Piano Keys

Embracing the Tense Future of Theological Education with the Past (Perfect) Christian Jazz of Mary Lou Williams

David Wilmington, YTI Professor of Theology and Philosophy

February 11, 2019


Thinking Christianly in the Changing Landscape of Christian Education

Over the last year or so, several different authors—pastors, scholars, public intellectuals, and bloggers—have written widely shared articles on the future of theological education. Focusing on education and training within the church and at universities and seminaries, these articles share the conviction that the landscape of Christian education is crumbling because of earthquake-strength changes in educational and ministerial expectations, popular culture, and politics.

The danger signs are many and diverse: declining church attendance (especially among younger adults), church closings, partial or complete closings of Christian colleges and seminaries, and various desperate calls to re-imagine how we train Christians at every level of education for faithful, transformed, and transformative lives.

While there are plenty of click-bait declarations of the “End of Seminaries” and superficially provocative suggestions that we must abandon distinctively Christian beliefs and practices to signal a “relevant” and “welcoming” church, the best of the articles, lectures, and public discussions recognize that we must “think Christianly” in order to hear what God would have His church do in this time of transition.

Learning from Our Christian Past to Face the Present and the Future

While asking what lessons she might learn from the closing of her own seminary, pastor and author Elizabeth Mangham Lott poses a few possible “next steps” for churches and seminaries unable to remain open or to continue in their current form.

But since every institution will have to find different “next steps,” Lott argues that discernment regarding the right path forward must come from the faithful habits, thinking, and history all Christians hold in common—the kind of things she learned in seminary: “We sit in holy quiet together, embracing ancient practices of contemplation and discernment. We follow the threads across ancient texts and look for the ways God has always been finding new and wildly imaginative avenues to know and be known by a people. We foster honest, brave, healthy, truth-telling communities that step even more fully and boldly into their calling as followers on the Way of Jesus. We ask really good questions and listen to each other in hopes of getting to even better ones.”

We must meet the challenge of an unsettled present and uncertain future by embracing and performing the best and most distinctively Christian things we’ve learned from our past. The kinds of things we learn through study in seminaries and Christian universities.

Similarly, Professor Jessica Hooten Wilson draws from Simone Weil to remind Christians of every educational stage, intellectual capacity, and vocation that a Christian conception of education aims at higher ends (goals): “When we give our undivided attention to something, we are practicing what Weil calls kenosis. This posture prepares us for prayer, enables us to pray—and may, in fact, be a form of praying. Thus, studying leads us to commune with God. School studies are sacramental exercises; with the right motivation, learning can be sanctifying.”

Serious academic work does not separate us from the “real world,” insists Hooten Wilson. It is a connection to the transcendent God and therefore one form of relationship. This distinctly Christian notion of education is based in our understanding of the world as God’s good creation and our knowledge that God desires harmonious relationship and communion with his creatures.

Keeping the Long Term Goal in Mind

While short-term, immediately practical concerns matter and often demand a great percentage of our attention and emotional energy, we must not be deluded into elevating them to become the standard by which we measure what’s possible, reasonable, and successful. When we consider what’s at stake in our response to the seismic shifts of our historical moment, we must keep in mind the higher, long term goal of our approaches to educating and training Christians in our churches, schools, colleges, and seminaries.

As Joshua Heavin has written recently, “When the church faces yet-unknown moral crises and theological dilemmas in decades to come, from what first principles do we hope that the church acts? What theological instincts do we hope are formed now into future leaders, or from what resources do we hope that generations to come will draw when they act morally and reason theologically? Now, and in the future, will the functional legislators of the church’s handling of the ever-urgent concerns of the present be trained theologians or journalists and celebrity-influencers?”

Faithful Harmonizing Within Contemporary Culture

Those kinds of questions help us to get the proper perspective for tackling the problem of theological formation in the 21st century—not the market driven concerns and definitions guiding most contemporary “temperature taking” of millennials or “Nones” or “Seekers,” etc. While the Great Commission calls us to care about reaching every age and demographic, and our perspective must certainly be focused by that care, we need to acknowledge the inherently tyrannical nature of much present-obsessed and relevancy-worshiping “chronological snobbery” (as C.S. Lewis put it)—particularly in our supremely narcissistic and historically ignorant contemporary culture.

What God calls us to in this particular troubling and deeply weird historical moment is to embrace new forms of Christian education, formation, and training that immerse us in the practices of faithful harmonizing: a training in the practices of proper listening, appreciation, conceptual and practical learning, and performance of our beliefs and tradition within whatever crazy modern context God calls us to.

Mary Lou Williams: Authentic Harmonization of Jazz and Christian Tradition

Mary Lou Williams playing jazz piano
Mary Lou Williams. William P. Gottlieb (1917-2006), photographer – Restored by Adam Cuerden [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ll close with an example of such faithful harmonizing so unorthodoxly orthodox that it should invite dozens of questions and, perhaps, a follow-up blog entry. After 37 years of playing and composing, the great jazz musician Mary Lou Williams abandoned her musical career, walking out in the middle of a concert in Paris. Over the next few years, she became a serious and devoted Catholic Christian but stopped performing jazz entirely.

However, her immersion into a form of Christian life far more ancient and practically strange from the forms she and nearly all jazz musicians were familiar with actually led her back into a musical life. Williams harmonized her invigorated faith with jazz music by writing, recording, and performing Christian jazz. Much of her new music was specifically, openly sacred, including an actual setting of the Mass—with jazz-gospel Kyrie, Credo, and Sanctus—that was eventually performed as the liturgical music for a Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

This intensely creative and authentic harmonization of ancient Christian tradition and non-traditional liturgical music took place amidst the turmoil of Mary Lou Williams’ own spiritual/vocational crisis as well as the uncertainty and tragedy of mid-1960’s America. She did not abandon either the peculiar language and practices of the Christian faith or her musical heritage in jazz (despite the changing tastes in popular music already pulling black and white tastes toward less refined rock & roll).

Williams’ creative, pioneering response to the seismic shifts of her time was a renewed seriousness about her faith, vocation, and contemporary challenges that honored the distinctive language, history, and practices of her traditions. It stands out today as a truly remarkable Christian artistic witness. Her faithful performance and the obedient, Spirit filled reasoning that made it possible offer us a hopeful example and model as we consider how to respond today to the challenges facing our churches and educational institutions.