Imagine, if you will: The year is 1938. You’ve lived in New York your entire life and, at last! You’re finally old enough to get into the hottest spots around town. You save your precious pennies so you can enjoy a Friday night with friends and you strut into an upscale club for the first time in your life. The world is yours! You look on stage and what luck! The legendary Duke Ellington is front and center, warming up…getting ready to play his first set of the night…. you’ve heard jazz through a tiny tabletop radio in your kitchen, but you’ve never experienced jazz.
As the night starts and you hear his fingers gently tickle those worn ivories on that ever-so-slightly-out-of-tune house piano, your ears lock in on that sweet, sweet sound. For the first time in your life, you’re exposed to those subtle but slightly off-kilter blue notes. You hear those syncopated rhythms that make jazz so pleasantly unpredictable. Then, a crescendo. The rest of the band starts coming in, piece by piece, right on cue, as if guided by a divine force. The horns, the saxes, the bass, the drums, layer after layer of melodic perfection. Pure auditory bliss. This is perfection, and all of it is centered around the work of a prodigal piano player and composer named Duke Ellington. You fall in love with jazz for the first time.
Experiencing what you consider musical perfection for the first time in your life, you experience a strange warming feeling. Being a band kid in high school, you know you have a great grasp of the basic concepts of music, and becoming a great Jazz pianist is your calling. The following Monday, you check the local classified ads. Piano lessons. sixty-five cents an hour. You decide it’s worth it, and devote yourself to three lessons a week. While this is a stretch, you know you can crunch the numbers and make it work. For slightly over two bucks a week, you’re going to be the next Duke Ellington The next week, you meet your instructor. She’s incredibly excited to teach such an enthusiastic pupil. You waste no time and start working on the basics.
Week one: “Wow, these scales sure are hard. What do you mean my left and right hands need to work together yet in opposition? How many chords are there? How many hours a week should I practice? This is rough.”
Week four: “Oh, sweet lord, I just noticed there are foot pedals. I need to do what with my feet?”
Week twenty-three: “Hey, this isn’t bad. My fingers are loosening up, my legs are starting to ‘feel’ the music. I’m not just playing scales anymore. I’m starting to learn some basic songs. Watch out, Duke. I’m comin’ for ya!”
Week fifty-eight: “Wow, over a year. I’m starting to get ‘good.’ I’m playing some pretty famous pieces now. Duke’s great, but he hasn’t gotten better. I’m getting better, and better, and better.”
Week four-hundred-and-twenty-two: After eight years of daunting, hard work… “Wow. I’m masterful. I’m playing Chopin like kids play Hot Cross Buns on the recorder…but…I still don’t sound like Duke. I don’t have that magic. What gives? I’ve worked so hard. So hard.”
About a week later, you hear that the great Duke Ellington is playing at that same club you once saw him in oh so many years ago. You put on your best clothes, jump on the subway, and head into town. During the once-again amazing show, you are able to catch him on a break between sets. You spark up a conversation. You talk about your passions, your goals, your past. Then, Duke starts talking about his past, his passions, his practice regiment, his life, and that’s when you get it… you can’t be like Duke, you’re too fundamentally different. Even if you have the technique, even if you know all the scales, even if you know all the tricks… you don’t have the life experience, you don’t have the soul, and you don’t have the raw, natural ability. Yes, you’re good, but you can’t be Duke Ellington good.
What does being Duke Ellington ‘good’ have to do with God? How does this story apply to these immutable characteristics of God? Some strains of theology, especially certain modern Liberation theologies, are starting to try to throw these characteristics away in a dangerous way. These characteristics may not make all of us comfortable but we cannot throw them away. These characteristics such as sovereignty, jealousy, holiness, etc…why are people throwing them away?
Yes, certain human conceptions of these characteristics have been used historically to damage others… that fact I cannot and will not deny, but we cannot remove these characteristics from God because they make us uncomfortable. We have to wrestle with these characteristics and realize the fundamental differences between what it means to be God and what it means to be human.
- Human sovereignty left unchecked is unequivocally horrible. People in power have done wretched things in the name of maintaining power. Sovereignty in the wrong hands is always dangerous. How many despotic rulers do we need to see in this world before we realize how horrible this corrupted sovereignty can be? However, God’s perfect sovereignty is not the same as this corrupt, human manifestation of sovereignty.
- Human jealousy is a selfish, ego-centric skewing of an otherwise perfect Godly characteristic. It is based in no way on the pure and innocent concept of love that stems from God. God’s jealousy for humankind is a burning passion, fueled by perfect love. Once again, a different beast.
- Human holiness, or, holier-than-thouness, has resulted in ‘us’ vs. ‘other’ time and time again. Holiness in human form has always intended to be a journey one takes with the Holy Spirit, becoming more and more like that perfect image of God. Instead, we use our holiness to judge others. Unacceptable? Yes. But, once again, God’s holiness is defined in an entirely different way and to remove this characteristic from the divine because of the flaws of the fleshly is to do a disservice to both our God, and the concept of God’s holiness.
As you can see, every one of these traits is a perfect, divine trait that is absolutely destroyed by what a broken humanity does what them. You cannot take something that humans destroy, and throw away the concept as it applies God. When an elderly woman spilled a cup of McDonalds coffee on her lap, we didn’t ban the coffee or change anything significant about what the coffee is, we changed the temperature and slapped a warning label on the cup. There’s nothing wrong with the coffee‘s nature, it’s what we did with the coffee that made it bad. We didn’t rush out and change the properties of what makes the coffee, well, coffee. Instead, we changed what we do with that coffee.
Or, let me put is another way:
Just because you ain’t Duke Ellington, that doesn’t mean Duke Ellington ain’t Duke Ellington.
Just because we cannot be those perfect Jazz musicians that we want to be, those legends that we emulate, doesn’t mean that the work of the greats before us is discredited. This is exactly what we do when we remove immutable characteristics of God because we’re not good enough to live into those characteristics. We can’t just throw these characteristics away because we’re not comfortable with them. It’s intellectual dishonesty and we’re avoiding wrestling with God over these issues. Modern Jacobs we are not. Let Duke be Duke, and let you be you. It’s OK if you don’t measure up to Duke, but don’t remove the jazz from his soul because you’re uncomfortable.
The peace of Christ be with you,