Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music

January 01, 2008

by William Edgar

“In the midst of this breathtaking praise of creation, the speechless paean of the cosmos to its Creator, the Christian faith dares to affirm that a creature, Homo sapiens, is given a singular calling: not simply to acknowledge the cosmic symphony, but also to enable, articulate, and extend it in fresh ways.” So this marvelous book contends. One of the most glorious of these articulations is music. (p. 201) But it must be “music in a Christian ecology,” that is, music understood as neither escapist nor imperialist.

Jeremy Begbie has given us his own such articulation with words in his extraordinary new book about music. As the title suggests, he is giving us wisdom, specifically Christian wisdom, about the field of music. Accordingly, the book is a wide-ranging set of wonderfully informed comments about many different aspects of this great gift from God. Begbie comes to the subject with expertise in theology and in the art of music. He is a first-rate pianist. Not just anybody even with such qualifications can put things together so lucidly and profoundly. Anyone who has heard Begbie give a multi-media presentation can testify to the dazzling and powerful ways he brings complex ideas to an accessible level.

The book’s organization lends itself well to its theses. The introduction asks, “why bother?” Among the answers, are, the pervasiveness of music, its influence whether acknowledged or no, and, for Christians, the many connections between music and their calling. The first section of the book is entitled, “Music in Action.” Here we are introduced to two kinds of basics. The first, how does music work? The second, how does it appear in the Bible? Begbie tackles the daunting question of universals (are there trans-cultural absolutes?) quite sensibly. He does it by asking us to consider how music functions within different cultures. Despite the remarkable diversity of the world of music, or what he calls the “sonic order,” there exist certain constants. Being God’s image-bearers this should not surprise us. To qualify as art, it must have aesthetic integrity, metaphorical meaning, and be structured according to its purpose. While insisting on the particularity of context, which includes the listener’s state of mind, associations, cultural conventions, the location, etc., still, in the end, it is music, and it carries meaning.

Having said that, almost all of the music examined in the book is Western. Within that rubric there is some variety, including some thoughts on jazz and pop. While no one should be expected to write a book that covers all of world music, the absence on non-Western music is going to mean that the grammar set forth which allows the music to translate into various kinds of meaning is limited (mostly) to Western conventions, many of which are not shared around the world. In our reflections on the overall approach we will have occasion to come back to this important point.

As for music in the Bible, the treatment is rather succinct, but hits on many salient points. For one thing, music in the Bible is music in action. That is, it always serves some social purpose. Worship music has two directions: toward God and toward the congregation. Music is Trinitarian. Begbie steers clear of speculations about what music in biblical times actually sounded like, as we have very scarce evidence for that. I could wish he would have been more theological in this section. Of course, he will be doing theology throughout the rest of the book, but we ought to have a little more in this section about the overall biblical narrative, which moves from creation, through the fall, to redemption.

Section 2 he calls, “Encounters.” Here we meet five episodes where music and theology have engaged one another. Begbie gives us a fascinating, though briefly developed, historiography of Western music. The first, he calls the “great tradition.” From the ancient Greeks to the Middle Ages, a consensus developed according to which music was a reflection of the cosmic order. Many variations on this theme occurred, beginning with Pythagoras, and moving through Plato, who argued that performed music, or the music we hear, is less real than the ideal musical beauty in the universe. There may be mimesis, or imitation, but only as a memory of the original universal soul. Augustine begins to move away from this, at least partly. Though he embraced Platonic tradition, yet because he held the Bible in his hand, he concede that one ought actually to enjoy music, commended in Scripture. Philosophically such experience should be far less glorious than God, who, in a sense, is the original music, but practically we do love music, and, handled with great prudence, we may do so.

Eventually, beginning at the Renaissance, the “great tradition” was challenged and a greater place was made for human feelings and aspirations. Thus, and second, by the sixteenth century, we arrive at the extraordinary “trio,” Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, who, standing in the Reformation, and with very different emphases, understand music to lie close at hand to theology and worship. Begbie deftly navigates through these waters, and sees Calvin as the pivotal figure in aligning music away from the cosmos and toward the human word. Such a dramatic shift represents nothing less than the turn from the ancient world to the modern.

The next section, the third encounter, focuses on Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Bach’s music presents for Begbie a unique theological resonance. Although he warns against hagiography and the obsession some people have with Bach, he certainly gives him pride of place. He rightly points us to the diversity of styles within the unity of his output. He guides us through a cantata (No. 78, Jesus, der du meine Seele) and then the wonderful aria, Es ist Vollbracht, based on John 19:30, in the St John Passion. We are introduced to the intricacies of Bach’s declamation, and, especially, to the way his music renders the theology of scripture in many ways. He argues that Bach demonstrates the boundless potential of themes, using “radical openness and radical consistency” (136). He concludes that Bach “stimulates us to imagine… a cosmos that reflects and shares in the life and love of a Triune God” (137). While this is compelling, I believe it might have been wiser to speak of Bach’s articulation of a worldview, one in which creation, fall and redemption are well kept in balance. Does the reference to the cosmos unintentionally brings us back to a Pythagorian idea of heavenly order?

In the fourth part he introduces us to three “musical theologians,” Schleiermacher, Barth and Bonhoeffer. Rich and suggestive, I took this chapter to serve (1) as an encouragement to think about music theologically, and (2) as preparation for the more theoretical discussions to follow. For want of time I will not yield to the temptation to discuss Barth’s love of Mozart. The fifth encounter is with two “theological musicians,” Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) and James Macmillan (b. 1959). Both are believing Roman Catholics. Messiaen’s music raises the question of the relation of time to eternity. In a subtle discussion, Begbie notes how this towering French composer challenged conventional melody and rhythm in order to lift music above chronological time, and into a timeless heavenly realm. What is abandoned is the older “tension and release” of Western music. He gently faults Messiaen for misreading Revelation 10:6 to mean the absence of time in eternity, and to write music that does not know of much time-bound tension, at least the kind that reflects human suffering. By contrast, Macmillan represents the excruciating suffering of Christ, followed by a sort of transfiguration of dissonance and repose in a “novel and utterly beguiling beauty.” (182). For him a closer allusion to the complete story of Christian faith is found in Macmillan.

This would have been the perfect place to introduce African American music, whether it be spirituals, blues or jazz. The music of this tradition, it seems to me, marvelously reflects the order of creation, the misery of the fall, and the hope of redemption. Begbie is not unfamiliar with jazz, and he alludes to it briefly here and there, but only fleetingly.

A couple of controlling aesthetic norms come through in this rapid ride through the centuries. For example, there is the capacity of music to express the home – away from home – back to home feeling of the Christian worldview. To me this is very helpful. Just as in every area of life we saw a move toward the greater recognition of God’s creation, the reality of the fall, and the hope of redemption occurring with the Renaissance and Reformation, followed by the mixed bag of secularization up to our own times, so we can trace a similar narrative in the history of music. Another example is the freedom-and-constraint ideal, which allows one to be creative only within a particular set of boundaries. Again, this is helpful. My only reservation is that music speaks in so many different ways, that these two principles only represent a couple of strands in the large fabric of the world of music. Though announced in the first chapter, other strands, culture, audience, economics, etc., do not get a full hearing.

The final section of the book, “Music in a Christian ecology,” picks up on these aesthetic norms and does add a number of others. We feel in this section much of the wisdom suggested by the books title come to the fore. It is literally chock full of insights. Begbie launches this part with a captivating description of God and his world. While one can detect something of a neo-orthodox downplaying of the creation and its structures in favor of a purely Christ-centered or incarnational view of the world, there is far greater balance than in many dialectical theologians. In any case, here we review those aesthetic norms of freedom and love, a good but not divine creation which praises God, ordered openness, diverse unity, and calling. Each of these is later developed by wise comments on various kinds of music and musicians.

We have time for only a couple of examples. Perhaps predictably, Begbie recoils at some of the music of Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) who introduced the principle of twelve-tone or serial composition. Briefly, this system takes the twelve notes of the (Western) scale and varies their order and placement without regard for traditional melody and harmony. In doing this, Begbie argues, Schoenberg wrongly refuses the “embeddedness” of sound in God’s good world. His judgment is even more severe against Pierre Boulez (b. 1925) and John Cage (1912-1992), who in very different ways abandon the norm of freedom-and-constraint. Boulez does it by utter mathematical control of every musical element. Cage does it by complete indeterminacy. While opposite, the result is the same, at least to the listener. These composers somehow refuse to submit to the demands of the cosmic world of sounds, and accordingly has passed “beyond the bounds of what could be enriching for human beings.”

I am about 80% in agreement with this kind of judgment. There certainly is a disagreeable over-programmed feeling to some of the earlier music of Boulez. And there is a sense of chaos in the music of Cage (who would not call himself a composer, but an inventor!). But there is another side. I had the privilege as a university student to study with Pierre Boulez. Curiously, it was in the early sixties, a time in which Boulez was reassessing his commitment to purely serial music. Whereas formerly he made rather grandiose (Hegelian) judgments on the music of the past as being irrelevant, now he was drawing much inspiration from tradition. He accepted the position of music director for the New York Philharmonic orchestra, and proved to be one of the great conductors of that era. Though an atheist, his most respected musical colleague was Messiaen! Their relationship is too complex to go into here (indeed, it is one of those fascinating friendships, beneficial to both, much like that of George Whitefield and Benjamin Franklin). In 1965 he wrote Éclat/Multiples, a work that moves, albeit still quite abstractly, in almost Begbiesque fashion, from unity toward diversity. Then in 1974 Boulez wrote Rituel, in memory of Bruno Moderna, the Italian composer. Admittedly unusual for him, the piece uses many percussion instruments, often in ceremonial ways, interspersed with rather clearly delineated melodic motifs from the other instruments. The piece is quite, well, entrancing! Similar reflections could be made about john Cage.

The point for me twofold. (1) While I do agree that Christian aesthetic norms can and often do include things like freedom-and-constraint, movement-and-rest, etc., are there not others which specifically apply to music outside of the modern period from the 16th through the 19th centuries, or outside of the West, which require somewhat different ways of listening and appreciating the sounds? (2) Yet, to avoid relativism, these other norms still have to adhere somehow to the composer’s responsibility for telling the story of creation, fall and redemption. Can that be done in somewhat different terms from the Western grammar of diatonic scale, dominant-tonic resolution, and the like?

So many of the insights in this book are wise indeed. Begbie reminds us that there must be something in music of social concern. He reminds us that Christian music must pause at Good Friday and not rush to Easter. Music can empower us as people in the freedom of the gospel. One of Begbie’s great suggestions, which comes across better in his multi-media presentations than the words on a page, is “cross-purpose,” whereby once we are dead to sin, we are more free to embrace others. He illustrates by describing the encounter of two very different Christian singing groups in South Africa. The CD Simunye, is the fruit of this cross-pollination between I Fagiolini, a vocaql group from Oxford specializing in ancient Western music such as Machaut and Gibbons, and the Sdasa Chorale from Soweto, which sings rhythmically driven songs from Africa. The marriage is rich, and the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

The book is truly marvelous. It is full of wisdom and insight. It will bless the reader, and even more, it will inspire the reader to go and listen to lots of music.

Jeremy Begbie / Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007
Review by William Edgar

Originally published 0n Reformation 21.

Read More On music, wisdom

William Edgar

Dr. Edgar (DThéol, Université de Genève) is professor of apologetics at WTS.

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