Jesus and John Coltrane
In his new book A Supreme Love, apologetics professor William Edgar makes some bold claims about the religious dimensions of jazz music—or so concluded this editor (who, to be fair, possesses no special musical training or insight) after skimming an advance copy.
The book, subtitled “The Music of Jazz and the Hope of the Gospel,” does more than argue for the compatibility of jazz and the gospel or claim that jazz is especially conducive to expressing gospel themes through music. Indeed, Edgar wants to persuade readers that hearing and practicing jazz has an unparalleled capacity to open us to the deep realities of God’s love.
Reviewing the book for the July/August issue of CT is Joy Marie Clarkson, a musician, an arts and theology student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and a books editor herself (for Plough magazine).
“At its best,” she writes, “Edgar’s book acts as a sustained natural theology of jazz, attending to how the hope of the gospel might be perceived through a particular musical form.
“As Edgar argues, none of this requires that jazz mention God or explicitly evoke the hope of the gospel, because, as he puts it, ‘everything somehow belongs to God.’ He even goes beyond theologian James H. Cone’s notion of blues as a ‘secular spiritual,’ rejecting its implied separation between the sacred and the secular and insisting, in the psalmist’s words, that ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’ (Ps. 24:1).
“In this sense, jazz, like all creation, can reveal something of God’s love and character. However, it seems that Edgar goes even further, suggesting something essential in jazz—something in the way it evokes the ‘deep misery and inextinguishable joy’ of life—draws us to a gospel that encompasses both the tragedy of the Cross and the improbable triumph of the Resurrection. When we pay attention, Edgar suggests, jazz shows us new dimensions and textures of this reality; and when the gospel shapes us, we see it clearly in jazz.
“And Edgar does want us to pay attention to jazz. The goal of the book seems not merely to inform readers about the rich and varied history of jazz, to reflect on its theological implications, or to observe its continual evolution in the present day. Instead, Edgar invites us to consider enjoying jazz as a form of spiritual practice.
“Consider the book’s closing lines: ‘Have I at least given it a chance? Growing to love jazz may take a lifetime. Yet it moves—and moves us—from deep misery to inextinguishable joy. There is no greater love. A supreme love!’ For Edgar, paying attention to jazz, giving it a chance, means opening ourselves to an art form that carries within itself the gospel of hope. To attend to it is to draw close to the origin of that hope: love. He hopes we will love jazz too.”