I approached Resurrection City: A Theological Improvisation with some skepticism, I admit. The message of Jesus seen through the eyes of jazz? Somehow it seemed rather implausible and frankly a bit gimmicky. After all, I guess one could do the same with weather or baking a cake if one tried hard enough, but would one actually learn anything?
Professor Heltzel has in fact not only pulled it off, but offered us a truly meaningful way of looking at the ministry of Jesus, the message of God, and how we as mortals upon this flawed earth can bring forth true justice amongst ourselves.
I have indeed listened, during one portion of my life, a fair amount of jazz. I am not a musician and thus I can only say that I liked a good deal of it, and found some of it harsh and difficult. My expertise is sorely lacking.
Such is not the case with Heltzel, who obviously knows his stuff. He uses the idea of jazz and how “good jazz” works as metaphor for how we must approach the fractured world we live in, in hopes of resurrecting our lives to reflect the mishpat envisioned by God.
We are taken on a tour of the Hebrew Scriptures wherein we are reminded that throughout the pages of Isaiah and Jeremiah God’s people are continually called to do justice and to care for the weak, the dispossessed, the widow, orphan, and the stranger. We are reminded of God’s call for Jubilee, a time reserved to “re-balance” the scales of economic inequality.
Jesus, Heltzel tells us, was the improviser, taking the old laws, the old prophetic calls to justice, and re-imagining them in new ways. Jesus in effect gives us a new way to see and interact with God. The Jesus Way, the way of love, which moves beyond love of neighbor to love of enemy, replacing violence with loving resistance to inequity in the world.
This is what jazz is all about, improvisation. It is taking the old, well-known song, and changes it, probing and altering, tinkering, imprinting one’s own voice upon it, making it anew. We still hear the strains of the old, but we are revived in this new way of hearing.
As examples of the Jesus Way, Heltzel focuses of John Coltrane as his Jazz improviser, and Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King, Jr. as theological improvisers. Each made a seminal and world-changing offering to the “old” way of seeing, listening, and doing.
Heltzel maps out how the Christian Church has been, over the centuries, molded into something far removed from God’s loving call to mishpat. It has strayed into a patriarchal, white seat of power, that justified slavery, and the oppression of women throughout the ages. What is required is a “new way” of being church, one that returns us to the radical Jesus Way, and calls us to improvise in order to achieve that social justice that God desires.
In that social justice, all of us are freed as we learn the truth of our past, while we gain the tools to begin the process of building our resurrection cities, where communities operate for the benefit of all their people. We must start that process, as he points out, by looking clear-eyed at our past. Through the stories of Sojourner Truth and MLK, Jr, we examine with honesty the past that still haunts us, and how both of them improvised solutions to the problems before them. Each surrendered totally and followed the call for justice.
Perhaps the most striking image for me was his reference to the famous theologian James Cone, who writes:
“Theologically speaking, Jesus was the ‘first lynchee’ who foreshadowed all the lynched black bodies on American soil. He was crucified by the same principalities and powers that lynched black people in America.”
This is a powerful metaphor, and comes at the beginning of our journey through the ugly past of American slavery. It informs our thinking, in a deeply powerful way when we juxtapose that against the determination of Martin Luther King, Jr., to maintain a non-violent resistance to Jim Crow in the South. How does the anger and hatred that the Cone statement engenders get translated into the sedaqah (righteousness) of the love-based non-violent resistance of King, or his mentor Gandhi?
Heltzel steps forth with his jazz references. The “blues” of slavery meld into the spirituals that both bespeak that evil and pain while yet pointing to a better time and a better life. These are grafted by the jazz musician into the new music of a world to come, one infused with power and new directions.
We see the Poor People’s March on Washington and in our own time, the Occupy Movement, as similar jazzy improvs–people joining together in their pain and anger, and forging a loving yet determinedly non-violent response to the powers that oppress and dehumanize us all.
Heltzel informs us, and then calls us to action in our place and in our time to create the new songs that God calls forth from us to build a new world, one of justice and for all.
Read this book. You will be transformed.
**This book was sent to me for review. The opinions contained within this review are mine and mine alone. No other agreements exist between the writer and anyone connected to the book or its dissemination.