Honest Bible

Prophetic Improvisation Takes the Bible Seriously. Are You Ready for Jesus and Jazz?

Maybe US churches’ inability to bring love, peace, patience, kindness into society –
and their increasing desire to bring domination and violence –
has to do with NOT taking the Bible seriously. Not treating it as it treats itself –
that is, with prophetic improvisation.

If we need the Bible, as they insist, churches NEED true Prophetic Improvisation.

We Christ-followers are not very effective at bringing the “fruits of the Spirit” into our own actual, social, human lives (“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness” etc.) (Galatians 5).  This is a tragic and brutal fact of life in this country.

Peter Heltzel crystalizes this brutal contradiction (in Resurrection City: A Theology of Improvisation).

it’s another day of
extortion in the marketplace,
bribery in the courts,
and intentional ignorance of the orphans, widows, immigrants, and prisoners.” (p126)

“Ignorance” doesn’t mean that we don’t know they exist.  We just don’t know THEM or even where they are; we don’t feel their situations or get involved with them. And there are plenty around to get involved with if we choose.

Doesn’t he sound a bit like Micah?

Hear this, you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of Israel,
who despise justice  and distort all that is right;
who build Zion with bloodshed, and Jerusalem with wickedness.
Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price,
and her prophets tell fortunes for money.    Micah 3:9-11

Heltzel feels deeply this desperate need for ongoing improvisation in Christian theology and practice.

For TRUE PROPHECY here and now Heltzel says JAZZ IS A MODEL because:

How Jazz works:

“While driven by spontaneity, freedom, and innovation,
improvisation is never … unstructured or … wholly new
… [it is] the creative deployment of traditions and forms that are at hand… constant negotiation of CONSTRAINT [tradition, revelation] and POSSIBILITY [our crises, realities, desperate needs].” (p18)

Jazz is a creative expression of older, even classical, musical forms in new settings and with new voices.

Jesus Did It! Jesus and Jazz.

  • Moses built on a couple of crucial themes from Abraham.
    if in practice we as a society, as individuals, as  churches, as groups of any kind, don’t have truly prophetic, spiritual, informed improvisers welcome among us we are not listening to Jesus the Jewish Improviser.
  • David honored Moses while shifting some of the emphasis.
  • Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Micah et. al. riffed on all their precedessors but brought strong, clear, specific translation and application into their contemporary settings. Got some of them killed.
  • Jesus also got himself killed, by loving Moses, David, the prophets, and rigorously improvising on their themes, applying them bluntly to concrete contemporary attitudes and behaviors. But as he said, “a prophet is not without honor – except …”
  • They all were real prophets, doing really good prophetic work via prophetic improvisation.

There is a CALL implicit in these examples:

The call from their integrity and love is that WE be what is needed, prophetically, today, in our own time and place, in the languages, cultures, crying needs of our various present places.

This I believe: if in practice we as a society, as individuals, as  churches, as groups of any kind, don’t have truly prophetic, spiritual, informed improvisers welcome among us we are not listening to Jesus the Jewish Improviser. Should we not listen to Jesus? Maybe even follow him?

And it cannot be done coasting along in neutral with the flow around us. It cannot be done with our eyes and ears mostly closed.

There are COSTS to improvisational prophecy (i.e. contemporary and true prophecy).

  1. You have to know the tradition on which you are riffing. “improvisation is never … unstructured or … wholly new … [it is] the creative deployment of traditions and forms that are at hand”
  2. You have to do the personal work, of two demanding types – mental and moral-spiritual. “Madam, that impromptu speech has been 30 years in the making.” (Disraeli)  Heltzel references Howard Thurman “The work of social transformation must be based on a deep inner transformation.”
  3. Experience Resistance. “A prophet is not without honor except …” (Jesus)  And how many of them have been, are, persecuted, imprisoned, or killed.

Examples of Prophetic Improvisation:

He provides no roadmaps. You can’t map jazz. You can’t map contemporary prophetic improvisation. It has to be done in the present and for real. No cheap quoting of past tradition and authority without bringing them into NOW, personally and socially.  Heltzel does a good job of bringing historical (and pretty recent) examples. Some featured ones:

  • Ancient Hebrew prophetic improvisers
  • Jesus the Jewish Improviser
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Sojourner Truth
  • Howard Thurman
  • Martin Luther King Jr
  • (We can assume – hope! – there are real prophets today as well.  I’m pretty sure there are.)

Speaking of the “prophetic mysticism” of, for example, Thurman and King, he says their work was characteristically

  • “prophetic” in seeking deep insight into contemporary affairs in the light of the ancient prophets of the Bible (including, of course, Jesus), and
  • “mystical” in its grounding in personal prayer and mystical connection with God – the Spirit of the prophets.

I’ve heard it asked ” what is mysticism in Christianity ?”  That line above is a very good start. And ” is mysticism Biblical? ”  Well, those Bible authors practiced it, so I guess it is!  What IS prophetic spirituality?  Well, in a Christian context, we might have a pretty good start on it here with Peter Heltzel’s guidance.

“Like a jazz musician, an urban prophet is called to improvise, to create inspiring forms of broken beauty. The prophet’s task is to “reorder” and “refashion” the urban environment to be more just and peaceable.
Yet, Thurman reminds us that
the work of social transformation
must be based on a deep inner transformation.
Personal and social transformation are inextricably linked.” (p97)

That reminds me of Naomi Klein writing that we each need to “kill the Trump within.”  Serious personal work required here!  (See my article about Klein’s “No Is Not Enough.”)

So: What IS The Work Required of Us? How’s this for a summary:

  1. Real facility with the precedents, the tradition.
  2. Full openness to the present, with a good ear for understanding, and when possible cooperating energetically with, what’s going on around us.
  3. Spiritual practice / moral integrity.
  4. Work with joy – which includes sometimes painful flexibility, and sometimes mourning of the past.

Relevant quotes from other sources:

I asked a woman a few months ago, a church leader and activist, how she stays hopeful and healthy in her work.  She said by 1) prayer and 2) being involved with people who are active for good.  Not a bad fallback strategy, eh?

On jazz and Jesus:
The notes on the page create a framework within which the musician interacts. The progression of notes creates a space, like a room where the musician can move.

A brief review of Heltzel’s Resurrection City, the book referred to in this post:
Heltzel paints a prophetic picture of an evangelical Christianity that eschews a majority mentality and instead fights against racism, inequality, and injustice, embracing the concerns of the poor and marginalized, just as Jesus did
explores the social forms that love and justice can take as religious communities join together to build beloved cities. He proclaims the importance of improvising for justice.

Three other sites that have dealt a bit with improvisation in Christian ministry:

The Last Trombone
Reservoir Church
Tim Gombis

 See Also on PublicChristian:

Was Social Justice Part of Jesus’ Message? Oh Yes. 4 Scriptures.
Jesus Named Wicked Ways (9 Examples) – We Can’t Hide
Micah 6:8 – He Turns Us Toward a Beautiful Life After His Anger
Chris Moore-Backman Understands Having Hope

(This current post is a remodeling of this article published here in 2014.
Prophets MUST Improvise, In and For Our Cities – a review of “Resurrection City” by Peter Goodwin Heltzel )
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