Jamie Howison is a priest of the Anglican Church of Canada, and the founding pastoral leader of saint benedict’s table in Winnipeg, Manitoba. A slightly unconventional liturgical church community, saint benedict’s table insists on making a good deal of elbow room for musicians, artists, and writers. Committed to the idea that reading and writing are important elements of the pastoral life, his book God’s Mind in That Music: Theological Explorations through the Music of John Coltrane was published in 2012 by Cascade Books.
Along with jazz, he has passions for books, good coffee, fine food and decent wine… all of which he likes to enjoy on those cold Canadian winter nights, sitting by the wood stove in the company of his wife Catherine Pate.
Kelly Belmonte: What/Who/where are your consistent sources of inspiration? (i.e. What inspires you?)
Jamie Howison: Two writers have made an enormous impact on my theological imagination: the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, and the theological writer Robert Farrar Capon.
Brueggemann has a remarkable ability to work with the texts of the Hebrew scriptures in such a way that he makes them sing, and he does it without domesticating them or glossing over their many challenges. He’s pretty clear that these texts come from a world very different from our own, and that their meanings can be elusive, and yet he’s equally clear that our own world can profitably be read through the lenses provided by our most ancient stories and songs.
From Robert Capon I’ve learned of the wild audacity of grace. Capon is not nearly so well known as Brueggemann, and because he spent his writing and teaching life outside of the walls of academia he’s not someone whose work most people will encounter in theological school. Still, the people who do know his work tend to be passionate about it. I’m convinced that anyone thinking about studying theology should read his 1977 book Hunting the Divine Fox (anthologized in 1996 in The Romance of the Word). And any preacher would do well to keep a copy of Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus close at hand.
Music is my other great source of inspiration, and has been since I first discovered pop radio at the age of eleven. All through high school, university, and seminary some variation of rock music provided a soundtrack for my life. And I do mean a soundtrack, and not simply background music. My spiritual and theological views were deepened by people like Bruce Cockburn, my social consciousness raised by The Clash, and my world-view expanded by songwriters such as Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and Patti Smith.
About fifteen years ago I began to really discover jazz, and it has become the soundtrack of my middle age. The “gateway drug” was Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, but it wasn’t long before I discovered John Coltrane; the jazz world’s theological musician par excellence. His music isn’t always easy to absorb, but nine times out of ten it is worth the effort. In fact Coltrane’s record A Love Supreme may rival Capon’s books as being the most powerful proclamation of sheer grace.
KB: What current (still alive) artists (musicians, poets, painters, photographers, filmmakers, etc, etc…. of any kind) are you following/do you recommend?
JH: Both Capon and Brueggemann are still alive, so I’d have to count them in this list too! My research for my book took me deep into the work of several key writers, all of whom I can very confidently recommend. Two in particular spring to mind: Jeremy Begbie on music and theology, and Calvin Seerveld on the arts and Christian thought. I’ve also continued to explore the work of two significant African-American scholars, James Cone and Cornel West. Cone’s book The Spirituals and the Blues is such an important book, particularly for Christians who want to explore the social, religious, and political roots of popular music. And as for Cornel West, by turns his writing makes me laugh with delight and shudder with deep concern. The man writes (and speaks…) with all of the cadences of a great jazz player.
I’m also convinced that we shouldn’t neglect reading novels… “we” meaning people of faith in general, and clergy in particular. I’m a big fan of Ron Hansen, particularly of Mariette in Ecstasy, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and his most recent novel A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion. Hansen is a Christian (a Roman Catholic deacon, in fact), but his work is certainly not what one typically thinks of as being “Christian fiction.”
As for music, I find the improvisational genius of the Wayne Shorter Quartet simply exhilarating. Though Shorter self-identifies as a Buddhist, the other members of the quartet come with a Christian heritage, and the bass player John Patitucci is even a deacon in his Presbyterian church. Even though it sounds like a cliché, I’d have to say that while the quartet’s work is by no means “religious,” it is a very spiritual music. I’m also a big fan of the way in which The Vijay Iyer Trio, The Bad Plus, and E.S.T. have all taken the legacy of the pianist Bill Evans and his brilliant early 60s trio and moved it forward in fresh ways.
KB: How can readers of All Nine get involved in what you’re doing?
JH: The best way to get explore my work on John Coltrane is to go to the book website: http://godsmindinthatmusic.com/. And you know, if you do read the book it is always good to get feedback as to what you thought. As a friend of mine says, writers generally work without an echo, and so it is really nice to get a bit of engagement from someone who has read what you’ve written.
The other place to go is to our church site, which includes not only the standard thing like service times and sermons, but also has all kinds of original music, art and writing. http://stbenedictstable.ca/