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September 2017
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While this post will be less adventurous and more off the cuff than the title promises, I’d like to begin by asking you to check out this recent interview with jazz (and more) musicians Pat Metheny and John Zorn, as conducted by the New York Times critic Nate Chinen.

I want to focus on two statements Mr. Metheny makes:

“What I look for in musicians is a sense of infinity. Within this world, you could go forever.”

“Another thing I love is hearing musicians who develop context for themselves. And of the many things I admire about John, that might be right near the top. He’s a master of coming up with opportunities for music to exist.”

Put together, these ideas of musicians inventing the context for their music to make sense on its own terms, in such a rich way that doors keep opening seemingly without end, put me in mind of theology. The notion of “context” has come to play a very important role in contemporary theology. Many theologians today would argue that all theology is “contextual,” by which is usually meant that it is grounded in or emerges from a particular human/worldly scene, situation, or difficulty — for example, an existential question, an unjust suffering, or a break in normal ways of life.

This development in academic theological work over the past generation has helped to make theology in (and beyond) the West more attuned to local needs and to break it away from Eurocentric ways of proceeding. One of the questions about contextual theology — whether as its own approach or as a way of thinking about theological approaches in general — that I have had, however, is its reluctance to be contextual all the way down. That is to say, contextual approaches in theology tend to stop short of thinking through how claims about sacred materials (texts, concepts, practices, persons) is cooked up in and for the nexus of psychocultural concerns of a time and place. Contextual theologies often retain a residue of “applicationist” thinking, that is, the notion that somehow a religious concept (God, scripture, Spirit, etc.) exists independent of a local situation that is then “applied” to this context, or that the “context” inflects a pre-existing stable idea (God, scripture, Spirit, etc). I think the more challenging theological question is contextuality “all the way down,” or as far down as possible.

Those theologians who reject the contextual turn in theology often talk about sacred items transcending any particular context, not needing to be reconsidered in light of context but instead lighting up contexts due to the sacrality of sacred items (God, scripture, Spirit, etc.). In a way, these theologians (neo-orthodox, post-liberal, or otherwise designated) talk about theology creating its own context, or to borrow Metheny’s phrase “developing context,” or perhaps more precisely, of theology operating in a preexistent atmosphere that in a way is its own context while transcending all contexts.

Metheny’s comment seems to suggest an unending spirit in and of the world, or the world of the music anyway (“within this world, you could go forever”), and in that way would seem to suggest a strong creator role for the musician/theologian who works this way, but I like the way in which his “developing context” comment opens a theological possibility that the choice for creative work in music or theology is not a matter of choosing for or against context. It could even be used to put the use of “context” in theology into question. The notion of “developing context” suggests, to me, a style of musicianship that makes its own strangeness part of its self-awareness, and making a house for that strangeness out of extant cultural materials so that people can sense that something is living here. This is neither pro-context nor anti-context. It is a way of being contextual.

These reflections put me back in mind of music. Notice how Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones shows the way he creates context for Zeppelin tunes by the stylistic choices he makes on the bass.

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In the light of my above reading, Jones is showing how to be contextual. His bass-playing is not about submitting to the parameters of an extant musical context nor about skirting the fact that bass can only sound good in a context. He is building a house for his musical ingenuity so others can potentially live there, too.

Tommy Beaudoin, Yonkers, New York

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