There’s a saying in jazz that you have to learn the rules before you can break them. Music has certain underlying structures – rhythms, chords, harmonies, counterpoints, etc. If you don’t understand these structures and the rules that govern how they can come together to make an enjoyable song, you’re going to be a lousy composer.
Once you’ve mastered the rules, if you have some talent for such things, you can create an ear-tickling tune with them. And then, but only then, will you have the know how and judgment required to take all those rules and break them. Someone who hasn’t mastered the rules of music can break all the rules and create an ear-splitting cacophony. Someone who has mastered the rules, on the other hand, can break all the rules and create a beautiful, engaging, challenging and enjoyable piece of music.
This is how it works with all creative endeavors. That painting at the top of this post was done by Picasso. Phillip Glass, the modern American composer, is a trained student of the Western canon. Walt Wittman wrote conventional, metered poetry before publishing Leaves of Grass.
Occasionally, someone with innate genius benefits from not being properly trained and is able to create something new and innovative. But as a general rule, anyone who has a creative or artistic vision they want to bring to life must first master the underlying rules.
So, let’s bring this adage – you have to learn the rules before you can break them – into our own lives. In my last post, I pointed out that God’s first act with Adam was to ask him to act independently, using his own judgment and take on a role of power and responsibility.
This is quite the contrast to what we are usually taught in our churches. There, we are taught that we should seek God’s will, not our own. That we should lean not on our own understanding, but trust God’s instructions. That rather than following the path which seems right to us, we should follow the path which is obedient to God.
And you know what? All of those teachings from the church come right out of the bible. They aren’t lying or misleading anyone by teaching such things. And yet, right there at the very beginning of our faith’s account of our relationship with God, we see God handing Adam power and responsibility to act independently and use his own judgment. So what gives?
You have to learn the rules before you can break them.
Back at the beginning, God had Adam come up with names – consistent symbolic vocalizations – for the animals around him. Then he gave mankind just a couple of jobs. Tend to the garden and make babies. This was the level that Adam was working at: using words, getting food and having sex. Sort of like a young musician being given scales to practice. Basic, necessary, able to be mastered given a bit of time and dedication.
Once the serpent played his nasty little part, mankind suddenly needed to be able to improv a symphony all on his own. Living as God – as one who knows good and evil – is a much more complicated affair than remembering what a lion is called during an emergency, planting seeds and playing hide the sausage. We had never learned the underlying rules needed to live as one who knows good and evil.
Frankly, I don’t think we humans have ever really faced up to the fact that we have no idea what we’re doing. We’re really good at talking, eating and having sex, but that’s about it. When it comes to loving each other, organizing just societies, raising kids, dealing with differences and coping with life’s difficulties, we’re like a blind man telling a deaf guy how beautiful the sunset is. But rather than just admitting that, we insist that we know what we’re doing just fine and how dare you say otherwise! Poison ivy crotch coverings are all the rage in Paris this year!
The problem, it seems to me, is that the fruit of knowing good and evil is the right to declare judgment regarding what is good and evil. We got the fruit – the drive to judge – without ever having gained the prerequisite knowledge, understanding and skills needed to execute.
Basically, we’re a bunch of ignoramuses who think we know everything. And as any teacher knows, there’s no student so difficult to teach as one who thinks they already know everything. Which is exactly the task which God has been faced with lo these many millenia.
So, when the bible and our churches tell us to seek God’s will, study his word, be obedient, etc, it’s for a very good reason. In doing these things we are learning how to live as those who know good and evil. If we don’t submit to God’s ways and learn the lessons to be found in doing things his way, we will never master the underlying rules of life and love. And if we haven’t mastered these rules, then we will not have the skills, knowledge or judgment it takes to know how and when to break them.
God’s intention when making mankind was for us to live our own lives. He even made us our own world. We got to name the animals all by ourselves. We were asked by the Lord God Almighty to use our own creativity and make our own decisions. That’s how it’s supposed to be. But until we have submitted to the discipline of learning and practicing the rules, we are clanging gongs and crashing cymbals, calling ourselves jazz masters.
But as many of us have learned, after a while, God’s will becomes harder to find. Simply submitting to the rules starts to require finding an impossible balance between love and righteousness. And obeying becomes a problem when God won’t tell you what to do and you’re faced with the choice of obeying what your love trained heart instructs and what the church or other Christians say God requires.
What the church won’t tell you is that when that happens, it’s a sign that you’re ready to start breaking some rules. In fact, this is what God’s been preparing us for.
Your life is your artwork. It’s the story you write and the music you create. Yes, God wants you to learn the rules and master the cannon. But God’s also a creator – the master artist. When the day comes that you’re ready to start breaking the rules and creating a whole new ways of living out the love he’s taught you, know that he gets it. In fact, he wouldn’t have it any other way.