The Path to True Freedom


By Christopher Raley


One of the first jazz albums I ever bought was Meditations, by John Coltrane. When I played it, I was baffled. Saxophones shrieked, two drummers thrashed away at the same time and apparently without direction, and the piano and bass seemed completely unrelated to the rest.

My later understanding of Coltrane’s development became my key to understanding this album. Coltrane began playing professionally in the early 1950’s and soon became one of the leading tenor saxophonists in hard-bop, the dominant jazz form of that period. But from 1960 to his death from liver cancer in 1967, Coltrane’s music plotted a course away from the formal constraints of hard-bop to a kind of music with almost no constraints at all, no time signature, no chord progression, a music that came to be called avant-garde, or free jazz. Hence Meditations.

Coltrane’s spiritual life shared a parallel development. He grew up in a Christian home. Both of his grandfathers were ministers. By the end of his life, he was a universalist saying he believed in all religions, but the foundation of his spiritual understanding was his music. He believed his playing was praying and wanted to use it to heal sickness or other problems.

Both Coltrane’s music and his spiritual beliefs were highly influential. His playing influenced countless saxophonists and, after his death, a man named Wayne King formed a church called Yardbird Temple, which, according to Samuel G. Freedman of the New York Times, worshiped Coltrane as an incarnation of God (with Charlie Parker being a kind of John the Baptist). Later it became a part of the African Orthodox Church, demoting Coltrane to the status of saint.

Coltrane’s story is an allegory of the American ideal of freedom. From “no taxation without representation” to westward expansion to “follow your bliss,” we are a nation devoted to throwing off constraints. One step at a time, our cultural heroes have led us further down “freedom’s” path. Though not all of these steps have been wrong, we have arrived at the place where the only constraints we have left are each other. Someone must be bound for another to be free. This is the crossroads where freedom becomes tyranny.

It should come as no surprise, then, that freedom in Christ is a difficult concept for us to understand. How can anyone be free by following someone else’s will? Our sin won’t let us choose this on our own, so Christ, of his own free will, chose to bind himself to the cross, so that we could be free. Freedom in Christ is the freedom to choose daily to follow him as he leads us to reflect more and more of his glory.

Small wonder then that his call to us is, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Jesus is still leading down the path of true freedom, and on this path freedom can only be sustained by sacrifice.