Listening for Built-in-Flexibility as a Hermeneutical Disposition

Below is an excerpt from the recent paper that I presented at Baylor. I would be interested in your feedback (positive and negative)—specifically, I would love to hear ideas as to how what I suggest might be brought into conversation with the hermeneutical insights of Gadamer [whom I have just begun to read this week and am thoroughly enjoying] (or others who have done work in philosophical hermeneutics). Any suggestions regarding primary literature on Gadamer other than Truth and Method and Philosophical Hermeneutics, as well as secondary literature on Gadamer would be appreciated as well.


I offer the following analogy as a way to explore the possibilities that jazz might offer as to how we as Christians read the “text” of creation, as well as the text of Scripture. The analogy runs as follows. First, God’s revelation, both natural and supernatural, might be understood to play a similar role to what jazz musicians call “lead sheets.” Second, our various and multi-layered understandings of this revelation would then be similar to the different ways that jazz works can be performed and interpreted. Before proceeding further, let me explain what a jazz “lead sheet” is by way of comparison to a classical score. A jazz lead sheet is similar to a notated score for a classical piece; however, only the melody is written out in standard musical notation. In other words, in contrast to the classical score in which the bass line, the chords, and more or less every note that will be played is written out in full notation, a lead sheet allows for much more flexibility. For example, above the melody one simply finds chord symbols, as opposed to chords displayed in standard notation with specific voicings. Writing the chord symbols in this manner affords the pianist or guitarist, as well as the bassist, a significant amount of creative freedom in performing the piece. However, we should be clear that this freedom does not swallow up the form or structure, as one must choose harmonies and bass lines that fall within a certain trajectory of the specified chord symbol that will support the melody and mark out the general harmonic structure of the piece. Thus, with a jazz lead sheet, one is in a sense “tied to” the “score,” i.e., one must agree to submit to the “givens” that make the piece to be what it is and respond accordingly.[1] Yet, in other sense, one’s own personality, skill level, and creative sensibilities also come through making each performance something unique. One might even say that the flexibility that lead sheets afford, coupled with the distinctly human traits and personal idiosyncrasies that manifest in improvisation, in a sense engenders greater intelligibility and appeal to the piece itself. That is, the built-in flexibility of lead sheets aids in preserving the piece through the passage of time while simultaneously allowing and even expecting various re-articulations because it “has room for” the creative expansions that inevitably come with temporal progression.

Keeping with Christianity’s desire to uphold the traditional doctrines of God’s incomprehensibility and yet knowability in light of his condescending to reveal himself to us, perhaps our understanding of the created order given the ultimate “Signified” to which both the created order and Scripture point, indicates that our approach to understanding and interpreting these signs should not be a quest to attain the closest “copy” of the original archetype as God knows and understands it. After all, how could we as creatures know creation or Scripture as God knows them? Instead of trodding down the path of univocity, a more fruitful way to conceive our role as interpreters may be to think of ourselves more like jazz improvisers. That is, as those who are called to creatively re-interpret God’s various “lead sheets,” which themselves were never meant to produce a one-to-one, univocal meaning for us but rather a multi-layered analogico-symbolic meaning that reflects the inexhaustible nature of the Author.

Anticipating possible objections, viz., does this not lead to relativism and render the text more or less superfluous? On the contrary, just as in no way is it the case that when a jazz piece is performed and interpreted by various musicians from different time periods, a kind of free-for-all takes place in which the “original” melody is somehow destroyed, neither would it be the case that our interpretations have no strictures whatsoever and no relation to God’s archetypal ideas. Though it is the case, that each jazz performance is distinctive,[2] there is a common, yet dynamic range that “grounds” each performance such that the melody is recognizable when played in a wide range of styles (from traditional to more “out” styles). If one simply ignored the melody and harmonic structure or distorted either such that they become completely unrecognizable, then clearly one has “gone astray.” Certainly, I am not suggesting that, but I am wondering whether the analogy might help us to conceive anew a more dynamic and historically “friendly” approach to interpreting and understanding creation, as well Scripture.

Regarding the latter, a reading of the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament indicates that both Jesus and the Apostle Paul were quite comfortable citing Greek translations of the Old Testament and in no way felt compelled to quote a pristine original. Here we might interject that perhaps the drive to get back to a “pure” and “untainted” text is connected with deeply modernist expectations and assumptions regarding history, the belief that diversity of text types are somehow inherently bad, and that moving closer to the original will necessarily bring greater clarity.[3] Rather than discuss each of these in detail, for brevity’s sake, I simply point out that with translations, of course, we do not have one-to-one exact replicas of the original; however, this does not mean that God’s word fails to be communicated. After all, translations such as the Septuagint(s) and others harmonize well with the mission of the Church to make disciples of all nations. Just as Christ came and incarnated Himself to save His people, so too the written word of God is incarnated via translations so as to be intelligible to numerous peoples of diverse languages and cultures. Becoming incarnate of course involves complications, inconveniences, ambiguities and various other distinctively human challenges, yet our Lord so valued humanity that He willingly took on flesh and not simply for His time on earth, but for eternity. In light of our Lord’s, as well as St. Paul’s contentment with what we might provocatively call “imperfect” yet incarnational translations, perhaps such examples teach us something of God’s comfort with the “messiness” of an historical revelation as well as pressing us to continually question and submit our expectations and presuppositions as to the nature of Scripture to Scripture itself.

In other words, what I suggest is that in jazz improvisation instead of seeking to replicate a piece in a univocal fashion, producing in a sense a “zerox” copy of the original within strict (literal) confines of the (human) author’s intention, we should instead become like jazz improvisers who creatively re-interpret the original melody such that it is clearly recognizable, yet it speaks to the culture of the day. Moreover, allowing for multi-layered, symbolic, re-creative interpretations that arise out of the Christian metanarrative of creation, fall, redemption in Christ, and final consummation in Christ, is yet another expression of a harmonious unity-and-diversity bringing forth a dynamically rich display of the infinitely diverse ways in which God can be imitated, participated and hence worshipped.

[1] The communal aspect of jazz performance is an important factor here as well. For example, if the pianist simply decides to play chords that have no relation whatsoever to the chord symbols, the rest of the group or ensemble will be affected (not to mention thoroughly frustrated) as their parts will not correlate at all with the random harmonic superimposition on the part of the pianist.
[2] One might argue that even with classical music where all the parts are strictly defined and written out, the same piece played by the same group or musician is strictly speaking never played the same way twice.
[3] On the contrary, what if moving closer to the original actually moves one more deeply into the realm of mystery and thus requires in a sense more “graced” faith (at least in this life)?

4 thoughts on “Listening for Built-in-Flexibility as a Hermeneutical Disposition”

  1. Samuel Wells in his Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (BrazosPress, 2004) goes a similar direction, albeit using theatrical improv rather than jazz improv as the metaphor.

    Well articulated, Cynthia.

  2. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for pointing out the book by Wells–I had not heard of it before and will have to give a read.


  3. Beautifully said! It reminded me of a little book by Ann Pederson I read a while ago, ‘God, Creation and All That Jazz: A Process of Composition and Improvisation’ – can’t quite remember her exact line of thought but it certainly testifies to God’s jazzy side as well!

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