Thursday, October 23, 2014

Book Review: Resurrection City by Peter Goodwin Heltzel

Improvisation is not just a principle for music and theater alone; it is a principle for life and love. Living is improvising. Analyzing the art of improvisation in jazz music can help deepen our understanding and practice of love. Individual jazz musicians learn the jazz tradition and different musical practices so they are ready to sing their own song. In addition to their technical knowledge of music and their performance experience, jazz musicians learn how to listen, to become part of a community where they seamlessly integrate their musical voice in an ensemble. - Peter Goodwin Heitzel, Resurrection City

One of my favorite metaphors for how God interacts with the world is how musicians play jazz music: there is a general structure to it, but both God and humanity are free to interact in ways untethered to pre-determined notes. They instead may act, react, improvise, move in and out of each other's harmonies and melodies within a structure, but not in a way dictated by the other players or by the arrangement.

I suspect that Peter Goodwin Heltzel has heard this metaphor, but he's going to apply it in a different way in Resurrection City: A Theology of Improvisation. It was the subtitle that drew me to this book, calling to mind the improvisation called for in certain types of music, particularly jazz.

Heltzel explains this right away, noting what I've noted above regarding structure and improvisation. However, he takes it a step further and notes that jazz in particular is a subversive musical form. First, it emerged from the creole culture of New Orleans, one that was a blend of multiple ethnicities, thus serving as a challenge to the racism of that time and place. Second, it drew from the African-American spirituals and blues forms, which each gave voice to the hardships suffered through slavery and other forms of oppression. Third, it's a more positive form of music, one that envisions and helps launch us into a new future. Finally, jazz broke the musical rules, daring to be different.

It is the prophetic nature of constructing theology with which Heltzel is most concerned during this work. These features of jazz highlighted above make it an appealing and useful genre from which to draw for this purpose. Heltzel spends most of the rest of the book explaining why this is so.

Heltzel starts with Jesus. Really, he starts earlier than that with the prophets and tradition of the Hebrew Bible: their speaking truth to power and calling Israel and Judah back to faithfulness. Jesus was steeped in this tradition; he knew it by heart, he was raised in it. But what Jesus ends up doing in his own time is improvising within the structure to call people to faithfulness in a new way as he preaches on the empire of God over and against the empire of Caesar.

From there, the reader is taken on a tour through history of the civil rights movement and its legacy. Heltzel discusses Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr. He quotes James Cone and recounts the events at Selma. He explains the act of protest and hope embodied in the founding of Resurrection City on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. as a way to give voice to the struggle of African-Americans in the 1960s. He brings us up through more recent movements such as Occupy Wall Street and other organizations trying to seek out justice in part by doing away with old categories and improvising toward a new future where walls are broken down and God's love and shalom is the structure by which we live and play.

I'm going to come right out and say that this is a wonderful book. Heltzel weaves a thread through a long line of prophets to show how improvising on existing structures has made new expressions of justice and peace possible. If we are willing enough to break away from the established theological norm that helps keep certain oppressive powers and ideas in place, we will be able to hear the possibility of a new song, one that may give rise to a new heaven and a new earth.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

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