Select Page

A Review of Resurrection City: A Theology of Improvisation, by Peter Goodwin Heltzel. 2012. Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Co.


Resurrection City is substantial and consistently stimulating. Heltzel is an associate professor of theology at New York Theological Seminary, with a strong grounding in Biblical values, Christian theology, Black theology, American history, and current justice concerns in American and world life.

A white boy from Mississippi, he manages fairly well to achieve the perspective of an outsider to the American mainstream – primarily an African American perspective. This is always of value when done responsibly; the Biblical prophets to whom he appeals were often in comparable situations.


“Meanwhile, outside the prayer closet, it’s another day of extortion in the marketplace, bribery in the courts, and intentional ignorance of the orphans, widows, immigrants, and prisoners.” p126

Heltzel applies that critique to 1st century Jerusalem and contemporary America, illustrating our desperate need for ongoing improvisation in Christian theology and practice. He uses jazz music as a model.

“While driven by spontaneity, freedom, and innovation, improvisation is never … unstructured or … wholly new.” p18

Jazz is a creative expression of older, even classical, musical forms in new settings and with new voices.

“… the creative deployment of traditions and forms that are at hand … a constant negotiation of constraint and possibility.” p18

He sees our Christian spiritual tradition as having the resources we need, but those resources have to be rearranged, translated, improvised to powerfully engage current social realities.


is to review the improvisational work of several sets of prophets who each brought ancient wisdom into their contemporary settings.

So Chapter 2 surveys Old Testament prophetic improvisers. Chapter 3 is “Jesus the Jewish Improviser.” Chapter 4 compares the visions of Thomas Jefferson and Sojourner Truth.

Chapter 5 is profound in seeing Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King Jr practicing a “prophetic mysticism” which guided their improvisational work – “prophetic” in seeking deep insight into contemporary affairs in the light of the ancient prophets of the Bible – “mystical” in its grounding in personal prayer and mystical connection with God, the Spirit of the prophets. This is good stuff!

He ends by pulling together liberation and womanist theologians, street theater, “theater of the oppressed,” and issues of environmental racism and environmental justice as illustrations of, and needed locales for improvisation.

This book is rich, and its history and analysis are reliable. He is not offering us a roadmap. You can’t map jazz improvisation, and you can’t map prophetic – theological improvisation. It has to be done from real facility with the precedents, with full openness to the present, and with a good ear for and cooperation with what is going on around. It’s a demanding project! Thus the book is occasionally frustrating in pointing directions but not providing the roadmap; but that’s kind of the point.

“Like a jazz musician, an urban prophet is called to improvise, to create inspiring forms of broken beauty. The prophet’s task is to “reorder” and “refashion” the urban environment to be more just and peaceable. Yet, Thurman reminds us that the work of social transformation must be based on a deep inner transformation. Personal and social transformation are inextricably linked.” p97


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.