Life is Liturgical Improvisation

The word “liturgy,” like the word “art,” is generally used for what happens in liturgical churches on Sunday morning when they trot out a list of already-chosen Bible texts and read them, and they then have a church worship service in which much reflects an order from which the liturgical service rarely departs. Which is only partly true if one knows what happens. Liturgy in this sense differs from low church spontaneous services.

Bruce Ellis Benson contends all of life for all of us is liturgical and all of life for all of us is a piece of art. He does this in his new book Liturgy as a Way of Life: Embodying the Arts in Christian Worship.

So, instead of permitting liturgy and art to be high brow, Benson deconstructs this romantic sense and contends that each of us is a work of art living out the liturgical order God has established in the rhythms of creation. Benson is a continental philosopher at Wheaton, which means his discussion partners really are high brow — Jean-Luc Marion, Balthasar, Chretien, et al. Still, his done his best to take those philosophers and let the teach us about turning each of our lives into a liturgical work of art.

It begins with the call and response. Everything about life is a lived response to the call of God. Everything about our life is an improvised response back to God’s call, and each of our improvised responses is at the same time a call for others to improvise on the call of God and the response of others. These are the big ideas. Now more singularly:

“We are constantly being called by God to give the reply hinneni — here I am, at your disposal, waiting your command” (34).

Beauty is the call itself … things do not beckon us because they are beautiful but we call them beautiful because they beckon us, they enchant us, or they charm us. The call itself then indicates the beauty.

The call always precedes me; the call is an ongoing series — echoes of echoes — of calls and responses and calls. To respond is to enter into the something that is already going on.

Jazz is not creation per se; jazz means listening, knowing the tradition through hard work, learning how jazz works, and in the moment responding to the jazz lick of others. To be good at jazz improvisation then is simply to learn how to improvise within the tradition. Thus, knowing the past makes the future of that past possible. The improviser, then, is not alone but joins a community of improvisation.

I would contend all of Scripture is improvisation that reflects contextual responses to which the ancient Hebrews and Israelites and early Christians responded. I was asked in my Wheaton Theology Conference about the relation of Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence to the OT sanction of war, which was not a concern of my paper and which would have taken us too far afield in that brief time, but the major point would have to be that Jesus improvised on Israel’s “jazz lick” about God, the world, war, and other nations in a way that both took up previous improvisations and innovated in his own context. Many would like to turn the OT stories into reified templates that become more or less laws or timeless propositions. But they, too, were improvisations on how ancient Near Eastern cultures implicated God in all actions, especially victory and defeat. Jesus improvises with “defeat is the way to victory.”

Life is art, life is a liturgical work of art, in that it responds to the call of God in this life by improvising within the parameters of the existing improvisations.

"The author wrote: "Piper has convinced millions that gender, rather than newness of life in ..."

Mimi Haddad Responds To John Piper
"I’ll get into more of John and Tremper’s reading of the flood as we go ..."

An Ancient Document (RJS)
"Man, Patheos/Disqus is IMPOSSIBLE on an iPhone.The rest of my comment was going to contrast ..."

Thanks To Deborah Haarsma
"One might expect it from the propagandists at the Discovery Institute, but it is sad ..."

Thanks To Deborah Haarsma

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Dear Scot McKnight,

    At the conference, you responded about the way Anabaptists read the text of the Bible, oscillating from Genesis to the Jesus, and then back to begin again, and then through to revelation. At the time, I understood you to mean a kind of Christocentric hermetics, where understanding God’s revelation in Christ as a core lens through which to interpret the Hebrew texts and God’s interaction with Israel.

    If I am right, then Jesus is not just “improvising on Israel’s ‘Jazz lick’ about God.” I think the metaphor, for the sake my Christology, might sound more like this:

    “In the beginning was the Word…” And so the rhythm, the bass beat, the key, all was originally set by God (the original Christ call). God’s call on Israel was a move, trying to bring the sound back to the key, rythm, and style of its original beauty. Christ, then, was not just an improvisation on Israel’s ‘jazz lick,’ but an instructive (heuristic?) melodic phrase meant to remind us of the beauty that the original song was meant to display.

    Again, I am just trying to get the Christology right in the metaphor.


  • scotmcknight

    Michael Howard,
    Very nice… not sure why that term “improvise” gets “just improvising” but I really like how you say it. I don’t know jazz well, but Bruce Benson does! It’s not “just” an improvisation but a genuine kind of improvisation.

  • scotmcknight

    And I’m not sure I said all that you said about what I said but a christocentric hermeneutic is definitely at the core of how I’d relate Jesus’ vision for nonviolence victory through the cross.

  • Thanks for responding.

    I have not finished reading Benson’s book. I just bought it at the conference and, so far, have only read through the first pages.

    To clarify, my suspicion of the notion of Jesus improvising Israel’s ‘jazz lick’ about God could be construed to mean that Israel was improvising on God’s call (which I am fine with) and then Jesus’ simply improvising in response to Israel’s improvising. But I’m not sure how this would be different than any other movement that has branched off of from second Temple Judaism. More explicitly, I’m not sure how this would be any different than suggesting that all ‘religious’ traditions are not somehow improvising in response to some understood notion of ‘divine rhythm’ or whatever. (This could easily fit right along with process thought, or some other notion of God as the ‘ground of being,’ only here God would be the underlying theme of a jazz piece.)

    I only wanted to ground the work in Christology, where the notion of Jesus as responding to Israel’s original call from God is only intelligible because Israel’s God was him who was fully revealed in Jesus, the original jazz musician (i.e. Christ was able to fully respond to God in a way that Israel could not because he was God–he was the Word made flesh).

    I hope I am not trying your patience. Thanks for listening.

  • scotmcknight


    Thanks. There is an important sense in which Jesus’ own improvising would be in response to the ultimate divine call, since he is Son of the Father in consort with the Spirit, so that his improvising is truth-improvising. Yes, he is in tune with the original jazz musician as the One who is that Jazz Musician.

    Yet, one would argue from the ground up that all religions are improvising through their origins and traditions, and at some level one would want to say all origins are in Eden etc, but if one takes the Story of Israel to the Story of Jesus as revealed improvisational truth, then everything shifts. I don’t think what Israel or Jesus did was absolutely unlike what all other improvisational works do — that is, the philosophy of Greece, the Egyptians, etc… do have some anthropological connections at some level.

  • Jeff

    I do not know why it is so easy to dismiss Jesus’ sacrifice as a sacrifice. His message was NOT “defeat is the way to victory”. The wrath of sin was placed on Christ as the scapegoat. He took the death we were supposed to get. So the message is we owe our very lives to Christ because of him taking our place. “Love is the way to victory”.

    I end with a modified version of Charles Wesley’s “Wrestling with Jacob”

    In vain You struggle to get free,
    I never will unloose my hold!
    Are You the Man that died for me?
    The secret of Your love unfold;
    Wrestling, I will not let You go,
    Till I Your name, Your nature know.

    ‘Tis all in vain to hold Your tongue
    Or touch the hollow of my thigh;
    Though every sinew be unstrung,
    Out of my arms You shall not fly;
    Wrestling I will not let You go
    Till I Your name, Your nature know.

    ‘Tis Love! ’tis Love! You died for me!
    I hear Your whisper in my heart;
    The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
    Pure, universal love You are to me
    To all, are your wings above;
    Your nature and Your Name is Love.
    My prayer has power with God who I embrace;
    the grace not seen before I now receive through faith;
    I see You face to face,
    I am able to see and abundantly live!
    In vain I have not wept and strove;
    Your nature and Your Name is Love.

  • Joe Anderson

    Sad to see words like “trotted out” and “already chosen” as descriptions of the texts found in the Church’s liturgy. Another way of describing what the Church has been doing for centuries would be: “Reading and meditating on carefully chosen texts on the evening before the liturgy, then arriving early to spend time on one’s knees in preparatory prayer before those texts are proclaimed publicly, to be followed by a homily on those texts and then by a re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf.” Let us pray for one another.

  • scotmcknight

    And, Joe, not only pray but read one another well and fairly: Did you see this? “Which is only partly true if one knows what happens. Liturgy in this sense differs from low church spontaneous services.” That “which” statement reorients the paragraph so as to see the fuller depths of what liturgy offers.

  • Joe Anderson


    I now understand the “which” clause and your explanation of it. I am sorry for wrongly interpreting it. You certainly do deserve a fair reading.

    I remained saddened, even increasingly so, as I continue to ponder the article. It further caricatures Liturgy by announcing that Benson himself will not “permit” liturgy to be “highbrow” and will “deconstruct” for us this “romantic” sense (can this “sense” be anything other than a reference back to the Liturgy with its “trotted-out” readings?).

    I am imagining as I write this that you will tell me I have misunderstood yet again. But, surely the language is striking. Your readers, many of whom are from Low-Church backgrounds, will experience relief (even gratitude) that they have been spared such a highbrow, romantic, concocted experience and look forward to doing Liturgy in Benson’s different, more individualized way. The implied authority (“permission”) to thus deconstruct the Liturgy will confirm for them their right to the Private Judgment (in Newman’s sense) which is the modus operandi of our Low-Church brethren. At the same time, the vital nature of the Liturgy (with its marvelously woven fabric of embedded Scripture), the character of the Liturgy as a lex orandi passed down to us as a Deposit of Faith and the necessary role of that Liturgy in our lives for our own spiritual growth and discipleship will remain hidden from them. This is a disservice to them and spiritually dangerous.

    I do pray for you each day, that God may richly bless you and your work. Included in that prayer is a desire that you might someday unite yourself with the Great Tradition. I am sure there is some of my own selfishness in desiring to see your many gifts inside the Great Tradition, but that is yet another area of necessary purification for me. In the meantime, I would be grateful if you would pray for me as well, that God may, in His mercy, someday conform me to the image of His Son.


  • scotmcknight

    Joe, you’re also misreading Bruce Benson, who is an Episcopalian drawing folks into liturgy as a way of life because God established the liturgy of both Sundays and weekdays. And I’m an Anglican, and I’ve been part of the Great Tradition for a long, long time. It seems you equate the Great Tradition with the Catholic Church, which denies many brothers and sisters communion of the saints. A lack of liturgical sense is less of a problem than the automatics of sacramentalism. I’ve been in great churches in Italy and Europe; on Sundays there is a handful of old saintly (mostly) ladies accompanied by tourists; the community church life is mostly dead. The biggest reason is sacramentalism: the liturgy is there; the Deposit of Faith is there; the eucharist is there. Without faith it all falls into meaningless jargon. Evangelicalism brings the demand of the faith to the fore. For that I’m thankful.

    You perceive a slight to liturgicals; I perceive insults to low churchers.