Tradition and Innovation
Appreciating a Lecture by Rev. Dr. L. Gregory Jones
at the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church
Response to a Lecture I Wish I'd Heard
by Jay McDaniel
The life of a Christian -- let's call her Monica -- is very much like that of a saxophonist in an improvisational jazz concert. She is receiving wisdom and inspiration from many others, past and present, and she is improvising responses in the present, guided by promptings from other people and the living Spirit of God. These promptings are a melody she and the others hear in their minds and hearts, portions of which have been heard in the past and portions of which have not yet been heard. The melody includes what has been played but also what can be played. It can change with time, and it is called Christianity.
This Spirit, then, is the breathing of God present in the world. Not just in Christians but in lots of people. It is the light that enlightens all people or, to shift the metaphor, the animating spirit that gives life to all. The breathing was revealed in a unique and wonderful way in Jesus, but the breathing was not exhausted by him. It was, and is, the deep calling -- the Logos -- by which the universe came into existence and continues in its journey through time. The Spirit can never be contained in a simple formula and always the Spirit is inviting us to become the best we can be, channels of love.
At least this is what we hear from Reverend Monica Corsaro, herself a Christian minister, in Theology of Jazz and Who Cares and So What. We hear something similar from Patricia Adams Farmer, also a minister, in her tribute to Dave Brubeck: Theology in 5/4 Time. Both are drawn to the idea that improvisational jazz offers a metaphor for the healthy Christian life, and both are influenced by process theology. In the tradition of process thinking, they see God's presence as a source of creative transformation in the world and the universe, and they see Jesus as living embodiment of such transformation, in whose footsteps Christians rightly seek to walk and whose journey they rightly share.
The model may be especially timely in light of the four tectonic shifts we find in culture today, as adumbrated by the Rev. Dr. L. Gregory Jones, a theology professor at United Methodist-related Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. The shifts are (1) the digital revolution, (2) the multi-nodal revolution, amid which people live at different levels simultaneously and there is no 'central authority' or single way of doing things, (3) the growing inequality of rich and poor, and (4) the worldwide migration to the cities. These are trends that are apparent to all of us, and we are grateful to Gregory Jones for naming them in his talk to the Methodists in Indiana. We would add a couple more trends that he may or may not have mentioned in his lecture: (5) the increasing deterioration of life-support systems, (5) wars based on ethnic and religious hatreds, including the threat of nuclear war; and (6) an ever-increasing awareness that we live in a world of many faiths, which is itself part of the multi-nodal revolution. Can Christian ministers, and leaders in other faith as well, help us respond to these crises?
Those of us in the process community speak of a need to develop new ways of thinking in response to these tectonic shifts. We believe that the very Spirit who dwells within each person simultaneously beckons the whole of humanity toward the following shifts, adumbrated by John B. Cobb, Jr., in Five Foundations for a New Civilization.
And we believe that Christians, in the context of local church communities, can be at the healing edge of cultivating these new ways. Our biblical traditions and practices, our creeds and rituals, our potluck suppers and lay ministries, are all context for innovating in the very ways identified above. For example, Jesus -- understood as the risen Christ who lives with us today -- provides us with our model and inspiration for living beyond social conventions of we-they thinking into a more inclusive and generous form of life. And the celebration of the Eucharist invites us to recognize that there is more, so much more, to God's presence that the hyper-individualism that permeates our multi-nodal world.
The innovations we need today can be nourished by the best of our own past, which contains within it oceans of possibility for the future. Still, we cannot be overly parochial. We need to be, in the words of the article on the right, border-crossers, who have the freedom and courage to recognize the Spirit of God in others who are unfamiliar: including other people, of course, and also other living beings and the earth. The Spirit widens our horizons even as the Spirit deepens our capacities for entering into loving relationships. How to do this?
Perhaps the practical advice of Professor Jones offers a key. It is in fact to stay on pitch as we improvise our way into the future: Persevance, Interpretive Charity, Truthfulness, Courage to See Possibilities, and, not least Humor. For those of us in the process traditions, these are indeed gifts of the Spirit, as charismatic in their way as are other gifts.
Can leaders emerge who are growing in these ways and who can help us all grow? I hope so. I speak as a lay Christian myself, not an elder in the church but a partner in faith, in pilgrimage with others in the Christian communion.
Our need is to recognize that tradition itself is a creative process, with a future as well as a past. We can sing new songs in the future, building upon songs sung by our ancestors, and in order to do so we must be inventive. A living tradition is like a jazz concert, forever improvising itself in the present in light of jazz standards inherited from the past. Somehow we hear a calling and the calling is toward novelty, without leaving our past behind. This calling is God's living spirit.
Leadership is seeing possibilities: Duke prof says church needs to pay attention to shifting culture
“A leader is one who sees and takes responsibility for seeing the possibilities in people and processes for the sake of tradition innovation.”
– Greg Jones
GREENCASTLE, Ind. – When it comes to American culture, “We don’t know where we are going, but we are doing it at warp speed,” the Rev. Dr. L. Gregory Jones, a theology professor at United Methodist-related Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C., told more than 60 people who attended the 100th anniversary presentation of the Mendenhall Lectures Nov. 7 at United Methodist-related DePauw University in Greencastle.
Jones, who lived in Greencastle from age 5 to 9 years, said he felt comfortable being back in his childhood home church. His father, the Rev. Dr. Smith Jameson Jones, Jr., was senior pastor at Gobin Memorial United Methodist Church in the 1960s before moving to Denver, Colo., to become president of Iliff School of Theology in 1969 where he served until his retirement in 1981.
Characteristics of change
Jones claimed the “tectonic plates of culture are shifting.” He said we are seeing a type of change that only takes place every 500 years or so. The last such shift was in the 1500s with the introduction of the Gutenberg press. Like 500 years ago, technology is driving this change, too – this time digital technology.
He said there are deep trends taking place in the way we do business today – the way we do everything. “The digital revolution is so profound that no one will live long enough to experience the end of this revolution.”
Second, this change is what Jones called “multi-nodal.” This means we live on many levels with many groupings of politics, economics and population existing at the same time and even in the same geographic area. There is no majority, no central way of doing anything.
Third, “There continues to be a growing inequality of the rich and the poor,” he said. For example, in China, cities have billionaires while people in rural areas live on a dollar-a-day. Such inequality a century ago in Russia during the reign of Katherine the Great led to the Russian revolution.
Four, there is a mass movement from rural to cities – cities of more than 10 million people. “In India, there is a new city being built during the next eight years that will exceed 17 million residents,” he said.
To these characteristics, says Jones, overlapping trends have made progress more difficult. The gap between haves and have-nots is growing rapidly. These trends are calling for a new way of leadership. Leadership develop has shifted and the models of leadership have changed.
Defunct biblical leadership
He said there are three types of biblical leadership that don’t work. Aaron leadership is tied to the golden calf story – giving people what they want. The ten-spies model is leadership tied to the story of the 12 spies sent to the promised land to scout it out – 10 came back against invading, 2 for – Joshua and Caleb were out voted. (Jones quipped, “Every church has a ‘go back to Egypt’ committee.”) The Malchizedek (Genesis 14, Hebrew 7) model of leadership is one without a genealogy – innovation becomes an idol of making it up as we go along.
Jones said what we must do in the church is to connect the best of the past to the future. He called this “traditional innovation.” He used a jazz group as an example of mixing the past and genuine creativity for the future. This is the heart of leadership today.
Who is a leader today?
Jones quoted from Brene Brown of the University of Houston who, in her Ted.com presentation “The Power of Vulnerability” and “Listening to sham,” says, according to Jones: “A leader is anyone who takes responsibility for seeing the possibilities in people and processes.” Jones pointed out that this says nothing about titles.
Jones embellished it by saying, “A leader is one who sees and takes responsibility for seeing the possibilities in people and processes for the sake of tradition innovation.”
This avoids the three types of biblical leadership outlined earlier. “This leadership is seeing possibilities in the world in which we live,” he said.
We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, those who have given to us convictions and life. But, “only God is pure innovation,” he said.
He then warned, “We are in great trouble around the health of our institutions – all of them – government, health care, education, business, religion – you name it – sports. Our institutions are in trouble. They are fragmented and fracturing. At best we cynically refer to them as necessary evils.”
If we are to succeed, “we will need to develop a new mindset.” We need to be border crossers. We need to learn the way other intellectuals think, such as the spatial way architects think – the way other intellectuals see the world. Part of this is being multi-linguistic. When we learn another language, we learn more about our own language.
address the deeper challenges of life through people and processes by crossing traditional borders and realizing that learning is life-long, with ongoing patterns of learning.
He said learning growth is a way of living. Higher education institutions, in the form of residential learning, need to become institutions of learning throughout life. We now depend on credentials rather than the ability to learn.
“We spend too much time looking for leaders based on their credentials, rather than learning about their capacity for growth,” he said.
He ended his hour-long presentation by outling five virtues of character he called PITCH. “Staying on pitch.” They include:
He closed with the example of Marguerite Barankitse, who worked for the Catholic bishop in Burundi, saw her family executed during the civil war in 1993. Being spared, her goal was to rebuild the village that was destroyed. She rescued 25 children, built buildings, introduced micro-finances and agriculture. She now builds schools in other African countries. She calls her organization Maison Shalom (House of Peace), which in the past 15 years has helped more than 30,000 young people and families. According to Jones, she credits her success to the reality that “love made me an inventor.”
“That’s the kind of leadership we need in the 21st century,” Jones said.