The Jazz Music of the Spirit: An Excerpt from A Body of Praise


Our friend W. David O. Taylor should be no stranger to anyone here. He’s served as the keynote speaker at Hutchmoot, written for the blog, and appeared on podcasts, and we’ve always appreciated his sharp mind, his strong faith, and his generous spirit.

David’s latest book, A Body of Praise: Understanding the Role of Our Physical Bodies in Worship, released earlier this year, is an insightful work on the human body and the importance of embodiment. In order to whet your appetite for the book, we have an exclusive excerpt to share with Rabbit Room readers!

The Spirit Who Plays Jazz

A final aspect of a theology of spontaneity is captured in the language of the Spirit as jazz player. While this particular metaphor is widely used in theological writings about the Holy Spirit, it remains useful for our purposes here too. Jeremy Begbie helpfully unpacks the meaning of the metaphor as it relates to the context of corporate worship. Over against the presumption that only order and disorder might characterize our experience of worship, Begbie proposes a third mode, non-order, and uses laughter as an example. “It is not order (predictably patterned),” he writes, “but nor is it disorder (destructive).” It is instead what might be called non-order or the jazz-factor. Begbie explains at length:

Those who crave regular order often assume that the only alternative is detrimental disorder. (This is probably why dictators tend to be humorless.) Some church pastors are adept at ordering all the non-order out of life, like Harold Crick in Stranger Than Fiction. Worship becomes cleansed of anything remotely spontaneous; church meetings are impeccably prepared and entirely devoid of surprise. Project this onto God, and he becomes the embodiment of order ad infinitum, lifeless and dull (as many outside the church believe). But the New Testament opens up to us another dimension of goodness, another dimension of living which exploded into the world on the day of Pentecost, the kind of life we will see in the world to come—the life of the Holy Spirit.

The life that the Spirit makes possible, Begbie argues, is a kind that involves the interplay between order and non-order. By this he means a dynamic relationship “between the given chords and the improvised riff, between the faithful bass of God’s grace and the novel whirls of the Spirit.” As it relates to worship specifically, this means giving space to the Spirit to improvise in our midst in order to cause something surprisingly novel to occur.

In his book Beyond Pentecostalism, Wolfgang Vondey brings a theology of play into conversation with a theology of spontaneity in a way that further clarifies our metaphor of Spirit as jazz player. Much like the performance of jazz music, Vondey contends, the Spirit invites God’s people into a mode of active listening. In worship we listen not only for the voice of the Spirit, we listen also for the voice of the Spirit in one another. We incline our ears to hear what the Spirit might be saying to us and through us. And when we hear something, we respond. Such a response does not, of course, presume upon either the Spirit or one’s neighbor. An invitation is always required. We ask, “What might the Spirit be doing among us in this moment?” We wonder, “What could the Spirit be saying to us, here and now?” We inquire of one another: “How do you hear the Spirit’s voice?” Just as active listening is a hallmark of jazz music played well, then, so too a Spirit-enabled active listening is a hallmark of the practice of spontaneity in worship.

A last facet of this metaphor is illumined by way of the idea of an “aesthetic of surrender.” This is a phrase Frank Barrett uses to describe the willingness of jazz musicians, whether alone or in jam sessions with others, to explore things that take them out of their comfort zones, which involve risk and the possibility of failure. Musicians practice spontaneity by engaging in deliberate improvisational exercises, no matter how stretching or scary they may feel, in order to open up new possibilities in the music. The goal of such exercises, as Barrett explains, is to nurture an aesthetic of surrender. By this he means the removal of the familiar from the equation, so that the musicians are forced to attend to the music “of the moment,” within which something truly new might be discovered. Barrett writes,

Musicians must surrender their conscious striving. They prepare to be spontaneous by practicing, mastering, and then letting go: by deliberately facing unfamiliar challenges, by developing provocative learning relationships and by creating incremental disruptions that demand experimentation and risk. . . . Cultivating an aesthetic of surrender invites openness and wonderment to what unfolds, enhancing the self-organizing potential of the system by preparing players to respond in unpredictable, novel ways.

Within a liturgical context this involves the practice of surrender to the initiative of the Spirit and to the members of Christ’s Body. It is done not for its own sake but for the sake of love, as Paul sees it in 1 Corinthians 14:1. Spontaneous worship may have a deeply personal aspect to it, but it is never inattentive or insensitive to the community. In other words, spontaneous worship aims at an experience that is shared with others, rather than a performance for others, even if one may be the only one engaged in the spontaneous act. Like the rules of a game set in place to facilitate creativity and surprise, the order of worship might be seen to function like rules that aim to free worshipers, not to constrain them. The order of worship, on this account, will be less like the “perfect” performance of a piece of classical music and more like the “faithful” performance of a piece of jazz music, which makes space for both individual and communal improvisation.

This might include, among other things, a moment of purposeful quiet after the sermon in order to give space to people to truly listen to the voice of the Spirit through the words of the preacher. It may involve allowing the music to go longer at a certain point in the service, because the worship leader has heard the voice of the Spirit through the voice of the singing congregation. It may involve the “cultivation of spontaneity,” as strange as this phrase may sound, as a way to develop the muscle of responsive listening in real time. It may involve teaching the community about the importance of spontaneous worship, as I experienced firsthand in my senior year of high school, while attending an Assembly of God youth group. Having grown up in a card-carrying dispensationalist church culture, I knew nobody who raised their hands in worship “for no reason.” But here, at this small church, a youth pastor taught from Scripture about the significance of such worship, and slowly I began not only to understand but also to embrace the practice of such spontaneous worship.

Content taken from A Body of Praise by W. David O. Taylor, ©2023. Used by permission of Baker Academic

Note: You can order A Body of Praise from the Rabbit Room Store here.

W. David O. Taylor (ThD, Duke Divinity School) is associate professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. An Anglican priest, he has lectured widely on the arts, from Thailand to South Africa. Taylor has written for the Washington Post, Image Journal, and Religion News Service, among others. He is the author of several books, including Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts and Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life. In 2016, he produced a short film on the psalms with Bono and Eugene Peterson. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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