The Diminished Chord of the Christian Life

October 22, 2010 — Leave a comment

[This post is part of the Reshaping Christian Habits series]

My old percussion teacher used to joke that in a performance situation, if you made several audible mistakes, you could always claim you were doing afterward that you “were just playing jazz.” I have since passed this insight on to my students when prepping them for recitals.

For them though, and maybe for you as well, the humor of this might need to be explained. Part of what my instructor was getting at is that for the average listener, an errant note in the midst of a jazz performance is scarcely noticeable. The harmonies are so intricate and outside of the typical ones found in most popular music that many people wouldn’t notice a glaringly wrong note here and there.

The flipside of this is that for most people, jazz can sound like a persistent string of mistakes. Jazz relies heavily on dissonant harmonies, harmonies that standing by themselves would not be categorized as pleasing to most people. A diminished chord is a specific chord structure rarely employed in popular music, but heavily present in jazz. Of the available types of triads (3 note chords) the diminished is the most dissonant, and for many people, it is this dissonance that makes jazz a bit off-putting.

Now, the other part of what my instructor was a getting at is that jazz relies heavily on improvisation, which technically, cannot contain mistakes. Since the melody and sometimes the chord progression are being composed off the cuff by whoever is leading the trio (or the solo performer) there cannot technically be a wrong note since there is no piece of music they are endeavoring to faithfully reproduce. They are in the act of creating something new and while it is not so much the case that anything goes, it is the case that an errant note is not really wrong in the same sense that playing a B flat when the sheet music calls for a B natural is.

So what’s the point?

In claiming after a performance that you were playing jazz, you are saying two things:

  • What may have sounded like a mistake to you was actually carefully planned
  • Some parts were improvised and so can’t contain mistakes

Great. So what does this have to do with anything? Well, I think the Christian life is sometimes like playing jazz. This implies two things which correspond to the above two points:

  • It takes an experience performer to do it well
  • It is a collaborative effort that requires submission to a leader and willingness to create new songs

For the first point, this is really just another way of saying it takes a mature believer to really live the Christian life well. Growth in the Christian life is very much like the development of a musician. Some people take off faster than others, but there are certain areas of competence that you need to grow in in order to play music well. The pinnacle in many respects is the ability to play jazz.

However, for many younger Christians, the type of jazz older, mature believers are able to play sounds dissonant at times, and appears to contain mistakes. Just like most of the children I teach are not fond of jazz, most younger (read: weaker) brothers in the Christian faith have not yet discovered the liberty in harmonics that will let them create jazz chords in their own life.

The response is not to tone down the colorful harmonies, but to help mature the younger brothers so they have the skills they need to play better music. Once they have reached that point though, the ability to play in a new genre doesn’t just naturally emerge. They have to be immersed in it, to listen to it, and to attempt it a few times and make some mistakes. Occasionally, there may some reluctance to take this step, but like flying, sometimes the only way to learn is to be pushed out of the nest.

In regards to the second point, this is just another way of saying the Christian life is not a paint by numbers kind of gig. Legalists will tend to reduce Christianity to that sort of thing. You’ll be given a blank sheet and some primary colors and told to stay inside the lines…or else! Musically, this is the insistence of orchestrating all the notes to the song yourself and then reproducing sheet music for everyone else to follow.

But walking in the Spirit so as to not fulfill the desires of the flesh is certainly no paint by numbers experience, and its definitely no intricate sheet music we’re all to faithfully reproduce. We’ve been given a chord sheet to follow, but no specific notes to play in each given measure of music. If Christianity is to be conceived as a jazz trio, you and I are in this together, improvising to the Spirit’s lead. This may lead into harmonic relationships we would have never thought of or envisioned, but that’s part of where improv gets you. It takes skill to do well, and many people are not up for the challenge.

To faithfully imrpov in the Christian life though, we need to develop the skills to do so, but also to remember that we are not leading the band. Christ, though His Holy Spirit will let us know the chord changes we need to make, our job will be to move with them and be the musicians that he uses to create new songs. There are guidelines to making music this way, but it is much more advanced than a “just these four chords and no more” kind of approach to music.

In all of this, He must increase, and I must decrease as John the Baptist recognized. The more of Christ one shows in their life, the more the music of one’s life will shift into the realms of jazz. It seems in the end, the Christian life is about learning to be “diminished” in a new and beautiful way.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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