By Dr. Brian Bantum, Divinity ’03
Assistant Professor of Theology
Seattle Pacific University
Houston Baker discussed the power of the Harlem Renaissance and black artistic expression as the “mastery of form and the deformation of mastery.“ By this phrase Baker refers to the power of black artists to master the forms of European artistic expression and then turn them inside out to re-express notions of human freedom that were denied by the very same European forms that sought to oppress and enslave them.
Listening to John Coltrane’s 1961 version of “My Favorite Things“ I could not help but be reminded of Baker’s analysis, but also being a theologian I began to imagine the possibilities for theological reflection.
The iconic “My Favorite Things“ of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical “The Sound of Music“ still reminds me of post-Christmas hot chocolate and the ideal of romping through the hills in familial bliss, leaving all of the nastiness of a Nazi regime far, far away.
But in Coltrane’s rendition only 2 years later, the familial bliss remains within the horror. Coltrane’s “favorite things“ takes place not upon the placid hills of a neutral borderland, but within the torment of a violent America, and his own tortured soul.
The refrain recalling one’s favorite things are not uttered in secure possibility. In this time everything the black man or woman wants or desires is punctuated by their refusal. They are thirsty, but there is a fountain they cannot drink from. They want a house, but there is always a house they can never have, they want to teach, to be a doctor, to travel… all of these possibilities are always punctuated by a declarative NO.
In the gaps of these refusals they still find joy, they still find one another. In this respect to speak of your favorite things is to confess both the joys, the small things that bring meaning to your life and comfort you in moments of fear or despair, but these things can never be spoken of in a tidy way. They are always bound to the death, the refusal, the dehumanization of the modern world upon dark bodies.
Coltrane moves within the piece at one moment stripping down the melody to its barest elements and then flows into addition, to filling out the melody in ways that one could not have thought possible. Both moments deepen and widen the significance of the melody. But here additions and the reductions account for the paradox of one’s desires in Coltrane’s time. Desires here were always met with refusals, hope with death, an ebb and flow of finding enough in the scarcity and making something out of nothing, and yet in this paradox of wanting what one could not have: they yet had, they desired, they found joy.
The stripping down and the reductions do not distort the song, they do not render the song irrational but in fact point to the paradox of our own lives as having what we ought not to want, and bending towards that which is not meant for us, while still refusing that which is intended for us.
Coltrane deepens our understanding of our condition by laying bare our desires and the refusal of these desires. Within the churchly space we do not meet God with our own order, but with being laid bare and being shown who we are. This encounter throws us into the dynamic range of God’s song where we must lament our own failures, confess our own misshapen desires. We must cry out for we are refused and oppressed and yet in the midst of this we also sing that sweet melody of hope, that refrain of God’s promise that never grows quiet in the wailing of our brothers and sisters or their quiet meditations.
In the dynamic movement of this song we find order, we find God. Order is our being misshapen, “de-ranged” and re-arranged. Sometimes it is not us but our neighbor who is confronted with their own powerlessness and must cry out. sometimes it is our neighbor who bears a quiet certainty that witnesses to God’s faithfulness. Perhaps the question is not how do we order these two seemingly disparate moments, but rather what is it that prevents us from binding these realities (and the people who so often exhibit them) from finding a home in the same space? Thus it is not a question of ordering music or art, or thoughts, but becoming undone by a new social arrangement.
It is this amalgamation of despair and possibility that I find so compelling within Coltrane’s rendition. And while the song seemed rooted within a European ideal (or an American idealization of Europe), Coltrane’s rendition speaks to its deepest possibility, mastering the form of its quiet longings but also wrapping those longings within the deep pain of the present. In this way, it spoke dramatically to its contemporary moment in a way that Hammerstein probably could not have imagined himself.
Is it possible for theologians to re-imagine themselves and their work within Coltrane’s re-imagination of “My Favorite Things?“ So many concerned for justice and mercy have found Christianity or at least its doctrine as the central culprit. But is it possible for us to utter this tune anew, to master the form so that we might deform the mastery? Is it necessary that we leave the central claims concerning our God? That the child in the manger was God? That the resurrection was not a symbol, but a real moment of liberation for now and a time to come? Is it possible to think of theological liberation apart from these claims? This is the possibility of theological reflection. Theology done “classically“ is a theology that idealizes a past imaging a possibility for a future in a neutral land. But perhaps theology (and our Christian lives) might be able to imagine the claims of the Christian tradition anew, mastering its forms in order to unleash it for new work in a broken world whose masters have mistaken themselves for gods.
Can our theology utter dissonant tones and shrieking of righteous anger and yet still remind us of “our favorite thing“ even when “when the bee stings, when the dogs bark…”
I hope this is the case. For my darker brothers and sisters who have and are having questions concerning the possibility of theology, of the claims of the church that have stretched so long... Coltrane can speak to us about the possibilities of these claims. We can sing this song and in a way that can remind creation of its calling in the midst of its unfaithfulness.
To those who so vehemently “defend“ the faith, who uphold orthodoxy in the face of its attackers... is it possible that in our stripping down of the melody we have sung it truer? Perhaps the improvisational runs and dissonant chords of we, your darker brothers and sisters have spoken to a truth not visible within the neat logic of Western philosophy.
I do not know the answer to these questions, but I do believe Coltrane has something to teach us on the way.