PRE-ORDER “Thriving on a Riff: Jazz and the Spiritual Life” by William Carter — but first, a review of the recent Square Halo Conference and a reminder of “Why Everything That Doesn’t Matter Matters So Much” by Peacock & Ashworth – 20% OFF

If you are hoping to pre-order Thriving on a Riff: Jazz and the Spiritual Life you can (if you want) scroll down to the lower portion of this BookNotes column to see my review of it. But first, I invite you to hear about a very impressive recent event of which I was a part… and consider another new book, too, that is very, very good.
I’m sitting with my laptop across my lap in the back of the exquisite Great Hall in the old and wonderful downtown Lancaster Trust Performing Arts Center, an old downtown bank repurposed wonderfully for the common good of the city by Lancaster Bible College. We have sold books there before and have heard concerts (including a memorable evening with Bill Mallonee) and lectures (from Esther Meek on epistemology to Wes Hill on friendship to Mako Fujimura on artful culture care) Folks here at the annual Square Halo conference are now filtering in from other workshops, conversations, art-making experiences. I did a well-received talk on why reading widely is important for Christian living and it was good to be preaching to the choir. In many ways, the creative folks gathered at this event — inspired by the hospitable, lovely, thoughtful grace of the late Leslie Bustard who helped run the show before her death not even a year ago — is my tribe. Beth was herself out of town, but she, too, would have loved this energetic coalition of various ages, denominations, and styles, from the most hipster young artists to buttoned down conservative clergy to graying old hippies, all united around a generous orthodoxy of faith (what a delight to know there were Catholic deacons and priests, Mennonites of various sorts, high church Anglicans and low church charismatics, local Methodists and Baptists from other states, with Reformed folks of all stripes from within the alphabet soup of Presbyterianism) gladly side by side wondering how to nurture and live out a sense, as the conference theme has it, of “creativity, collaboration, and community.”
And this year they approached those beautiful goals by inviting us to revisit (re-enter?) Narnia. Beside the lectures by folks that know the Chronicles so very well there was a Narnia play, a gallery display of art inspired by Narnia, original music inspired by Narnia — everything but Turkish Delight. It took us further up and further in.
There were a few workshops recorded live for podcasts (including one with Square Halo Books creative director Ned Bustard in conversation with North Carolinian Stephen Roach (author of the very nice Naming the Animals) and Coloradan Brian Brown (leader of the thoughtful Anselm Society and author of the excellent collection Why We Create.) There was a (nearly) graduate level seminar on C.S. Lewis as reader and writer by Corey Latta (author of C. S. Lewis and the Art of Writing: What the Essayist, Poet, Novelist, Literary Critic, Apologist, Memoirist, Theologian Teaches Us about the Life and Craft of Writing) and a delightfully inspired presentation by a New York City kindergarten teacher offering innovative picture books that could be used to enliven the imaginations of little ones and even community something about the mystery of the Holy Spirit. Did I mention I think this was surely my tribe, creative folks who care about the world, who gather in both joy and lament? You should come to next year’s Square Halo event!
The first plenary talk was by Rev. David Bisgrove who has been a long-time pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York. He spoke movingly about the loss of his friend Tim Keller but also of the Square Halo leader, Leslie Bustard, inviting us all into the darkness and grief of our fallen world, even as Jesus himself invited his discipleship into that deep moment of doubt and dread in the garden before his arrest.
The newly released volume of Leslie’s poetry, essays, and CaringBridge pieces, Tiny Thoughts That I’ve Been Thinking was popular there and there was a workshop presented by friends and family to help folks engage with some of her “tiny thoughts.” (I couldn’t bear to attend it, thinking I would just weep through it all, so I missed it, but I share with you now that Leslie was honored well by her colleagues curating such a fine event.) 
Three keynote addresses were offered by the remarkable Lewis aficionado and scholar, Middlebury College prof and book lover, Matthew Dickerson; I mentioned his brand new Aslan’s Breath: Seeing the Holy Spirit in Narnia in the previous BookNotes announcing how really is good it is and how it should be greatly appreciated by the vast network of Lewis scholars, institutes, centers, reading groups. Spread the word about this new one — there is nothing like it.
After taking in a few other workshops with folks who know the Lewis oeuvre so well, such as the brilliant Corey Latta, author of C.S. Lewis and the Art of Writing, I’m again inspired to more graciously read — as Lewis would put it in Experiments in Criticism — in a way that “receives” a book, not merely “uses” it. Lewis famously noted that the first posture one must have when taking up a book is surrender. A receptive attitude was what I was so happy to see in this motley crew of faithful learners at the Square Halo event. Everybody I met was eager and open, trusting God for good stuff to happen, in spite of possible hardships, which was just a lovely mood to inhabit, kind of like going into a wardrobe and awaiting Spring.
Interestingly and perhaps providentially, Dickerson, too, among other things, highlighted lament in Narnia, reading beautiful passages when Alsan invites Shasta to “tell me your sorrows” and who weeps with Digory at the end of The Magician’s Nephew. Oh my, there was such rich, human, good, healing content.

And what a delight to hang out with so many interesting people — from Tom Becker who hosts the extraordinary Row House conversations in Lancaster (and wrote about his approach in Good Posture, a book we often recommend) to Matt Wheeler who has a CD inspired by the short stories of Wendell Berry to long-time H&M supporter Chris MacIntosh (who has the longest running rock radio show in America, out of a college station in New York, where he plays the very best of hard-to-find, artfully crafted, indie Christian rock) to many of the contributors to some of our favorite Square Halo anthologies, like the fabulous one about kid’s books (Wild Things and Castles in the Sky: A Guide to Choosing the Best Books for Children) or Ordinary Saints: Living Everyday Life to the Glory of God (where I have a chapter, by the way) or finding those who contributed to the fabulous It Was Good Making Art to the Glory of God and It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God. To connect faces and stories of people whose names we’ve seen in books is so nice. And — you know who you are — how rewarding and refreshing it was to catch up with old friends and valued customers.

Doing book announcements up front is always fun, and Ned invited me up to highlight titles by saying I have the “spiritual gift of bookselling.” (And, for the record, I was not the bookseller at this event — how odd being at a conference as an ordinary participant.) He was being half-funny, but there is something somewhat Holy Spirited, I think, about this vocation of telling people about books and authors, even here, too, for those who have ears to hear.

Something special sometimes happens when I’m up front, like when I was highlighting the marvelous third volume of the extraordinary Every Moment Holy liturgies/prayer books, by writer and editor Doug McKelvey, only to realize that he was in the room. He, too — along with circles of friends from places like Rabbit Room in Nashville or Laity Lodge in Texas or Jubilee in Pittsburgh — values the Square Halo team, both their publishing efforts and their conferences that offer theology and the arts and culture and friendship. And there he was.

Thanks for allowing me to bring this little glimpse of at least one of the nodes of our networks that become our Hearts & Minds bookish ecosystem. You may not know or even care much about these sorts of events or this particular batch of books and authors and readers. But I bet you “get it” and understand why Hearts & Minds appreciates these sorts of generous, gracious, book-loving gatherings. Maybe you know someone longing for this kind of interaction, longing more for honest faith in the real world, drawing on themes of “creativity, collaboration, and community.” The local church is important, of course, but we find that some of our readers are looking to connect with others behond their parochial faith communities — these BookNotes might even be a lifeline. We hope our suggestions somehow help.
I will name two books for you that might inspire you to dig deeper in this sort of creative, caring, Christian way of being in the world. Both are splendid, each in their own way. The first is available now, the second a pre-order, coming next month. 
Why Everything That Doesn’t Matter Matters So Much:The Way of Love in a World of Hurt Charlie Peacock & Andi Ashworth (Thomas Nelson) $19.99 //  OUR SALE PRICE = $15.99

First, I will remind you of a book that I had in our last BookNotes that is now available and which fits nicely into the Square Halo vibe. I refer you to my earlier comments about Why Everything That Doesn’t Matter Matters So Much by Charlie Peacock and Andi Ashworth. Ned and his late wife Leslie are named in the acknowledgments page of this new book (right there near Bono’s name, I like to point out) and Square Halo is listed in a short list of resources in the back, so, truly, this book is a great read for anyone who cares about the sorts of stuff — “How to Live Like a Narnian” as one workshop presenter put it — explored at the Square Halo gathering.
Charlie is a music performer and producer and he and his wife, Andi, have created spaces to encourage artists and culture-makers in several cities throughout North America. They both have written good, good books, and this updates their hard-earned insights about living out of a consistently Christian world and life view, embodying life-giving practices for the common good, particularly by showing love in a world that is so desperate for decency and kindness and grace. This is their wisdom, for many sides of a rich, well-lived life.

Why Everything That Doesn’t Matter Matters… is warm and kind — the chapters seem to be like letters to us, dear readers — from either Charlie or Andi. Some are indeed about the vocation of being an artist. One is for musicians and music lovers, but an early one gets practical and for us all, called “Why Bother Learning to Cook.” It is written “to those who hunger and thirst for something more.” There is a lovely piece about shelter (for those who “long to love a place and use it well) and a later chapter on being hospitable — “Havens of Grace”, as they put it. Most BookNotes readers, I trust, will really appreciate the wisdom about being a concerned citizen, and another good bit of sanctified common sense about “Talking about Jesus in the Public Square” (which is good for any public speaker or writer, of any kind. Do you blog or Substack or keep a journal, even? You need that chapter.) Lest you think this is mostly about public theology and artful, creative, culture-making there are really practical chapters, too, that just sing with stories and wisdom. There’s stuff about “Knowing When It’s Time to Move” (subtitled: “To Those Considering a Big Change”) and a beautiful chapter (the first I read, actually) for the sick and suffering. There’s a good chapter on marriage, one on parenting (although it is good for any teacher of students — that chapter is called “The Cathedral of God’s Hands”) and there is one called “Soil and Soul” which, like most of the book, is really for “dreamers, beautiful and broken, wonderful and weary.”

I so wish Andi A. and Charlie P. could have joined their friends at Square Halo in Lancaster: their savvy wisdom about culture-making, artcraft, and public life, and the basic stuff about finding time to write, how to care well in home-making, and otherwise being, as they put it in the first chapter, “on the lookout for redemption,” would have fit right in. Andi was nearly a mentor to Leslie, and a blurb of Charlie’s about the new book of Leslie’s “tiny thoughts” was shown on a screen throughout the event. Whether you know this gang or feel connected to them or not, I sincerely invite you to get this very fine book.

For what it is worth, they’ve been on podcasts and online venues often, but you could check them out at the upcoming Trinity Forum event, Friday, March 22nd, staring at 1:30 EST, which we are co-sponsoring. Please, please, consider sharing this info; Trinity Forum’s Cherie Harder is an excellent host and wise conversation partner making their webinars among the best out there. It’s going to be a really great hour.
Learn more and pre-register here.
Thriving on a Riff: Jazz and the Spiritual Life William G. Carter (Broadleaf) $26.99


Next, I will commend to you this forthcoming one, one of my very favorite recent reads, a book that is due out in mid-April. You can send us a pre-order now and we will send it as soon as it arrives next month — which you’ll get at our 20% BookNotes discount. 

I really think you should consider pre-ordering my friend Rev. William Carter’s forthcoming book which in his own way as a mainline preacher and jazz performer, digs deep into the soil of innovation and creativity, asking how jazz music can help us — literally, I think, but also as a metaphor — understand our life and times, maturing in a more faithful sort of improvisation of our faith and discipleship. I’ll bet you’ve rarely read anything like it.
This excellent book uses in the title the language of spirituality but it is not mostly about prayer or solitude, quiet Christian disciplines of silence or fasting. Sure, as a pastor Bill knows well the practices explored and taught in books like Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline or Ruth Haley Barton’s Sacred Rhythms or Marjorie Thompson’s Soul Feast. But when this book invites us to a jazz-inspired spirituality it means a sort of living in the world, a way of life infused by the music of faith, an integral sort of daily discipleship. Bill admits in the opening pages that “spirituality is a slippery term.” Yes, our interior life where we have an intimate sort of relationship with God is part of this, but discipleship and Christian faithfulness is much, much more. For this author it is akin (as he beautifully describes) to the awakened sense of belonging experienced by Thomas Merton in his famous description of his experience at a busy intersection in Louisville, and a sense of being alive, “completely alive.”
And Thriving on a Riff helps open us up to this encounter with God and life and the world in entertaining, informative, and fascinating ways.
The music of jazz, Reverend Carter notes, is both intellectually complex and often deeply emotional. “Jazz connects the head and heart”, he says, “suggesting a more inclusive way to plumb the depths of heaven and earth. A creative imagination unites with tapping feet. It’s both-and.” I love that.

And, this:

“If jazz is spiritual, it does not lift us off the ground, detaching us from the hard realities of life. The music’s spiritual power is a holy animation in the thick of real life.”

Carter is right on, showing that he is reflecting on real life. (As Charlie Peacock, himself a jazz player, puts it, “a new way to be human.”) Carter writes that he is talking about:

“a spiritual life. Not merely faith. Neither is it religion, which suggests venerable altars with lots of behavioral rules. Faith and religion have shaped my identity and moral foundation, but music invites us to go deeper into the Mystery that we never quite capture in religious language.”
Let me tell you about three things this great new Thriving book does. 
First it actually teaches — in a terrific, enthusiastic style that keeps you turning the pages to hear his next story — a whole lot about the history and importance of American jazz. There are several books like this, including the must-read 2022 release by William Edgar (another Reformed thinker who plays a mean bit of jazz on the keys) A Supreme Love: The Music of Jazz and the Hope of the Gospel, and, say, various theological studies of certain artists and their work, like the vivid book on Coltrane by Jamie Howison called God’s Mind in That Music: Theological Explorations Through the Music of John Coltrane. But Thriving on a Riff is the best I’ve read. It is simply a must for musicians or music fans, and jazz-lovers will surely dig it. A few of the characters and stories may be well known, but most of it was new to me, and really exciting. Even those of us who are not full fans, or who only dabble (or don’t at all!) in the genre, will find it really, really helpful.
I know this is sort of teacherly of me — remember that spiritual gift of bookselling? — but it seems to me that this is one of the topics where everybody should know something, and this is the most painless way to learn a bit about the roots and rise and philosophy of the art form. Jazz really is important, especially in American music, and you have surely heard bits and pieces here and there about how significant it all is. (Maybe you’ve appreciated Ken Burn’s 2021 documentary work on this, just like he did that amazingly compelling series on country music.) This book will help bring you up to speed. I promise you you won’t regret it. 
Secondly, it shows just how jazz works, and this is really interesting and really, really valuable. Others have said it, but Bill knows this stuff in his gut, in his bones, and plays it regularly as a working musician; jazz does things like celebrating improvisation. It is exceptionally collaborative. It often works in the minor key. If the book was only about those three practices, so to speak, habits that have to be learned and lived, it would make Thriving on a Riff a great and beneficial read, but he covers more. That he explores these sorts of jazz-stylings, and applies them to living in God’s good but broken world, well, it’s nearly genius. It would be a good book if it was only to hear Bill explain how these things are invaluable for healthy and effective living, but he helps Christians, especially, embrace  these kinds of things we get from jazz, as keys to our discipleship. 
(I do think, by the way, that even though this is an overtly Christian book with overtly theological themes  — Bill is a Presbyterian (USA) pastor and really good preacher — it would be appreciated by nearly any sort of reader, of those with other faiths or no faith. Geesh — this is, again, about being human, awake, alive.  It is a warm and interesting book and even in those parts where he relates jazz to Christian growth, he is, like the best jazz musicians, open-minded and open-hearted not always on the nose, but telling it slant.
So, yes, this is about Christian formation, but the book is for anyone even vaguely interested in a creative exploration of how jazz can help us live a more intense and creative life. For instance, there is an excellent chapter called “Broken But Beautiful — What It Means to Be Human” that, well, is pretty darn universal, starting off as it does, with a certain song that pierced his heart after having broken up with a young woman in college. He has a lovely little section about friendship and generosity with a beautiful story of Wynton Marsalis’s band going out of their way to visit an older jazz hero (Clark Terry) in the hospital. Nobody is going to forget that story or fail to be touched by it. 
Thirdly, besides Thriving on a Riff,  being a fine introduction to the history and philosophy of jazz in it various sub-genres and styles, and besides being a guide to seeing how their beloved themes of things like improvisation can be harnessed for fruitful, faithful living, there is another layer of stuff happening here. Like most jazz, I gather, not unlike the best classical music or the best prog rock, there is often more going on than the immediate melody. So, like most generative and creative authors, there are more than one or two simple “lessons” of this book. Hooray!
It becomes obvious that Bill knows that for a follower of Jesus, who himself stood in a long line of Hebrew prophets, there is no authentic Christian life that doesn’t involve in some way standing for justice, for mercy, for social and cultural reformation. We are in a world in need of repair and while this book is what Don Saliers calls “a love song to the art and genius of improvisation” and it invites us to ponder about how we can be inspired by music, it also shows that a life that comes alive is also a life that wants to make a difference, to help heal the wounds of our world. Is it an accident that much of this jazz genre, and some of the vivid stories told in this book, are about the black experience in America?
One doesn’t have to study Howard Thurman or Martin King or Cornel West to appreciate that there is something important about race and justice that black artists have to tell us. (Do you recall the book we highlighted a while back by Claude Atcho called Reading Black Books: How African American Literature Can Make Our Faith More Whole and Just?) Bill does that for us here, explaining powerful songs, from the moving pages (“Lamenting on the Horn”) about Coltrane’s 1961 composition “Alabama” about the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham to the importance of the 1939 song “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday. And, man, I was glad to learn about Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus”, which was a critique of the shameful racism of the then-governor of Arkansas who was famously holding up integration in a high school in Little Rock. I didn’t know that.
I think Thriving on a Riff can help you find your purpose, your place in God’s choir, and hopefully inspire you to be more deeply aware of — and perhaps feel — the sorrows and injustices in our world. Want to make the world a better place? This book, perhaps surprisingly to some, can help. Carter tells us early in the book that “the dissonant tones offer a prophetic judge toward justice.”
There is even more here in this page-turner of a fabulous book. Bill talks about his friendship with jazz legend Dave Brubeck. He tells of clubs and bars in which he and his Presbybop band have played. He talks about being a preacher and pastor, telling stories of some wild innovations using jazz in churches. He writes about King David, about Vince Guaraldi, about a working jazz musician (who played in the band of Harry Connick, Jr.)  whose child was murdered at Sandy Hook and some fun stories of his own music ministry. He even has some free verse poetry which works very well between the chapters. Thriving on a Riff is the real deal, learned and passionate, hard-hitting and uplifting from a guy born to “pray the piano.” Order it today.
If you consider yourself to be ‘spiritual,’ and if you have any interest in music–especially the sublime and moving genre of jazz–you must read this masterpiece of a book. Bill Carter has lived at the intersection of Spirit and Jazz for years, and now he shares captivating stories and illuminating insights that can challenge and form our faith in deeper, richer, more melodious ways. Bravo, Maestro! —  The Rev. Peter M. Wallace, emeritus host of the Day1 radio/podcast program.

The stories, insightful connections to theological thought and spiritual experience, and unabashed passion of Thriving on a Riff will be memorable music to your soul. Take your time and savor; there is vibrant reflective inspiration here. Moreover, I take personal joy in knowing that this fine, meaningful offering adds more fuel to the fire of a belief I have held for many years: Jazz is the exclamation point to the Resurrection! — Kirk Byron Jones, author of The Jazz of Preaching: How to Preach with Great Freedom and Joy




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