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Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music

Jeremy Begbie
Published by Baker Academic Publishing in 2007

Jeremy Begbie believes that music is far too important to be ignored by theologians and that musicians need to understand the theological concepts that shape their assumptions about musical meaning and value. He wants us to learn to think theologically through music, and also to be theologically musical. His project is understood best not as the integration of theology and music so much as the exploration of how these distinct disciplines and practices map onto one another: the ways in which on the one hand purely musical thinking (that is, thinking and experiencing reality in music) opens up our minds to fresh ways of constituting certain theological problems while, on the other, theological thinking (re)forms our experience of and participation in music. In Theology, Music and Time (2000), Begbie examined the theological side of this project; Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music takes aim at the musical side.

The book is structured in three parts. Part 1, “Music in Action,” raises a host of issues with respect to music’s place in the world, its ubiquity, its social embeddedness, its value in a culturally diverse world. Part 2, “Encounters,” traces out what Begbie refers to as “the great tradition,” an explication of what might be called the great Western myth of music and its assumption into a distinctly Christian worldview. Part 3, “Music in a Christian Ecology,” constructs an ecological metaphor that enables Begbie to present a vision of theology and music (doctrine and life, as it were) brought together in a balanced, functioning system. The eschatological perspective that informs this vision is one that is very familiar to Christian scholars, emphasizing the participation of human beings in the restoration of God’s good creation, seeking wholeness, shalom, flourishing and peace. As in a good sermon, the end Begbie is aiming at is wisdom. He writes,

My hope is that this book will help Christians, and anyone with more than a passing interest in music, to develop a Christian wisdom about music, that is, generate Christian habits of judgment that can form, and perhaps reform, the practicalities of making and hearing music, whether that means listening to a symphony, composing a song, or playing in a rock band (20).

The formation of such “habits of judgment” requires a careful questioning and even dismantling of certain assumptions about what music is and how it functions in society. Begbie’s method is to call into question ideas about music that have been sustained by what he refers to as “academic musicology” (33, 39). The problem, for Begbie, resides at the most fundamental level of musical discourse. “Music,” Begbie writes, “is best thought of first and foremost not as a theory or as a ‘thing’ but as a set of practices: fundamentally, making and hearing sounds” (26). He interrogates the traditional view that music exists in the form of specific “works” that are preserved in scores to be reproduced in performances. He writes,

Until very recently, most academic musicology has been largely built on ideas and assumptions that have arisen in the context of art music: the separation of music from life, the focus on a work embodied in a printed score, listening to a work for aesthetic pleasure, and so on. As will become clear later…it is not atall obvious that these ideas and assumptions are always appropriate (33).

It is important to recognize that Begbie urges us to think critically about traditional musicological assumptions not only because such assumptions fail to do justice to the diversity of music in the world, but also—and here is the most important point—because the gospel compels us to assume a different mode of encountering music and engaging with it. He writes,

If we adopt uncritically only one particular way of considering music, not only will our vision of the possibilities of music tend to be narrow, but very likely we will not be able to do justice to the diversity of experiences and actions that music involves, even within the Western tonal tradition, let alone in other cultures. We will also likely distort our perspective on music as Christians, failing to see that the biblical gospel itself may transform, even overturn, some of our most cherished assumptions about music (38,italics original).

Begbie’s alternative ontology of music is rooted in the doctrine of Creation. Music is “an art of actions, socially and culturally embedded” but it is subject to the givens of the world that God has created (46). These are what he calls the integrities of the sonic order, the human body, and time. As musicians and listeners we are confronted with a rich, diverse, and perhaps even bewildering landscape of musical actions and experiences in the world. Where can we gain a foothold? What is the irreducible ground of our musical experience?

Begbie finds that solid ground in God’s creative activity, observable in the acoustical facts of the creation as well as in the experience of embodiment that is at the center of human life. And he is confident that God calls human beings to participate in the dynamic unfolding of the world God has made.

In short, music seems to be a matter of both nature and nurture, and in gaining a Christian perspective on music, much depends on holding both of these perspectives together. What is at stake theologically here is a full-blooded doctrine of creation that recognizes our embeddedness in a given, common, physical environment (49).

Much of what Begbie has to say about how to hold these two perspectives together shapes his account of music in biblical times (Chapter 2) and his survey of the theological underpinnings of Western musical history (Part 2, Chapters 3-7.) Begbie is interested mainly in the various assumptions that informed the production and reception of music in European history and for the persistence or neglect of these assumptions in our time. In two chapters on “Three Musical Theologians” and “Two Theological Musicians,” Begbie explores the various ways in which music has impressed itself on the theological thinking of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and analyzes the theological emphases that have specific musical consequences for Olivier Messiaen and James MacMillan. These chapters are emblematic of the entire book, and they show Begbie at his best.

In the third part of the book, Begbie propounds his ecology metaphor, in which music is situated in a network of belief and right action informed by wisdom. “Ecology” entails both “the web of faith commitments through which Christians make sense of and live in the world they inhabit” (185), and “an account of God as Creator, what kind of world God creates and relates to, and what our role in relation to the created world at large might be” (186). It is the second of these two senses that is at the heart of Begbie’s vision, and in his account he attaches great importance to the idea of responsible engagement:

In the language of Genesis, there is a calling to till the earth. When we speak about music, we are in the realm of culture—we engage with the physical world, ordering and reordering what is given to hand and mind. We turn wilderness into gardens, empty land into housing, wasteland into forests, vibrations in the air into symphonies (207).

The direction of his thinking is from theology to music, mapping the one onto the other so that the theological discourse of chapter 8 can be superimposed almost literally on the musical observations of Chapter 9.

The process of thinking about music through the lenses of theology yields, for Begbie, many insights that enable him to critique various ideas, techniques and styles that arose in Western art music of the later 20th century. He raises questions about such composers as Pierre Boulez, John Cage and, somewhat more interestingly, the New Simplicity composers Arvo Pärt, John Tavener and Henryk Górecki, because their music seems to pull us away from engagement with the sonic order, the givens of Creation, and the dynamic quality of time to which Begbie attaches much significance. It is not essential that one agree with Begbie’s assessments of these composers in order to grasp his main points, which, on the whole, are quite helpful. But, in my opinion, Begbie’s truly original contribution is not his critique of late modernism but his notion of learning to hear music as linked metaphorically to various biblical and theological ideas. One brief example will have to suffice. For Begbie, the equilibrium-tension-resolution pattern typical of most Western tonal music, represented, in part, by the dominant-seventh to tonic perfect cadence, relates to patterns discernible in the Bible. In support of his point he offers an intriguing discussion of the trio in the third movement of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony (No. 41), which begins famously with such a cadential gesture. Begbie observes: “the perfect cadence…turns out to be both an ending and a beginning, an ending serving as a new beginning” (267, italics original). This is not merely a formal gesture, however, for Begbie wants us to see how this music can be heard as “a sort of parable in sound of Christian hope—as when, for example an ending comes ‘too soon’ and transforms a musical argument” (266). For Begbie, this is an example of “anticipation” just as the “grand resurrection finale at the end of history” is anticipated by the resurrection ofChrist: it is “the final resurrection anticipated in one person, appearing early, too soon” (266). His path to this interpretation is explained earlier in the book, where he writes that “imaginative skills need to be applied to our reading of the world through the doctrine we discover” (188,italics original). His point is that we need to learn to see (and hear) the world differently, seeking “a fresh vision of the created world under God, a renewed imagination, and then the courage to ask, ‘Why not try thinking about music …this way?’” (188, italics original).

It is not clear that this kind of metaphorical or allusive hearing as is necessarily the best way to encounter Mozart’s music. After all, the imaginative act of hearing Mozart’s trio as anticipation, stimulated by one’s reflection on the theology of the resurrection, is not the same thing as hearing Mozart’s music as music. That grace-saturated insight for which we want to find appropriate metaphors and through which our imaginations are nourished seems quite often to be a gift rather than a goal of our listening. Many of us listen to Mozart’s symphony just because it is a beautiful piece of music that exhibits all kinds of fascinating and expressive details as well as a coherent and delicately balanced formal structure. And this suggests that the traditional musicologist’s interest in form and harmony, melody, rhythm and texture, in the particular musical work, is worth pursuing for its own sake. But Begbie’s call for theologically attentive creative hearings that connect with human life as it is lived in the world God has made need not be seen as opposed to musicological analysis that restricts its view to the music itself. Indeed, the cross-fertilization of these perspectives should lead to new hybrids of theologically-informed musical scholarship and a theology that takes seriously the intrinsic qualities of music. At the end of the book, Begbie reminds us of what he calls “the most important question facing the theology-music conversation in the present climate: Is music in any way grounded in or obliged to be faithful to a world that we did not make but that is in some sense given to us?” (307, italics original). His is a persuasive and passionately argued answer to this question that will have a profound impact on this emerging conversation at the intersection of music and theology.

Cite this article
Timothy H. Steele, “Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 38:2 , 312-31

Timothy H. Steele

Calvin University
Timothy H. Steele, Music, Calvin College