by Mark Goodwin Heltzel
200 pp. Eerdmans. 25.00.
I was never a great saxophone player, but I was about as good as one could hope, being as I was eighteen years old and played in an extracurricular high school jazz band. I can’t say that I know all there is to know about playing jazz, or even more than the average person, but one thing I do remember from those years: having the scales was necessary to improvising a good feature, but sometimes, even when the notes are there, the solo just doesn’t happen.
Nobody can doubt, reading this book, that Peter Heltzel knows his subject matter. He deploys bits and riffs from all sorts of seminary courses, and someone with a seminary background like mine (middle of the road or even a bit conservative among seminaries, moderately liberal among American evangelicals) will pick up strains of Old Testament Introduction, American church history, a bit of philosophical hermeneutics, and even some historical Jesus studies. The dude knows his scales.
And they’re good scales. Heltzel brings up some of the roots of the prophetic tradition in Moses, shows how they play out in Isaiah, and extends those themes out through the public career of Jesus. He does nicely showing the public, political implications of the temptation of Jesus, the social echoes of Christus Victor theology, and the ethical obligations that a Christian takes on, in terms of Martin Buber’s famous pronominal philosophy. Perhaps most impressive, though, is the passage late in the book, in which Heltzel narrates the Resurrection City protests of the summer of 1968 as the logical progression of the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. (who was assassinated in the spring of 1968) and even, because of the prominent place of women at the rally, a step beyond what King himself would have imagined. He brings in some Foucaultian power-critique, some preacherly Biblical hermeneutics, and some some close-reading of some jazz albums. In other words, all the parts are there for a good, jazzy theological outing.
But ultimately, as I learned in that high school jazz band, not every outing, even when you’ve got a good (for high school) band behind you, turns out as well as you’d hoped, and that’s what happens in this book. Heltzel tries to fuse together an integrationist vision of Christian theology with a strong critique of white privilege, two modes of theology that don’t necessarily go together in most people’s imaginations. And the tension, unresolved and left to their own, pull the book’s central metaphor, jazz music, in directions that don’t result in what I’d call good improv. In one direction Heltzel calls opera (at the beginning of the book) and symphony (towards the end) quintessentially “White” music, compared unfavorably to the (presumably more virtuous) “Black” music of jazz. But then in other places, he insists that jazz is ultimately capacious enough to bring White folks and Black folks together. Now I know, O reader, that one could make an ethical case for how those contradictory positions can, from the tension and stress between them, produce something revolutionary, that runs out ahead of both, and O reader, I have seen other books attempt just that. But this book doesn’t even make that attempt. I can dig what he’s trying to do by setting these ideas next to each other, but ultimately his juxtapositions don’t articulate connections-between on their own, and by the end of the book they come out sounding like they belonged together after all. Such a possibility is always there when one ventures from one scale to another without letting the rest of the band know.
Beyond the unlikely combinations of big-picture ideas, the book also makes some freshman-Bible-class sorts of errors and herky-jerky transitions that Heltzel’s editors really should have caught. Certain passages in the book will make claims about the lexical range of this or that Hebrew word but not even offer one verse from the Old Testament demonstrating it. Another bit refers to Jochebed and Miriam as mediating the long prophetic tradition of Israel to the young Moses, a claim that the chronology of attested prophetic activity in Israel makes somewhat difficult. Even when the facts are right, sometimes the jump from Hittite suzerain-vassal covenant scholarship to existentialism and from there to homiletic “application” happen so quickly, and without any sense of how the parts fit together, that the book reads like a first draft, something that will really be cool once some more editing happens but doesn’t make much sense, as a whole, in this form.
Ultimately Heltzel’s book struck me as a lost opportunity, not impressive on its own terms but promising in the avenues to which it points. Stan Hauerwas’s Performing the Faith is ultimately a more compelling theology of improvisation, and James Cone is still stronger in terms of connecting the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. to the life of twenty-first-century America. My hunch is that, in homilies and in classroom sessions, Heltzel does what this book tries to do quite well, but at the end of this set, all I can do is remember that not every set can be one’s best set.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.