Review: Resurrection City: A Theology of Improvisation by Peter Heltzel

9781467436816_p0_v1_s260x420I didn’t discover jazz for myself until college.  My dad had begun collecting records again, and had gotten ahold of John Coltrane’s Blue Train at a yard sale (score!).  I had never heard of the guy, but dad put that record on, and I was hooked.  The wild melodies, the emotion poured into every note; it sounded like he was inviting everyone on a train ride to oblivion, and I had been persuaded.  More artists would follow: Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Yusef Lateef.  Ever since, when I’m settling in to relax, or to think, I put jazz on (I Have Davis’ Kind of Blue on as I write this).

This is what led me to this book in the first place. Jazz musicians speak spiritually with their intonations, and many theologians have drawn influence from the songs in the past. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I received Resurrection City in my  mailbox, but here’s what I found.

Resurrection City is Peter Heltzel’s attempt to model our theological discourses after the practice of improvisation, something jazz musicians do all the time. They take what has already been written and build on it, adding new hooks and melodic devices, creating an entirely new production in which one can still see the foundations on which it was built.   Heltzel uses this as a new way of understanding theology, taking the reader through both testaments of the Bible, then through a selection of American thinkers in the last 200 years to discuss the building of a resurrection city (referenceing the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, which fought for economic justice for the poor and marginalized), a place where Heaven and Earth meet.

Heltzel does a killer job writing this book like a jazz musician plays. It’s impossible to nail him down as in any one camp, but that’s precisely the point: he’s improvising. He’s pulling from multiple traditions, hermeneutics, and theologies to write this book, effectively walking the walk of the theology of improvisation is pointing to.  One minute he sounds decidedly evangelical, especially when talking about scripture (which I found disappointing; guess I was expecting something more groundbreaking here), and the next he’s bringing James Cone into the conversation.  I sat there wondering what the heck was going to come next as far as influence, but the ideas stayed the same: we must remember our roots, but build on them in innovative and exciting ways to create something beautiful and foretelling of the world to come in Jesus Christ.

The thing about a book written like a jazz musician plays is that it has its highs and lows; it’s whirlwinds and its doldrums.  Chapter three of the book, for example, was one of those places, particularly in his juxtaposition of the theologies of Thomas Jefferson and Sojourner Truth.  While his portrait of Truth was stunning and enlightening (seriously, why haven’t I read any of her stuff before!?), his portrait of Jefferson was, well, lacking, in my mind.  Heltzel paints Jefferson as someone who wanted freedom for the slaves, but found himself a victim of his times and just couldn’t bring himself to do it.  I expected him to be much more visceral with Jefferson, especially since he opened the chapter talking about Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. I see Jefferson more as someone looking to escape the consequences of doing the right thing as opposed to a victim of his culture, so the amount of leniency that Heltzel grants him feels like a noticeable dead air in an otherwise invigorating composition.

Comparisons have been made between theology and jazz prior to the titular book being reviewed in this post, the most famous one being Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller (a passing reference to jazz, really), but what we find here in Resurrection City: A Theology of Improvisation is different.  What Peter Heltzel has crafted with this book is a blending of old and new, rooting new theological principles in traditional understandings of Scripture. Easily worth a read and deeper consideration, whether you’re a jazz fan or not.

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