Improvisation and Mistakes

My friend Brendan made a great comment and asked a helpful question about my last post:

I would also add [to improvisation] the role of mistakes. Some of my greatest musical moments began as a mistake about which I was willing to have curiosity and creatively trace its relationship back into the original harmonic structure. Your thoughts on mistakes as they relate to improvisation?

I think Brendan is especially on to something when he says that the task of the artist when dealing with mistakes is to ‘creatively trace [the mistake’s] relationship back into the original.’ Here, the artist becomes a host, welcoming the mistake into fellowship with what has already been created. It is a kind of generosity.

Improvisation is an inherently open-handed posture toward the world. It invites surprise. Seen this way, welcoming and incorporating mistakes is a natural outpouring of the spirit of improvisation. From a harmonic perspective, mistakes are only the notes or colors or words that are farthest away tonally from the center of the work. Part of the task of the artist is to lovingly and thoughtfully welcome these estranged motifs on the margins into the center. Or, even more provocatively, to allow the mistakes to become a new center that now coexists alongside the original center of the work.

Really long nerdy footnote:

I would want to make a distinction between three different kinds of ‘mistakes.’ The first kind of mistake is what we might call a ‘sin’ in the singular. This kind of mistake is a moral wrongdoing committed against someone else. The second kind of mistake is the mistake that is not a ‘sin’ but is still a failure or non-perfect action. These mistakes are a feature of our finite nature as human beings, and in art they are not necessarily something to be avoided; they can even be celebrated. The third kind of mistake is a mistake judged by the internal rules of an art form. So, for example, within Western art music, a tritone could be judged a ‘mistake’ in certain musical contexts. But, as we know, in a different context, this kind of mistake can be re-evaluated to actually be something very good.

The first kind of mistake is moral, the second two are aesthetic. But as soon as I make this distinction, I am compelled to say that it is a false distinction. As much as the modern world has tried to sever them, the moral and the aesthetic are intimately and multivalently linked. I don’t think we can cleanly parse the three kinds of mistakes (And indeed, if you go with Augustine, even the first kind of mistake can take on aesthetic beauty, as in his idea of the “fortunate fall”.) But as serious as the first kind of mistake is, it should not prevent us from wholeheartedly embracing mistakes of the second and third kind, for the joy of artistic exploration.


Improvisation and Spirituality

I played jazz bass for the first time in a while last night. There’s nothing quite like creating new music in real time with two other people. I love those moments when I go off in a different harmonic or rhythmic direction right at the same moment when the drummer (Ben) or the pianist (Larry) breaks loose too, and for a split second something completely unexpected and beautiful happens.

I know that it bothers some people, but this is why I never play a song the same way twice in church. I’m always looking for those unexpected moments when a different harmonization or a different rhythm joins with the congregation in unexpected and beautiful ways. I love improvisation and I think that spirituality can be deeply improvisational.

Anyone who has ever improvised can tell you that it’s not simply “making something up.” It takes hours of practice, hours of discipline before the happy accidents can happen. There are rules and values that the improvisers share among themselves as they enter into improvisation together. Our walk with God is the same way. Hours and hours spent in lonely silence, in prayer or in scripture, can eventually lead to the most beautiful improvisation with God.

Watching Big Fish Again, Ten Years Later

Thursday night I watched “Big Fish” again. I hadn’t watched it in a decade. (Did you forget that the movie even existed?) It was way cheesier and sappier than I remembered. But apparently that didn’t matter: just like last time, I wept through the last twenty minutes of the film. I wept because of the deathbed father / estranged son story, even as it was full of cliches. But I also wept because the film raises a serious question about my faith: Is Christianity just an elaborate story we project onto the sky? As the father character dies, and the luminous glow of the film slowly fades, all we are left with is a faith in the power of human storytelling, and it is a terrifying spiritual darkness. Faced with the prospect that we are truly alone with our stories, I wept. But there is a chance that Christianity is true. There is a chance that we are not alone. The film proffers a set of myths that are so archetypal that nothing in the film is particular, nothing is unique, nothing is incarnated. Perhaps it is in what was missing from the film that our hope lies. In the Incarnation, I believe the preposterous claim that all the hopes of our myths were answered not with another myth, but with a scandalously particular human being. He was not a mythical everyman but a poor migrant Jew with no citizenship papers, living without any promise of food, clothing, or shelter. He probably smelled bad, had a crooked face, or maybe he had an annoying laugh. That this man, this obscure itinerant preacher, would be the revelation of God in his particularity as a human being, this is the Incarnation, and it tears through all of our myths and stories, presenting us with the possibility that God is among us.

Evangelical Christians like to point to the cross as the center of the Christian faith, but the early church was right to see our salvation as consisting of two centers. It is not only the cross, but the Incarnation that is good news for us. Without the Incarnation, all of our myths are a closed loop, a crushing canopy of immanence. Under the weight of that canopy, I wept. But by faith in the Incarnation, joy comes in the morning. There is nothing I can do to prove this, but by faith, I believe.

Official 24-Hour Dad-A-Thon Quiz

The first-ever 24-hour Dad-A-Thon was a smashing success! To celebrate, I’ve compiled this short quiz. (It’s like Buzzfeed, but without the gross aftertaste.) Can you guess the correct answers?
* * *

1. For dinner we ate:

A) Mom’s away, now’s our chance! Taco Bell!
B) I made spaghetti.
C) Butch’s has great appetizer and drink selections.

2. During dinner, we:

A) listened to Calvin’s Institutes on audiobook, in silence, like some Protestant perversion of a monastic dining hall.
B) discussed plans for how to build a fort out of blankets, clothes pins, and reference books. It also included designs for a contraption called an “exca-lifter.”
C) FOOD FIGHT! (Table ended up sideways)
D) debated (unexpectedly) whether everything belongs to God and Jesus, or nothing belongs to God and Jesus.
E) B and D

3. The best spaceships are made out of:

A) Legos
B) K’nex
C) Legos AND K’nex.

4. Movietime! We watched:

A) Six episodes of Daniel Tiger, back-to-back.
B) Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. Without subtitles.
C) Fargo.

5. Ah. The kids are finally in bed. Time to unwind. I think I’ll:

A) compulsively check how the presidential candidate polls are doing.
B) read patristic commentaries
C) Ah, forget it. I’m going to sleep, too.

6. Number of kids who ended up in my bed in the night:

A) 2
B) 2
C) 0
D) 2

7. For breakfast, we ate:

A) “Alright kids, you’re on your own. I see some foragable green things growing in the backyard.”
B) I made french toast.
C) Mom’s away, now’s our chance! Cocoa Puffs and Pop Tarts! No, better: Cocoa Puff Pop Tarts!

8. After breakfast, there was an impromptu:

A) monkey dance
B) spelling bee
C) massive milk spillage

9. The maximum number of times it takes to ask a child to pick up a toy before he/she will pick it up is:

A) 1 (hint: this is the wrong answer.)
B) ∞
C) n + 1 (where n = promise of candy, movie, or immediate loss of all nearby toys)

10. Number of poop-trastrophes that happened while daddy was trying to make food:

A) 1
B) 1.5
C) 2

11. The best time to have a surprise “tubby” is:

A) 1-5 minutes after a major potty accident
B) 5-10 minutes after a major potty accident
C) As soon as you discover a major potty accident. Try not to think about how long it’s been.

12. Number of times I sent distress texts to Joanna:

A) 1
B) 0
C) 3
D) 8

13. The perfect ending to a 24-hour Dad-A-Thon is:

A) signal flare
B) a trip to the park
C) shopping trip to Cabela’s

14. Would daddy do a 24-hour Dad-A-Thon again?

A) yes
B) yes
C) yes
D) yes

Commentary Survey: Matthew

Here are my thoughts on commentaries for the book of Matthew, to be updated in the future as needed:

Hands down, no question, the best commentary for the book of Matthew is Davies and Allison’s ICC commentary. I usually find the ICC as a series to be dry, painfully technical, and of zero use to preachers or teachers in a local church. D&A is different. They do get pretty technical, but their technical work is so good and illuminating that it’s worth reading. Not only that, they also show you a stunning range of history of interpretation, and they are not afraid to illuminate the theological implications of the text. It is extremely rare to get all of this in one commentary. It is not easy reading, and it is not cheap (3 volumes, $50 a pop), but if you’re willing to make the investment of time, money, and mental energy, it is extremely rewarding.

For the less adventurous, Dale Bruner’s Matthew commentary is the go-to mid-range commentary. He will often give you a summary of what Davies and Allison say about a passage, saving you the time of slogging through their original work. Like Davies and Allison, he does some great work with history of interpretation, but he narrows his focus to a few “friends,” like Luther and Matthew Henry. He make the book of Matthew come alive, and he has plenty of ideas for how to preach the text, if you’re into that sort of thing. His tone is very colloquial and conversational, to the point of sounding silly at times. I have to admit: I sometimes find his chattiness to be distracting from what the passage is actually saying.

Don’t bother with Stanley Hauerwas’s Matthew “commentary.” It should not be called a commentary. It should be called “Story time with Stanley.” It would be worth reading if you were a big Hauerwas fan and wanted to read what would the be the equivalent of his album b-sides.

Lastly, I have spent very little time with Craig Keener’s Matthew commentary, but what I have read was good, as is usually the case with Keener.

Commentary Survey: I & II Samuel

Here are my commentary recommendations for I and II Samuel, to be updated as I discover more:


Francesca Aran Murphy’s Brazos commentary is a fun romp through I Sam that does almost no close textual work, and the historical background stuff she does is really, really reckless. There’s some Balthasar and Augustine powering her engine, and she seems most interested in constructing an anti-modern political theology from I Sam. It’s really great.

Hertzberg (OTL) is a really great mid-twentieth century German theological commentary. Among other things, it is heartening to realize that solid theological interpretation of scripture was going strong earlier in the twentieth century before it fell back into vogue around the turn of the century.

I have not read it, but my friend Andy Kadzban tells me that Peter Leithart’s A Son to Me is a really great theological reading of Samuel. I’m pretty sure it’s a short and inexpensive book.


Robert Alter’s translation of the David narrative (The David Story) is very interesting. He tries to translate I & II Sam as a piece of world literature, where dense literary weavings are his primary concern. His overtly atheistic and demythologized reading gets depressing after a while, though.

historical/critical/modern eat-your-vegetables commentaries

As you can see, I have not been able to find a good historical-critical commentary on Samuel, but there seems to be an abundance of good theological commentaries on it. There are far worse problems, to have, for sure…

First Impressions: On Watching The West Wing for the First Time

Because some of our good friends are longtime fans, my wife and I decided to give Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing a try. (Yes, I know we are 15 years late to the party.) We got the first DVD from Netflix and we’re watching the series straight through, starting with the pilot. I’m guessing, at the rate we’re going, with frequent breaks, we’ll finish the series in about another decade. So far, we’ve been loving it. We’re not very far in, so if I say anything that does not hold true through the entire series, I apologize.


My wife describes The West Wing as that show “my grandma and my aunt used to watch.” Other friends repeatedly tell me, “Oh yeah, my parents watched that.” It was something our elders watched. One friend confessed that whenever he watches it, he finds himself feeling incredibly nostalgic. I’d put it differently: how can a show made in 2000 feel so dated, already? The show is an artifact of a bygone era, the good old days, when a president could quote Cicero without having to apologize for reading dead white guys, when men could still be men, and women could still be second wave feminists, when geopolitics were simpler, kinder and gentler.


Wait, when was this? What kind of alternate Disney history of the United States is this? At times the brush strokes are so broad I feel like Sorkin is using a street sweeper to do Japanese landscape paintings. I can’t handle it. I can’t handle all the buddy-buddy warm fuzzies between the cast. I can’t handle Toby’s college sophomore idealism. I can’t handle the vaguely Copland-esque woodwind swells whenever someone gets all touchy feely about the American political system. (When was the last time you did that?)


And of course there is the agenda of the show. On the plus side, props to Sorkin for actually having something to say. That already puts him way ahead of 90% of television entertainment. On the negative side, his left-leaningness often comes across as, well, snooty. I’m all for a good leftist argument, but the self-back-patting gets kind of old. At times the show seems to be saying, “We Democrats are so much sexier than those sour, prune-faced Republicans. And we are absolved of the sins of our excesses because we are not afraid to beat ourselves up about all of the sins of America’s past.” I’d be the last person to stand for Mike Huckabee’s barks and bellows, but the auto-eroticism and self-flagellation of American liberal political identity strikes me as a bit silly. Sometimes the best comedy is unintentional: the aura of saintliness the show lovingly paints around 1999 Democrat values makes me giggle, just a little.


And yet I can’t stop watching. I can’t stop watching because of the writing. Good gravy, the writing! I love the way that Sorkin takes on more themes than he has room for. The effect is that themes flash in and out of our view, colliding with each other, creating unexpected connections, resonances, contradictions. An episode that is mainly about retaliatory military strikes also tackles racial equality in the workplace, gendered understandings of ethics, and the ambiguous political heritage of the Roman Empire. Some of the connections between plot and subplot can be a bit heavy-handed, but often the connections are subtle and enriching. Each episode introduces a slew of new themes, enlarging the show’s scope. Any given next scene could hypothetically be “about” anything. After a while, the cumulative effect is a feeling of encyclopedic grandeur. The show is open to the world in all of its abundance of meaning. Like the greatest Italian fiction from Dante through Calvino and Eco, it seems like the show wants to be “about” everything. It’s a blast.


I used to hate Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue. (I once fell asleep during A Few Good Men as an act of protest.) It is impossibly witty. It can be so contrived that it feels like a thin sheet of plastic wrap draped over real content. No one could ever think, let alone talk that fast. This time around, however, I decided to embrace the Sorkin dialogue autobahn for what it was. I needed to stop asking Sorkin for something other than he was offering. He is not attempting anything close to realism. The dialogue is not meant to emulate “the way people really talk.” He’s doing something different with language, something more compressed, more structured. Underneath all of the freewheeling wisecracks and one-liners, there is a rigorous formalism at play. In this way there is something Shakespearean about his dialogue. He starts with a foundation of highly formalized dialogue, but upon that foundation he spins an endless web of wordplay that is dizzying in its fecundity. Once I got past the thought that everything everyone was saying was completely ridiculous, I was able to sit back and watch the verbal fireworks. What a show.


I think, though, that the heart of the show is not any of this. It’s not the thematic density, it’s not the shimmering dialogue. It’s the characters. Somehow, the characters are just so… lovable. It’s the show’s secret sauce, because I don’t think it’s something that can be analyzed. Underneath the ideology of the show (and it is a thick layer of ideology), there’s a great group of people. Even when they deliver their improbable tear-jerker backstories, you buy it, because you want to. The true heart of the show seems to be a love for other human beings. Sure, this might all be emotional manipulation. The whole show could be engineered to manufacture impossibly likable people. But if the end result is that the viewer is more likely to see the people around her with a newfound love for their particularity, then I think the show is worth watching.


But I still have questions. Will Josh ever stop bouncing? Will Sam ever stop reminding me of Rob Bell? Is Danny the reporter supposed to be that creepy? Will Leo’s jaw ever come unhinged? (It looks stuck. He might want to get that checked out.) Will America ever have a president as lovable as Jed Bartlet again?

Why Feeling the Presence of Jesus is Not Enough

At least since the first Great Awakening, American Christianity has been built on the all-important goal of feeling the presence of Jesus. Feeling the presence of Jesus (however you “feel” Jesus) is an important part of religion, but there is a second, equally important question: Is there a Jesus on the other side of your feelings? What Jesus is on the other side of your emotive experience? Is there a God there on the other end? Is it really Jesus, or is it just your hormones, your racial/ethnic identity, your favorite songs? To ignore this question is to open yourself up to all kinds of idolatry.

It’s not a popular position to take in the cultural climate of American Christianity, but I am committed to promoting both the subjective and the objective dimensions of worship. Worship can’t just be about feeling the presence of Jesus. We are also called by God to think (and feel) deeply about the God who is there, not just our emotional experience of that God. Otherwise, we will find ourselves worshiping our music, our politics, or our endorphins.

* * *

We need a holistic approach to worship, one in which critical analysis of God’s work among us and holy, passionate experience of God’s presence are intimately linked. It’s a beautiful cycle:

1. God shows up; we experience God in a passionate, emotional, bodily experience.
2. We reflect (later?) on how God showed up, and slowly start to build a working vocabulary for describing God’s actions among us. We take as much as we can from Holy Scripture to feed our vocabulary. Some words we use are decided to be closer and truer in their description of God and God’s works than others. Some practices are decided to be more faithful than others in how we respond to God’s action.
3. In the context of our revised set of words and practices, God shows up again, and we experience God in a passionate, emotional experience.
4. We reflect (again) on how God showed up, changing our earlier words and practices to be even more faithful.

The process continues indefinitely. We grow in love and knowledge of God. The interplay between the odd steps and the even steps is the interplay between worship and theology. It’s at the core of the Christian life.

* * *

Two nerdy footnotes:

1. Of course nothing in this post is terribly original. It is all stolen with gratefulness from John Witvliet, David Kelsey, and a certain French theologian, who is unfortunately known for not being the most cuddly teddy bear in the toy box.

2. I’ll admit that in our current cultural moment, both objectivity and subjectivity have come under serious fire. We cannot say with certainty anymore whether there is a God out there, or whether there is a self inside of us. (Double yikes!) By grace the postmodern Christian is freed from both of these idols to hope for the knowledge of faith. In spite of our utter inability to know God or ourselves, God is gracious enough to reveal himself, and to illuminate our inner selves for self-knowledge by the light of revelation. But we can’t ground this knowledge in an objective standard (a rational system) or a subjective standard (feeling Jesus). The only ground of our knowledge of God is the self-revelation of God, received by faith, holistically integrating objectivity and subjectivity.

What I Do For My Job (Some of It…)

Like any pastor, my job is a grab bag of odd jobs. I do a little of a lot of things — prayer, scripture study, counseling, mentoring, preaching, administrative work, attending meetings, cleaning out my inbox — just enough of each to remind myself that I am a newbie at everything. But, given the nature of my particular position, a huge chunk of my job is spent on one thing: music. This post is not about anything lofty like the resurrection, salvation history, the Trinity, etc… it’s about the nuts and bolt of melodies, rhythms, and chord progressions.

A lot of my work is arranging and rearranging songs. When I hear a song, I hear it as the sonic equivalent of a model made out of Legos. Any of the pieces can be moved around, and anything can be taken out or added in. Entire songs can be mixed into each other. I’m not a maker; I’m a tinkerer.

Stealing music is my love language. I am always sneaking music into music. These are things no one in the congregation notices. And this is intentional, because if the musical references were too explicit, they would be distracting. Instead, all of the musical mixing and matching helps to make everyone’s worship experience more vibrant and colorful. Not a very “spiritual” answer, but there it is. (Hopefully you can hear my skepticism about splitting the “spiritual” from the “unspiritual”…)

So, if you’ll humor me, allow me to give you a glimpse into my process of arranging music for a Sunday morning. As an example case, I’ll use the liturgy from Easter Sunday. This service has more packed into it than usual, but it will allow me to show more examples.

Also, if this feels like compulsive name-dropping, it’s not. I’m just showing how none of my ideas are ever original. And also, you should listen to these good people, too.

Here we go…

* * *

For the pre-service music we played an untitled piece of music that I wrote. The piece was heavily inspired by early video game music, contemporary chiptunes, and The Bad Plus. The piece evokes their “happy” pieces like “The Big Eater,” “1979 Semi-Finalist,” and “The Radio Tower Has a Beating Heart.” Some of my solo lines were in the style of Japanese pop melody lines. It was probably one of the most unapologetically happy songs we’ve ever played. Also, it metrically modulated back and forth between a quarter note pulse in 5/4 and an equivalent dotted quarter note pulse in 4/4, which made it even more infectiously happy.

The call to worship featured “He is Given” by Isaac Wardell, as recorded by DM Stith. I definitely kept some of Wardell and Stith’s production aesthetic, but I incorporated some of the stylings of Yann Tierson and Ryuichi Sakamoto into the piano, violin, and cello parts. As much as I have tried to exorcise him from my vocabulary, James Newton Howard is also always simmering underneath my piano and string parts. The end of the piece transitioned into an alleluia, and I switched into what is probably my go-to piano style: a Keith Green base, with hacked-up minimalist multi-layer polyrhythms a la Steve Reich, and Sigur Ros harmonies.

A litany of celebration in the middle featured the “Celtic Alleluia” by Fintan O’Carroll and Christopher Walker. We’ve done this piece many times, so I’m always looking for new ways to arrange it. We sang it four times, so I wrote four different violin and cello parts. Some parts borrowed the harmonic language of Sufjan Stevens‘ string parts on songs such as “They Are Night Zombies” and “Jackson.” At one point I wrote out a walking cello line that featured some Baroque-ish voice leading, but I added a few angular intervals in to make it a little crunchier.

During the communion prayer, we sang the ever-protean “Sanctus” by our own Jonathan Gabhart. This is another song we’ve done countless times, so we’re always trying to rearrange it. For a long time I’ve wondered about trying a Dodos-style indie rock drum part on it, so Noah McLaren and I played cross stick on the rims of as many drums as we could reach. Also, Andy Bast wrote spectacular parts for brass quartet. They were Copland-esque, with perhaps an unintentional hint of John Williams (or maybe Holst?) under the surface.

During communion proper, as people were coming forward to receive the elements, we played two pieces. The first was a chord progression I shamelessly ripped off of Melanie Penn’s fantastic retuned hymn setting of “He Dies the Friend of Sinners.” (Don’t worry, because it was Easter, we played the part when Jesus is alive again.) Second, Noah led us in Luke Morton’s “The Lamb Has Overcome.” The song is in the American folk tradition, through the accumulated filters of Cash, Dylan, and acoustic Springsteen. I wrote a string interlude that was meant to evoke the hammier string moments of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, or late Dylan.

It’s also worth mentioning musical ideas that didn’t make the cut. An earlier draft of the communion music ripped off the synth lines of Atoms for Peace’s “Ingenue,” but it was too ambitious. An earlier string part for The Lamb Has Overcome was inspired by Emily Jane White, but it was too dark for Easter and too showy for my taste. Earlier versions of the Celtic Alleluia string parts were more Irish-sounding, which sounded a little silly, so I cut them out.

Lastly, to give you a better sense of the full character of the service, we also sang three hymns, arranged for organ, brass quartet, and timpani. Two of them were by John Ferguson, and they were all awesome.

PHEW. What a Sunday! It was exhilarating. Like I said, this post has nothing to do with any of the lofty spiritual things that are supposed to be a part of my job, but hopefully it gives you a glimpse into the intense joy I experience in crafting the best worship music that I can for the people of God as they worship. Soli Deo Gloria, praise the Spirit for working in/with/under me, He is Risen, etc!

Book Review: Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal

In a recent interview in the New York Times, Marilynne Robinson criticized Flannery O’Connor, saying, “Her prose is beautiful, her imagination appalls me.” The two women have become in my mind a kind of polarity of Christian fiction writing. On one side, Robinson represents the majority stream of Christian fiction writers who champion an expansive doctrine of creation which swallows up salvation and the narrative of the gospel inside its own preoccupations with beauty. On the other side, O’Connor represents the minority position: those Christian fiction writers who stress the radical otherness of God, the disruptive nature of revelation, and the stark, difficult, subversive, cruciform nature of the gospel. I don’t have a side in this fight; I kind of want to have it all.

I do, however, think that O’Connor’s fiction should never be read without also reading her prose. Her prose is the key that unlocks her disturbing and violent fictive worlds. This is even more true of her recently published prayer journal, written when she was a young student in her early twenties. It offers us a precious glimpse into the fervent piety boiling underneath her angry, jagged, sarcastic fiction.

It was especially illuminating to see her reacting so violently to the psychology she was encountering. Clearly, she experienced these psychological ideas as a direct threat to her faith and her soul. It was exciting to see her grappling with them so deeply. If fighting can be a kind of intimacy, then O’Connor is a great example: it is almost as if, having discovered that Freudianism has lodged itself in her mind and in her heart, she knows she cannot rip it out without killing herself, but she doesn’t want to die for that. She wants to die for God. What emerges is a powerful example of the soul grappling with the problems presented to it by modernity.

Even still, I would go so far as to say that O’Connor’s fiction is unavoidably corrupted by a deep hatred for herself and for human beings in general. She was never able to accept the gospel’s declaration that God is for us and that in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are able to love others and even ourselves with a holy, rightly ordered love. This self-hatred is on display in this prayer journal, and it is never resolved. In spite of this, it is a great book of prayers and very much worth reading. Her piety is inspiring, her youthful voice is endearing, and her struggles are deeply moving.