outStanding in the Field
Where the Bible Meets the Blues
Bill Carter Joins Theology and Jazz
The first time Bill
Carter tried using his talents as a jazz musician in worship at the First Presbyterian
Church in Clarks Summit, PA, (the congregation he has pastored for the past seven years)
was on a Sunday in Lent. The lectionary psalm for the day (Psalm 137) gruesomely lamented
Israel's Babylonian captivity by asking God to dash the captors' children's heads against
It was also Girl Scout Sunday.
With that bizarre juxtaposition and his admittedly devilish sense of humor, Carter
decided to present the psalm as a blues piece.
"The text was about being a long way from home," he says, "and the
psalmist chose to sing in the language of oppression. For us in America, that's the
So Carter, a professional jazz pianist before he enrolled at Princeton Seminary in
1982, arranged a blues rendition of the text for a tenor in his choir and accompanied him
on piano. "After he sang, I talked about what it meant to feel far from home, but the
music was really the sermon."
Joining jazz and theology is now commonplace in Carter's ministry; in a sense, it
furnishes a defining paradigm for his faith. "I've always been concerned about
integrating the various pieces of my life," he says, "especially since I was
called to ministry. The Reformed tradition speaks strongly to the head, the intellectual
part of who I am. It's very text-oriented. But when we smashed our statues and took the
arts out of our churches during the Reformation, we lost something. Theoretical truth must
also be embodied."
For Carter, jazz is the tune that incarnates the text. "Jazz and other new,
non-traditional forms of liturgical music join the text of the Scripture and the church's
historic confessions with the tune of human experience," he explains.
He thinks good preaching should do the same thing. "I've learned how to preach
good sermons by tuning in to other preachers who tell stories from human experience, like
Fred Craddock [former professor of preaching and New Testament at Candler School of
Theology]. I listen to his tapes and try out his sermon tunes in my voice. That's how you
learn to play jazz, too. You listen to Coltrane or Brubeck and put your fingers where they
did on the piano or saxophone keys and hear how their music sounds in your voice, your
Carter heard lots of jazz growing up in Owego, NY. His mother played the clarinet, and
he remembers many evenings spent listening to Benny Goodman and Count Basie records. His
own piano lessons took him from two-part-inventions by Bach to the blues. He played his
way through college at SUNY Binghamton ("I think I played at more wedding receptions
and parties in my last year of high school and my four years of college than I've attended
in twelve years of ministry," he says).
The Christian faith was a mainstay in his home, too. He describes a nurturing
Presbyterian family that "went to church [the First Presbyterian Union Church of
Owego] every Sunday, attended Sunday School, stayed for coffee hour after service, and
talked about the sermon over Sunday dinner. We even made every member canvass calls!"
So it seemed
natural to Carter to find himself in seminary. He "put music on ice" while at
PTS, and while pastoring his first congregation (the Catasauqua Presbyterian Church in
Catasauqua, PA). "I felt for a time as if I had to leave the music behind, as if this
new calling was very different, and my jazz was, in a sense, a lesser gift," he says.
But the Clarks Summit congregation wasn't satisfied with that reasoning. "This
congregation celebrates and cultivates people's gifts, including their pastor's," he
says. "And their understanding of spiritual gifts goes far beyond the traditional
Now Carter plays regularly in a jazz quartet, with "gigs" in churches,
nightclubs, and colleges. In 1996 he returned to his undergraduate alma mater to perform
and lecture as a jazz pianist in residence. And this summer he and his quartet were
featured at the Seminary's annual Institute of Theology in an evening of jazz. Carter also
teamed with his friend, fellow-pastor and poet Bill Leety, to lead an Institute workshop
on liturgy and the arts.
Interested in expanding the range of music that is used in worship, Carter urges
pastors to learn to work with the musicians in their churches and to trust them.
"Ministers should teach their musicians theology, and learn music theory themselves
in return," he says. "Together pastors and musicians must dig deeply into the
bedrock of the church's liturgy-its texts and its music-and their own experiences of God's
Ultimately, Carter believes faith thrives when people integrate what they confess and
what they experience about God. "Jazz has done that for me," he says.
And he hopes to share that insight with his newest community of faith-the Princeton
Seminary Board of Trustees. Elected as an alumni/ae trustee this past May, Carter will
serve a three-year term on the board.
He muses about the board working as "more of a collaborative jazz group than as a
traditionally structured organization."
"I hope we can talk together about the whole business of integration between
tradition and innovation, between Scripture and experience, between text and tune,"
he says. "I hope we can be flexible, and I hope we can even have fun! For me, jazz is
a model of how to do that. I thought for so long that there was a clear line between the
secular and the sacred; but now I believe that if the whole earth is really the Lord's, no
experience is outside the sacred."