Improvising in the key of gospel

My friend Wesley Hill (who blogs, with others, wonderfully here, incidentally) shared a story about Pope John Paul II on Twitter today – do read the link, but the essence is that the Holy Father encountered a priest who had deserted his vocation and had been reduced to begging, and then restored him by asking the fallen priest to hear his – the Pope’s – confession. (There seems to be some evidence that the story is factual, not hagiographic, incidentally.)

The story grabbed me: I added it to a small group of tales I know, only some of which I can tell (the most personal I can’t, online, because of the people involved. But ask me why I just love baby showers one day when we’re alone). Tony Campolo’s famous tale that ends ‘I belong to the sort of church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at three o’clock in the morning’ is on the list too.

Another of these stories involves two other friends, Brenda and Andrew Marin (whilst I’m doing the linklove, Brenda blogs here and Andrew blogs here), and concerns a bunch of Christians in and around Boystown, Chicago, who became seriously upset that the only Christian voice at the annual Pride march was people shouting ‘SIN’ loudly through megaphones from behind barricades. So they printed up some T-shirts and handwrote some signage saying ‘I’m sorry – if you’ve been judged or dehumanised by a church … for Bible-banging homophobes … for how the church has treated you …’ Buzzfeed had their mere existence as #1 of ’21 pictures that will restore your faith in humanity’; but the real story came when a guy named Tristan, who was a semi-naked dancer on one of the Pride floats, saw it and got it, and ran and threw his arms around one of them, Nathan, who blogged about it, memorably beginning, ‘I hugged a man in his underwear. I think Jesus would have too.’

What are these stories for me? I have a talk I give from time to time, which begins riffing (with Callum Brown) about ‘the death of Christian Britain’ and moves on to responses. I make the move to exile (the title of the talk is often ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore…’), and look at the responses of God’s people to being exiled. There is a surrender to despair in Ps. 137; if you reach as far as Maccabees, but only then, there is a vision of culture war (not in our Bibles anywhere, churches of the Reformation; we might think on that and learn from it…); there is, in the birth of Pharisaism, a rigid adherence to the old rules; and then there is vegetarianism and hospitality.

The vegetarianism, of course, comes in Daniel 1; the hospitality in Esther 5-7. Two great OT saints, Esther and Daniel, respond to a changed cultural context by creatively re-imagining what faithfulness to God might look like. They both improvise (as does Nehemiah – see ch. 2 – and, well, everyone else who gets it right); they re-envisage the old laws in a new context, and invent creative ways forward that are utterly faithful to God’s covenant and at the same time completely responsive to the culture. In the new context of exile, careful adherence to the old laws won’t work (and now you need to make a daily sacrifice in Jerusal… Oh.); we can surrender to despair (Ps. 137); we can fight some rearguard action (Maccabees); we can choose a set of rules that still apply and be slavish in following them (Pharisaism) – or we can improvise.

In music – these days, particularly in jazz, but the cadenza of a concerto used to work the same way – improvisation is a fascinating art. Good improvisation is profoundly responsive to what has come before, and in certain ways obedient to the key and to the rhythmic structure of the piece, but at the same time it is deeply inventive. Improvisation is also instinctive: jazz musicians say regularly that your fingers go the right places; the moment you have to think about it, you’ve blown it completely. To improvise instinctively, of course, you have to practice endlessly, playing and playing and playing, till your fingers know where to go without being told. Put another way, you start to indwell the music, knowing instinctively, without thought, what can or must come next, even when there are no notes printed on a score.

For me, living faithfully after Christendom is an exercise in improvising in the key of gospel. We face – daily; hourly – previously-unimagined challenges and situations; a set of rules is too solid, too clunky, to cope. Obeying rules, however well-intentioned and well-written, will make us irrelevant and offensive. Instead, we need to learn to indwell the gospel narrative the way a jazz soloist learns to indwell the music, and to be as responsive to the ever-changing context as a soloist is to the audience and to the previous solos of her fellow players. We need to immediately, instinctively, create new movements that beautifully express one example of what gospel might look like in this particular context.

Of course, it is hard – so hard…

And – we’re talking improv – of course there is no training manual…

But there is that moment in jazz when you hear it (Kind of Blue, anyone?) and know that here is something that is at once both powerfully authentic and immediately relevant, and so that stands as a marker of what it looks like, how amazing it can be, when someone just gets it right.

And when a Pope asks a beggar to hear his confession…

Or when Andrew and Brenda and Nathan print some T-shirts reading ‘I’m sorry’…

Or when Tony throws a birthday party for a prostitute at three o’clock in the morning…

Or when the women of the church I once led said ‘we’re going to give her the mother of all baby showers…’

Or – well, I have some more stories, but what would you add to this list?…

…when these things happen, I swear I hear angels singing as they did in the hills above Bethlehem, and Heaven partying the way only Heaven can – because someone has learnt how to improvise in the key of gospel.


  1. David Reimer
    Nov 7, 2013

    I was going to ask you to explain “… if you reach as far as Maccabees, but only then,…” (genuinely don’t understand!), but read to the end, and decided to share this link instead.

    Enjoy. 🙂

  2. Bob Marcotte
    Jan 15, 2014

    FWIW, I am a jazz musician and a Christian, but not in that order. 🙂

    I’m dropping you a note to tell you that “get” it, the simple- mindbending-complexity of jazz. And life. And Christianity.

    And thank you for that.

    And here’s my solo:


  1. “Improvising in the key of gospel” -Steve R. Holmes | Habitually Being: - […] Steve R. Holmes: whether you call this “virtue ethics” or “Gospel improv” I don’t know. I just know it’s…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

get facebook like button