazz than Davis). Religious cultures range from more formal to more relaxed or exuberant, more participational to more emotionally reserved; varying between how fixed or fluid is the dividing line between the people leading and those in the pews. Lewis may have been seeking distanced listening to less staid music, rather than seeking experiences with greater engagement between everyone present. Yet does that really address, for contemporary worshippers, what it might mean to have a “messier,” more deeply engaged experience? In a sense it depends upon one’s religious/cultural preferences, but–and here’s where I particularly appreciate your use of jazz as a foil for Lewis’s concerns–how well in touch are contemporary religious leaders with the sensibilities of a new generation of congregants–never mind those who are choosing not to come at all?
There’s a great little neighborhood church in New Orleans that does this well. Here’s an article from the WSJ about how they’re making sense of this in the place they live.