On a sunny winter afternoon, third-year MDiv student Julian Reid and Associate Professor of Old Testament Joel LeMon fill Governors Hall at Emory’s Miller-Ward Alumni House with a jazzy improvisation: their piano and trumpet play in harmony, sharing the spotlight and riffing off one another, and ending with a nod between artists indicating mutual appreciation for what they’ve just created together.
The student-teacher duet is just their latest collaboration since Reid took Old Testament with LeMon in his first semester at Candler. Since then, the two have spent time making music (Reid is even teaching LeMon to play piano), and reading and studying Scripture together. In November 2018, the two also co-wrote and presented a paper together at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) annual meeting in Denver.
It was LeMon who suggested Reid take a PhD course through Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion studying musicians who set Scripture to music. An accomplished jazz pianist, Reid was captivated by a section on legendary jazz artist Duke Ellington.
So when he approached LeMon to ask if they could work on a project together, it was a natural step to take what began in the classroom, studying Ellington’s use of Scripture in music, and turn it into something bigger: a paper for the AAR.
“It was really great to be able to work together on something we both love and something that is worthwhile,” says LeMon. “That’s the best thing about going to seminary: you are surrounded by important things all the time that demand all of your attention. And it’s fun to give attention to the things that matter.”
The duo’s paper, “Duke Does Exegesis: Ellington’s Use of Scripture in the Sacred Concerts,” is split into two parts. First, LeMon analyzes how Ellington’s Introduction to his Sacred Concerts meditates on the meaning of the first four words of Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God…” Ellington’s lyrics describe what there was at the beginning—God—and then all the things that there were not. No mountains, no valleys, no Cadillacs, no aspirin, no headaches... “There is a beautiful structure in all the things that there are not,” LeMon says. “It tells us a lot about Ellington’s own time, Ellington’s own theology.”
In the second half of the paper, Reid explores another piece from the Sacred Concerts, “It’s Freedom.” Looking at Ellington’s lyrics and his use of improvisation, timing, and different musical forms, Reid argues that the piece is connected to the Apostle Paul’s vision of freedom in his Letter to the Galatians: “You are not free just to be able to do what you want, but you are free in Christ. You are free in order to be in service to your neighbor,” Reid paraphrases. Even though the piece is not explicitly theological, he says, it is being used toward a theological end because of how Ellington has set it in the scope of the larger concert series.
Says LeMon, “What was happening there methodologically was new and interesting. We were seeing how a great American composer’s voice about Scripture fits into this larger set of conversations about Pauline theology and the sources of the Pentateuch. It was cool to have a wider conversation.”
For Reid, the entire experience confirmed an intuition he had about Candler: “It’s a place that involves students meaningfully as much as they want to be. The faculty are keen to be with students, for students, and among students. I felt comfortable going to Dr. LeMon to say, ‘Hey, can we do something together?’ Not necessarily having a model for that in my time at Candler, but having this sense that something could happen.”
Through the process of writing the paper with LeMon, Reid was able to learn about the work of academic production: from writing the proposal for AAR to thinking about how to present in the 20 minutes allotted to them. “In so many ways it was a generative experience for me,” Reid says. “It gave me a lot of ideas for how not only my music can be critically engaged with theological questions, but also how any kind of scholarship and further intellectual work I do can be as well.”
Another highlight for Reid was witnessing the community that surrounded him and LeMon during the AAR conference; professors and classmates who attended were all rooting for them. “I think that you can hear those kinds of echoes throughout the halls of the school. Candler wants to position you in relationships with other people, in relationships with whatever structures the school has, to help you do well,” Reid says.
He goes on, “This experience has made me bolder and more creative, and to take ownership of what I’m learning. I was able to connect with a professor who I had always just seen from afar as an authority figure and we were able to present something as peers. And in so doing I was able to learn how to be an academic who presents humbly as well as confidently. I was learning not only how to put my skills into practice through my time here at Candler, but how to do so in a way that invited new kinds of relationships to grow.”
LeMon agrees. “That is the great thing about scholarship—it brings people into conversation, and those conversations lead to relationships. The best thing I got out of this was a better relationship with Julian, a deeper relationship that’s built around something we both love, and that’s what has changed for me.”
Watch Reid and LeMon discuss their collaboration here.