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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 (more…)

I found Joshua Cohen’s recent essay on John Zorn edifying. It was published in the May 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine (pp. 73-78), and is titled “Last Man Standing: The Acquisitive Music of John Zorn.” I have heard Zorn’s music only rarely during my life, a quantity of listening woefully out of proportion to Zorn’s wicked creativity and outsize importance for contemporary musicians and composers.

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As a theologian (who is also a musician), I would argue that it is important to read such essays as Cohen’s, and hear such music as Zorn’s, not as an invitation to assimilate their insights to what we already think we know theologically, but as a potential event for learning about the gods of others, to see what divinities are drawn down, and drawn up, by others’ musico-spiritual cultures, psyches, biographies. Out of this theological attitude can come friendship, patient sharing, curiosity, insight, and affirmation/reformulation/dispossession of theological truths — as a “second act,” that is, almost always conceptually after these dispossessions have been let through nonconceptually.

Cohen vividly presents Zorn’s inventive exploration of multiple forms of modern music, of New York City as vibrant acoustic hothouse, and of Jewishness as a through-line in the coming together of these adventures. Of Zorn’s band Naked City, Cohen writes that they “audaciously defined the popular as a certain intensity or energy, and proceeded to gather under that heated, insatiable rubric of Zorn’s private invention a host of related (more…)