“Honestly”: Riffing on Messy Lives, Jesus, and Jazz

463860Attitudes, especially bad ones, pop up at the most interesting moments. At a church we served, a woman frequently attend who was a nurse. We got along fine – except when I made any mention of anything medical in my sermons. She didn’t just frown or shake her head. She honked a brick out her left nostril and really took me to task. It was a turf thing for her and I was trespassing. So I awaited Honestly: Getting Real About Jesus and Our Messy Lives, my brick ready to honk. A word of explanation. For many years I was a music snob; there was jazz music and the rest was noise. Jazz reigned as the undisputed epicenter of my world. I played bass and please understand that anything that isn’t about six feet high and all wood is not a bass but merely a guitar of some kind. It’s a turf thing.

So I’m ready with a brick barrage for anyone who uses jazz metaphors to illustrate the Christian faith or anything else just because they sat in a coffee house listening to Dave Brubeck. Yet I read Daniel Fusco’s Honestly with no targets for my bricks. Daniel carefully frames his audience and it shows both in his style and his motives. He’s concerned with people who have blown up and left, or stand outside, the faith and fear getting blown away. He speaks to real people on the “outside” using personal expressions and idioms. The reader will want a coffee with this guy by the end of the book. He uses The Message translation for his Scripture and while this might alienate translation purists, Fusco isn’t aiming for them. He wants to connect with people who aren’t King James Bible (like the one Jesus always carried) folks. He even says that if the reader is looking for a verse-by-verse read through Ephesians, they should probably give this book to someone else. When an author tells certain people not to read his book, he has a pretty good focus on what God wanted this to be about.

He starts with an inconvenient truth – life is messy and so is everyone in it. As Glenn Kaiser wrote:

Uptown, downtown, all around-

You can see it in their faces down to the holes in their shoes.

Ain’t no doubt about it

Everybody understands the blues!

The first chapters spend good space and time sorting through the messes – the ones that come to everyone, the ones inflicted at the hands of others, the ones that continue to tear us up to leave us feeling guilty. You know, those messes. Something I noticed from the first page, Fusco has the tone of someone who treasures the stories of others and keeps his touch light when he’s handling souls. When he gets to finally talk about the messes we make of ourselves (read sin), all the reader can do is nod their head in agreement. But by then Fusco has them listening.

And he tells good stories, mostly on himself. Do not skip his comments in the footnotes. He frames questions well, really priming them for thought and reflection maybe by someone who’s not thought about this at all. It goes “Riffing on…” “Riffing” is a jazz term that can mean to improvise or for a section of musicians to set up a repetitive “lick” behind a solo. It means you don’t have to have it all figured out, nailed down and polished. Half-baked is better than raw so throw it out there and see what sticks. This is good for people who have been whacked for expressing doubt and/or nagging questions.

And there’s jazz stuff. My favorite line: “…since bass is the bacon of music, and everyone follows the bass player…” Bass players know this. Monte Budwig played bass on the West Coast in the sixties. His wife made a T-shirt that read, “So many drummers, so little time.” I always chuckle. Fusco introduces the reader to a jazz recording classic, “A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane. That record spiritually captured a lot of people. Looking back on a powerful experience that probably saved him from a drug related death, his classic group did this in one day as a tribute of gratitude. People generally recognize “A Love Supreme” as his greatest work. It isn’t for those who don’t like jazz, sort of like playing checkers with an extraterrestrial. But it fits because life for Coltrane was messy. God’s reaching into his life was no insurance against marriage breakdown and a drift away from the Christianity of his childhood into Eastern mysticism (which also blunted much of his work toward the end). But as surely as God ran after a man like John Coltrane to break him free of the darknesses gripping his life, He chases after all of us. The messes don’t put Him off or slow Him down.

A compliment for you, Dan Fusco. I would spread your book in urban bus terminals in every city in the country and be sure of a generous harvest. You and I will need to calendar a room with two basses, a thousand CDs (so I can play for you the really good ones you’ve missed) and continuously delivered pizzas. And I have no doubt that we’ll agree that knowing Jesus is even better than playing the blues in your favorite key.

Check out an excerpt from Honestly – and an author video Q&A — in the Patheos Book Club!

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