Jazz and Apologetics: Doug Groothuis on How Jazz Can Inform Apologetics

Portrait of John Coltrane; by Paolo Steffan

In a recent post, I suggested that literature has significant value for Christian apologetics. When I taught an apologetics course this past spring, I sought to demonstrate to students that sharing the Gospel and answering challenges to Christianity does not always take the form of an argument – defending a thesis and rebutting an opponent’s counter-argument. Rather, apologetics can – and should – occur through means more natural to our way of daily interaction. So, for my class, I emphasized the role of literature in communicating the truths of Christianity.

My approach this past spring is not new to me by any stretch of the imagination; rather, it’s reflective of a movement within Christian apologetics that has been picking up steam lately. Some, like Myron Penner in The End of Apologetics, call for a wholesale change in how Christian apologetics is done. According to this group, current Christian apologetics is too rational and fails to recognize and/or address the contextual nature of one’s beliefs and – more importantly – of truth. Further, modern Christian apologetics only addresses our intellectual nature while ignoring the fact that we are emotional and social beings. As such, the methods of well-known apologists like William Lane Craig are outdated and ineffective.

While Penner et al. offer some fair critiques against current Christian apologetics, their call to jettison all modern Christian apologetics is unwarranted – it’s throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. There are others, however, that have provided a more balanced approach to apologetics, such as James Sire and Sean McDowell. According to those in this camp, apologetic methodology isn’t an either-or option (like Penner; i.e., modern apologetics vs postmodern apologetics); rather, apologetics ought to incorporate a variety of methods. Hence, Sire calls for the use of literature in apologetics. McDowell’s book A New Kind of Apologist includes essays from a variety of apologists in a variety of fields – areas that can be effective tools in one’s apologetic toolbox. Apologetics, then, is not about choosing one method at the expense of others; rather, apologetics includes a variety of methods from which to choose as context dictates. Modern apologetics, then, need not be discarded; rather, it is to be supplemented with other methods.

Doug Groothuis argues that jazz can inform our apologetics and how we approach each apologetical encounter. Dr. Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and a jazz aficionado, and has written and spoken widely on apologetics. In his post “How Jazz Can Shape Apologetics,” Dr. Groothuis suggests there are two core features of jazz that the apologist can adopt: the chart and improvisation.

The chart refers to what the structure of a particular song. Each member of a jazz ensemble uses the same chart to guide them as to when and where solos occur. Under-girding these charts are the standards of jazz. Understanding these standards, along with mastering one’s instrument, allows the jazz musicians to improvise in a song such that there is freedom in movement without cacophonous chaos. Further, what the jazz musician knows gives them the ability to never play the same song the same way twice. That is, each time they play a particular song, it is a new rendition (Groothuis notes that his collection of John Coltrane has around twenty versions of Coltrane’s interpretation of “My Favorite Things”). What is essential, though, is the musician’s master of jazz’s standards and their instrument, which enables them to improvise as the song dictates.

Groothuis notes that, in apologetics, there are “standard” apologetical arguments (for a variety of Christian doctrines and beliefs) that are important for the believer to know and understand. These arguments, developed and enhanced over centuries, are not stand alone arguments (that is, one argument alone is not sufficient to make the case for Christianity). Rather, taken together, they make the strongest cumulative case for Christianity. When a believer knows and understands these arguments, they are then able to “improvise” in a particular apologetical encounter; that is, the Christian does not have to worry about following a particular method or script. Instead, they can base their approach upon the questions or objections they encounter.

What I’ve given here is but a brief summary of Groothuis’ post. I strongly encourage you to click over to his website to read more on “How Jazz Can Shape Apologetics.” And while you’re there, I encourage you to read his other posts. I’ve had the opportunity to meet Dr. Groothuis, and he is a man motivated by his love for Christ. As such, you will read posts that are informed by a deep love for our Savior.

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