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Resurrection City: A Theology of Improvisation (Prophetic Christianity Series (PC)) Paperback – November 23, 2012
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-- Union Theological Seminary
"Peter Heltzel is a jazz-infused theologian par excellence! Don't miss this gem of a book."
-- Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
"Jazz musicians can improvise because they are so rooted in musical traditions, because they know the standards so well. This grounding allows for the freedom to create something that is both continuous with the past and open to a new future. Theology, claims Peter Heltzel, should be like improvisational jazz -- various traditions coming together in an ongoing continuity that is always new. In Resurrection City Heltzel performs just this kind of theology. Deeply grounded in Scripture, history, music, and the struggle for justice, Heltzel improvises a prophetic Christian theology of hope. Both scholarly and accessible, Resurrection City is a virtuoso performance."
-- Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
"This is an informative, provocative, and timely book — a gift to the church as it seeks the shalom of the city."
George E. Lewis
-- Columbia University
"Heltzel's extraordinary theology prophetically re-imagines the future of Christianity through improvisation, the lifeblood of creative music around the world, enacting a clarion call to assembly that exhorts us toward a spiritual practice affirming the twinned imperatives of justice and love."
J. Kameron Carter
-- Duke University Divinity School
"Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and the notion of 'Resurrection City,' Peter Heltzel, a leading thinker of his generation of American evangelicals, presents here arguably the most cogent theological engagement with race and the American evangelical world available today, even as he locates his engagement within a wider frame -- a vision for an evangelicalism of the future. This, Heltzel lyrically argues, will be an evangelicalism that dares to love as God loves. It is a jazz-inflected, musical evangelicalism -- an evangelicalism that engages its past, that negotiates the present with improvisational verve (the inspiration here is John Coltrane's sermonic anthem A Love Supreme), and that consequently can receive the future. I heartily recommend this book."
“A highly creative contribution that brings together conversations around missional church, racial and social justice, and postcolonial hermeneutics. As an academic, pastor, community organizer, musician and poet, Heltzel offers a rare book that will inspire Christians to re-envision the church as a community of hope and justice.”
Choice (American Library Association)
“This work draws heavily on themes from liberation and black theologies. . . . Heltzel challenges the contemporary church to take up this historic message in the contemporary context and to engage in the struggle for justice and social reform articulated in these prior voices. Recommended.”
Books & Culture
“Heltzel offers a new book that inspires hope amid troubled times. . . . It pulsates with both the prophetic rage and redemptive joy that Heltzel finds in the Bible and especially its central figure, the Jewish Jesus. . . . To read Resurrection City is to hear the jazzy theological ruminations of a white man resurrected by the black freedom struggle and the Occupy Movement.”
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Top customer reviews
The author asserts that "it is time for Christian theologians to write theology in an improvisatory, subversive style" (21). He seems unaware that a lot of great theology is already doing this; his own book does not attempt to do what this sentence asserts.
Periodically there are glimpses in the book of what it could have been. But overall it trucks in clichés about the blues and jazz and how they relate to theology.
A colleague group of ours sat down to read the book, hoping it would be helpful for discussion, and we all had the same reaction: We had hoped it would be more helpful than it was.
Jazz, like the blues, is a musical genre born out of the African American experience. The blues (and spirituals) named the reality of suffering and injustice that African Americans faced. Jazz envisioned new possibilities and declared that another world was possible–a ‘call-and-response of the oppressed’ (165). This musical metaphor helps Heltzel articulate how as Christians concerned with justice ought to live. Heltzel writes:
I believe Christian thinking and social witness can be understood as analogous to jazz music. Like jazz, Christian thinking is a dramatic and musical performance. Like jazz, Christian thinking and acting are improvisational, creative, and hopefully forward-looking. Like jazz, they exemplify a dynamic of restraint and possibility. Constrained by the norm of God’s Word, Christians seek to engage their world in light of the Word. In their work and witness, Christians use the materials at hand–principally the language and example of the prophets and Jesus in the context of their life–to creatively riff for justice, love, shalom, in the present and thereby open up a new future. That future that we can experience here and now is the one I describe as Resurrection city. (21)
Heltzel is a professor of theology, an ordained minister, an author and an activist. Resurrection City blends biblical theological reflection with a concern for justice, a concern for racial, economic and environmental justice, and a belief in the priority of the poor and marginalized. Heltzel also gives his treatment an interdisciplinary flare blending history with personal experience, theology with art and action with music.
The seven chapters of Resurrection City unfold Heltzel’s Prophetic Christian vision. Chapter one explores the ‘resurrection city’ and jazz theology. Chapter two argues that the musical themes that the church picks up as it ‘riffs for justice’ are found in the Hebrew Bible, especially the prophets. The theme of salvation, shalom, and Jubilee give shape to the content of our songs, although our context will shape our improvisation of the theme. Much like John Coltrane playing ‘Favorite Things,’ intimate knowledge of the original song guides our improving. We see this with Jesus (chapter three) who out works the same themes in his life and mission.
Chapter four through six give us examples of how to play our song in a strange land. Chapter four puts Thomas Jefferson in juxtaposition with Sojourner Truth and shows how notions of ‘freedom’ differ in the hands of the privileged versus in the hands of the oppressed. Whereas Jefferson held that all humans were entitled to freedom and the pursuit of happiness, he lacked the courage to follow his ideals and owned slaves. Truth spoke of a God who knew the struggles of the African American experience.
Chapter five argues for a mystical-prophetic theology through the works of Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr. Both men were courageous in their stance for justice and work for the ‘beloved city.’ Thurman had painted a picture of Jesus as a member of an oppressed people group in Imperial Rome (see his Jesus & the Disinherited). King ran with Thurman’s vision and pressed people into activism, working for justice. Heltzel argues that if a prophetic stance toward injustice is to be sustained, than there also has to be a mystical awareness of God’s healing presence in community. The mystical and prophetic are both essential elements in our call to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
Chapter six describes the church as the theater of the oppressed and gives several examples of how the church (and the marginalized) have taken courageous, creative and provocative stands against injustice. Chapter seven provides a spiritual/activist version of the linear notes for John Coltrane’s album, A Love Supreme. After describing Coltrane’s album and the sensibilities that inform it, Heltzel riffs off Coltrane’s themes to help us imagine a more consistent and prophetic Christian witness.
I loved the rich tapestry of Hetzel’s prose. I am a great admirer of MLK and Howard Thurman and loved the way Heltzel synthesized their work. I also think that jazz improvisation provides an apt analogy for Christian social witness. This releases freedom and creativity in our work for justice but it is through immersing ourselves in the music (i.e. the biblical vision of justice and shalom) that we are given the capacity to act. I also appreciate that Heltzel is careful to state that ‘jazz music’ is born from oppression. By extension, theology and activism needs to be done from the margins rather than the center. Jazz is contextualized theology (not academic western theology). He focuses on the American experience (not the wider post colonial experience), but the metaphor of jazz seems to delinate that this book is mostly about the American experience.
I recommend this book for anyone interested in jazz, Jesus and justice. The added benefit of this book is that it will make you pull out your Coltrane CDs or put together a classic jazz playlist. The music permeates the book and notes like these should be heard and not just seen. I give this book four stars: ★★★★.
Notice of material connection, I received this book from the publisher or author via Speakeasy in exchange for my honest review.
God moves, he urges us, across history and denominations and religious traditions, always in pursuit of justice, and also, consistently with an eye on previous traditions and another eye on the demands of the moment; an endless improvisation. The result is an insistent, undeniable and, one would hope, an irresistible call for a vital, engaged, justice-seeking faith which moves out from church sanctuaries into our streets, homes and workplaces.
Real faith, Heltzel reminds us, is visionary and practical, rooted and reaching, with active and responsive hearts and hands. Our call is to the ‘beloved city’ – the place where we all can find our fullest personal hope and collective destiny. Love is no abstraction; it is personal and political, individual and social, immediate and eternal.
Our roles, as well as our identities and destinies, emerge from and are expressed through our social, political and economic systems. And our calling, as people of faith, is to be stewards of this built world as well as the natural world.
Living a life of faith, in any situation, will always be an act of improvisation.
Heltzel wraps this book around John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, a work of reaching forward even as it looks, and leans, backwards into jazz standards or even Disney classics like ‘My favorite things’. Faith, like the best jazz, is built on traditions while moving forever into new territory, absorbing, reconnecting and ultimately remaking a familiar tune.
Resurrection City: A Theology of Improvisation traces several key scenes from the Bible and places them alongside John Coltrane’s acknowledgement, resolution, pursuance and finally psalm as explored in his album A Love Supreme. In other words, the spiritual journey, like an earthly journey requires recognition, determination, pursuit of a goal and, finally, resolution, discovery and a return home.
Music is the perfect forum, the ideal metaphor for the spiritual journey; transcendent yet temporary, powerful and memorable, simple yet eerily penetrating, even as it is accessible to every listening ear. And music, like faith, comes to all, but not all can truly hear it. Even those who hear it deeply, hear it in their own way, and have their own response. And the fewest of all can live and move and express our fullest selves in broad and living harmony in response to the music that has the potential (and purpose) to move us all.
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