Saturday, October 01, 2011

Musical Improvisation: Church, Spirit and Body (part 2/2)

Excerpt from Jeremy Begbie's chapter in "The Modern Theologians" edited by David Ford.

We move to a second area – the Holy Spirit. Improvisation, to a very large extent, entails what the poet Peter Riley has called ‘the exploration of occasion’.(1) Much depends on the particularities of the specific context of performance - for example, the acoustic of the building, the time of day, the number of people present, their expectations and experience, their audible responses as the performance proceeds, and, not least, the music produced by fellow-improvisers. These elements are not accidental to the outcome but constitutive of it. A skilful improviser, in bringing alive the ‘given’ material - whether chord sequence, the agreed shape of a piece, or whatever - attempts not only to be sensitive to such contextual factors but to incorporate them into the improvisation, in order that the improvisation is ‘true’ and authentic to this time and place. Moreover, with its large measure of openness, this particularising process, it is commonly acknowledged, generates an intense sense of anticipation and hopefulness, a sense of ‘wanting more’.

At a time of renewed interest in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, this dimension of improvisation may have much to contribute in the search for new conceptualities in pneumatology. The Spirit is the Spirit of faithfulness, of fidelity to the givenness of God’s self-declaration in Jesus Christ. But, far from merely replicating this ‘given’, the Spirit constantly actualises it in a way which engages with and brings to fruition the particularities of each time and place. As is often now said - and here much recent pneumatology is attempting to obviate problematic, and even harmful aspects of the Western tradition - although it is the work of Spirit to unify, to bind people and things together, this activity includes in and with it the recognition and promotion of particularity and distinctiveness. On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit did not create one uniform language but liberated people to hear each other ‘in their own tongues’ (Acts 2:6, 11). Pentecost was a divine ‘exploration of occasion’ if ever there were one. Furthermore, this particularising activity is a function of the Spirit’s eschatological ministry: to anticipate here and now in ever fresh ways the Father’s final, eschatological desire, already realised in Christ (2 Cor 1:22; Eph. 1:14; Rom. 8:23). Particularising engenders hope. Life in the Spirit, therefore, involves a combination of faithfulness to the past, particularising what is received in the present as an anticipation of the future. This is the dynamic of musical improvisation. If it is true, as many urge, that we require models of the Spirit’s work which, in hermeneutics take full account of the particularities of the present as well as faithfulness to the apostolic witness of Scripture,(2) and which in theologies of mission and ministry avoid overstressing backward orientation to the career of Jesus and the apostolic church, then improvisation has much to offer, given the way in which its disciplined fidelity to a shared tradition and it concern for singularity of circumstance are interwoven within a dynamic of hopefulness. 

  1. As cited in Dean, Creative Improvisation, p. xvi.
  2. For an expansion of the improvisatory model in biblical hermeneutics, cf. N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (London, 1992), pp. 139ff.