(This post is adapted from a previously published work, “Christian Education and All That Jazz,” Christian Educators Journal , Vol. 45. No. 2, December 2005 (pp 3-5).)
Modernism and post-modernism are labels that are currently bandied about all over the place. But what do they mean and how do they impact our Christian faith? I am going to briefly reflect on our
North American culture’s transition from modernism to post-modernism and how that affects Christianity. To simplify our understanding of modernism and post-modernism, I will use the metaphor of musical bands.
Modern Marching Band vs. Post-Modern Jazz
Imagine the changes in our culture as two different kinds of music bands. Think of the age of modernity as a marching band. And the keywords for the marching band age are: order, rules, control, uniformity, marching to the beat of the same drum, everybody following the same leader – the drum major. In modernity, the drum major was most likely human rationality. So, where human reason leads us, we will follow, in unison.
In a marching band, improvisation is an obvious sin. You do not improvise, you do not break ranks, or march out of step, but you need to conform to the rest of the band. There’s some small room for differences, namely the fact that band members play different musical instruments. So there is some variety but everybody’s playing from the same musical script.
Now, think of the post-modern age today as a jazz band. And jazz, by definition, requires the freedom of improvisation. According to my Oxford dictionary, jazz is defined as “a type of music of African-American origin, characterized by improvisation, syncopated phrasing, and a regular or forceful rhythm”. The keywords now are freedom, creativity, improvisation, imagination, no pre-written scripts, individual expression, variety and diversity.
This is not a perfect analogy but an apt one, I think. The problem with North American Christianity today, as I see it, is that the Christian community is like a marching band stuck on a jazz stage in front of a jazz-loving audience. The world is changing or has changed, in some cases, all around us. People are playing a different tune these days. Unfortunately, Christians, by and large, are still marching to the beat of a drum from a previous era. What used to work for the church, our well drilled marching routines and rousing rhythms, which used to wow the crowds, are now totally out of sync on a jazz stage too small for marching and before a jazz crowd looking for tunes with more nuance and style. For example, our theological formulations, our rationalistic apologetics, our evangelistic methods, all honed and sharpened in dialogue with modernity are now rendered impotent or irrelevant before post-modernism. At least, they seem useless and irrelevant to the post-modern audience.
For example, in my campus ministry work, I find that the creation vs. evolution arguments are pretty much arguments between modernists – Christians and Atheists. Most post-modern non-Christians I have met are more interested in the question of world religions and global issues. Where scientific proof was the big question in modernity, religious and cultural pluralism has now taken its place in post-modernity. But Christians are, by and large, still fighting the old modernist battles with modernist weapons, yet, the post-modern generation has moved on to other battlegrounds. And we find ourselves increasingly fighting ghosts, or straw men, or worse, each other. No wonder Christianity is increasingly seen as irrelevant and ludicrous.
So, what should we do? Simply put, we need to become a jazz band and learn to translate that old, old gospel song – which we previously turned into a marching band routine – into a jazz rhythm. Now, before I go on, some of you might think that it is good that the church is not in tune or in sync with the rest of the world. The church should be counter-cultural, you say. Well, if by counter-cultural you mean like being a fish out of water, then you are not going to survive very long. But if being counter-cultural means swimming in the same water but in a different direction, then yes. (And I would not call swimming in a different pond counter-cultural but creating a ghetto culture.) Similarly, the church should not be playing the same song as the rest of the world, but we are playing on the same jazz stage to the same jazz audience nevertheless. And if we insist on staying as a marching band stuck on a jazz stage, you will probably soon find that we are playing to an empty house.
Jazzing Up Christian Witness
What does all this have to do with us Christians? Well, allow me to suggest a few (you can probably come up with more) probing questions and issues that I believe that we Christians need to ask ourselves.
1. How much have our version of Christianity (our theology, our lingo, our styles) bought into the marching band routine of modernism? Is our Christian theology shaped with modernist assumptions and values? Even if shaped in contradistinction from modernism, how much has that, therefore, shaped the tune we play? How much of our Christian values are really only Christianized versions of modernist values/standards?
2. Is our current Christian witness (evangelism methods, evangelism language, etc.) geared more for a modernist audience or a post-modern audience? Are we still overly focused on scientific proofs, on logical reasoning, on winning arguments? Should we not also start looking into issues of social justice, charity work, globalization, and religious pluralism in ways that is meaningful to post-moderns?
3. How much are we integrating issues of diversity and variety in our Christian witness, not only in terms of ethnic and gender diversity among Christians but also in terms of evangelism content and methods? Do we employ or encourage a variety of ways to witness? Do we seriously take into account our increasingly multicultural and global world in bearing witness to our gospel? For instance, I once came across a book by a Chinese theologian who wrote, “God is Rice” translating Jesus’ words of “I am the Bread of Life” into “I am the Rice of Life” because rice is more apt a metaphor for Asians. Will Western Christians allow these different metaphors to be used for Christian beliefs or will we call them heresies?
4. On that note, have we North American Christians confused ‘Christian’ with ‘Western’? Or worse, ‘Christian’ with ‘North American’? Are we discerning enough to distinguish how some of our Christian formulations are culturally influenced? And are we wise enough to pass that discernment on to the next generation of Christians?
5. Finally, this leads to the question: How well do we know and identify our own Christian roots? How firmly rooted and well versed are we in our Christian worldview in distinction from the cultural influences?
In a world characterized by plurality, diversity, freedom and innovation, the issue of one’s own identity and rooted-ness are even more important than ever. Going back to the jazz metaphor, you actually need to be a better musician in order to play jazz than to play in a marching band. You actually need to master the fundamentals even more in order to be able to improvise and innovate creatively. Any master artist or musician can tell you that their great skills at creative improvisation can only happen on the backs of enormous hard work in mastering the basics of their art.
Thus, ironically, dealing with the post-modern world also requires that we are more deeply rooted in our worldviews and in our faith traditions – not in a slavish, conforming, Xerox reproducing way, but in such a way that we can draw from them to help us create new possibilities, to innovate as we face new challenges.
But to play jazz well, you not only need to master the basics, you also need to know yourself, to develop your own unique style. To improvise well, a jazz musician needs to know his/her own styles and strengths, preferences and abilities. Hence, we not only need to be rooted in the Christian worldview, we also need to be aware of our individual giftedness, strengths, experiences and callings.
In sum, we need to immerse ourselves into our Christian worldviews and into our own Christian traditions in the way the basics of playing music and of playing a particular instrument is almost second nature to first-class jazz musicians that they can improvise without a script because the script is in their hearts and minds. And the traditions or worldview is not a script to slavishly follow as in a marching band, but is more like a powerful foundational jazz rhythm from which we can improvise and build on in creative ways, playing off the rhythms of other players. Finally, to improvise well, we also need to know ourselves deeply, to know our strengths—what instrument are we playing? And to know our unique styles—callings and contributions to this world. This kind of “Jazzy Christians” is what the post-modern world needs more of in order to hear the notes of God’s amazing grace.
Does this Marching Band vs. Jazz Band metaphor resonate with you? Which “band” appeals more to you? Which “band” of Christianity do you find yourself in?