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Nicholas Wolterstorff

Jamming with the Seraphim

Can we find models for theology in music?

Beholding the Glory

Beholding the Glory

Beholding the Glory:
Incarnation through the Arts

edited by Jeremy S. Begbie
Baker Books, 2000
160 pp.; $11.99, paperback

Everybody is aware of mutual recriminations between artists and the church. Members of the church criticize one and another piece of art as perverse, sacrilegious, destructive of faith and morals; last year's tirade by the mayor of New York against a painting of the Virgin in a display of contemporary British art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art is but one of many recent examples. And artists criticize the church as a threat to artistic freedom, as having no aesthetic taste, even as being hostile to the arts. Of course that last charge is ridiculous; name the congregation in which there is no music and no visual art! One may think it's pretty bad music and pretty bad visual art; but there it is, in abundance. And as to the other charges by artists against the church: surely they need to be qualified before they come even close to the truth. Some members of the church are a threat to some cases of artistic freedom, some members of the church are lacking in aesthetic taste. And on that last: Christians scarcely have a monopoly on poor taste.

There's a related complaint of which most people know little: a complaint against theology by people engaged with the arts. I mean, a complaint against Christian theology by Christians engaged with the arts. Christians already immersed in the arts read books or take courses in theology and find themselves in a different sphere from that with which they're familiar, one in which the arts they love are almost completely ignored. Some don't mind this shift in mentality; they happily put their love for the arts in cold storage while they immerse themselves in theology. Others feel so alienated that they want nothing more to do with theology. But there are some in whom the conviction arises that this is not how it has to be. Theology is missing out on something. Theology has always borrowed insights, concepts, and the like from areas of thought and experience outside itself. Traditionally theology borrowed heavily from philosophy; in the modern world it has borrowed heavily from psychology and theory of interpretation. Surely there must be things in the arts that would be of use to theology—untapped resources.

Theology, Music and Time

Theology, Music and Time

Theology, Music and Time
by Jeremy S. Begbie
Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000
317 pp.; $22.95, paperback

Jeremy Begbie is a professionally trained musician who teaches systematic theology at the University of Cambridge; it's this last complaint against theology by a lover of the arts that underlies his recent book, Theology, Music and Time, and the anthology, Beholding the Glory, in which he has assembled essays from eight writers, including himself. To his great credit Begbie never expresses the complaint in whining tones, and he goes beyond complaining to an exploration of possibilities; nonetheless, it cannot be missed that he as a musician is lodging a complaint against his own professional field of theology: by ignoring the arts, theology is neglecting a valuable resource for its own endeavors.

More specifically, it's for his own home field of music that Begbie wants to make the case. Here's how he introduces the project of the book: "[O]ur primary purpose here is to enquire as to the ways in which music can benefit theology. The reader is invited to engage with music in such a way that central doctrinal loci are explored, interpreted, re-conceived and articulated. It will be found that unfamiliar themes are opened up, familiar topics exposed and negotiated in fresh and telling ways, obscure matters—resistant to some modes of understanding—are clarified, and distortions of theological truth avoided and even corrected. In this way, we seek to make a small but I hope significant contribution to the revitalising of Christian theology for the future."

We want to see, specifically, how Begbie proposes tapping the resources of music for the purposes of Christian theology. But first, let me locate Begbie's discussion within a larger context. Over the past 50 years or so there have been a great many "theology and art" discussions. Why those discussions should have flowered just then is an intriguing question whose answer I do not know, nor do I know of anyone else who claims to know. These discussions fall pretty much into two types. One type consists of those discussions in which the focus is on art and the aim is to illuminate art theologically, that is, to discuss the theological import and significance of art. These are the "theology of art" discussions. Paul Tillich is probably the best known practitioner; but easily the best example, in my judgment, is Gerardus van der Leeuw's Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art. Rather closely related are the writings of, for example, Calvin Seerveld and myself in which, as explicitly Christian philosophers, rather than as theologians, we reflect on the arts. The other type consists of discussions in which the focus is on theology and the question is how the arts can be employed to enable theology better to perform its task. Begbie's discussion falls within this latter type. (I might add that in addition to these "theology of art" and "art for theology" discussions, there have been discussions, especially intriguing to me, on the concrete interaction of art and religion—for example, on the function of icons in Eastern Orthodoxy.)

Many of the "art for theology" discussions propose to mine art for its theological content. The assumption is that theological interpretations of the created order, of the Christian story, or whatever, are not only to be found in books classified by the Library of Congress as theology; they are also to be found in a great many works of art. Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel and Bach's St. Matthew's Passion are as much examples of theological interpretation as is, say, Friedrich Schleiermacher's Christian Faith. So why not honor them as theological "documents" of the Christian tradition when teaching historical theology? In the fifth chapter of Theology, Music and Time, Begbie has a discussion of the music of the contemporary English composer, John Tavener, which treats Tavener's music in this manner: Tavener's music is analyzed as a case of Christian theological interpretation, about which Begbie expresses some hesitations—that is, theological hesitations.

But this is an exception to the genre of the rest of Begbie's book; he forthrightly announces that his focus will be "on music that has no obvious or overt theological links and associations." So what is the genre of his discussion? He puts it in a good many different ways. He is eliciting "conceptual tools" for theology—"ways of thinking, models, frameworks, metaphors." He is looking for "fresh and fruitful resources for the theological task." He is looking for "correspondences" between the dynamics of music and the dynamics of God's interactions with the world. Music, he says, "can serve to disclose and articulate" theological concerns. Music "is especially well suited to elucidating" certain theological issues. Music can "refresh" the "conceptuality" that we bring to theology. And so forth.

What does this all come to? Let me use a word that, so far as I noticed, Begbie uses only once, namely, the word model. Begbie proposes using certain aspects of music as a model for thinking about certain theological issues. I use the word here in the way it's used when scientists say that they are using this or that as a model for some part of scientific theory. One uses something as a model for thinking about something else when one uses it to guide one's thinking about that other thing—all the while realizing that in a good many ways the model is quite other than that which one is using it to think about. We all remember those models of molecules in our junior high classrooms—balls connected with sticks in various configurations. Nobody supposed that these were accurate representations of molecules; the idea was that, with suitable warnings, these configurations were of considerable aid in thinking about certain aspects of molecules. Begbie's project, so I suggest, is to use certain aspects of music as models for thinking about certain theological issues. Using music as a model may illuminate issues that otherwise have proved convoluted or intractable. To this suggestion I want to say: go to it! Why shouldn't it be the case that music can provide us with models for thinking about certain theological issues? The proof will be in the pudding.

I quoted Begbie as saying that he is pointing out "correspondences" between music and theology; in other passages he makes the same point in different words. This puts one in mind of Dorothy Sayers's writings on Christianity and the arts. But Begbie's project is different. Sayers enjoys near iconic status among some Anglican contributors to the art-and-theology discussions; nonetheless, I find her contribution very problematic. Essentially what she does is place in one hand some highly Romantic ways of thinking about artistic creativity, place in the other hand a rather primitive understanding of the Trinity, and then ask us to take note of similarities between the two. But even if her understanding of artistic creativity and of the Trinity were acceptable, the problem is that the discussion doesn't go anywhere. Yes, there are these similarities. Now what? The skeptics among us will add that one can always, with just a modicum of imagination, find similarities between anything and anything. The point is that, in Sayers's hands, the arts aren't used for thinking about theology and theology isn't used for thinking about the arts. We think about theology independently of the arts, and about the arts independently of theology; and then, that done, we compare. Begbie's strategy is different and much more promising. He proposes using aspects of music as a model in our development of theology.

Which features of music does Begbie think are especially promising for this function as model for theological development? Three. In his essay "Through Music: Sound Mix," included in the anthology Beholding the Glory, Begbie takes note of the fact that when a note is struck, say, on a piano, though one can often discern the direction from which the sound came, and even the place, nonetheless the sound itself does not have the here-but-not-there character of the ducks and rabbits that one sees in one's visual field; the sound fills, as it were, "the entirety of my aural space." That makes it possible for two or more notes to be struck simultaneously without the one squeezing the other out; each of them fills "the entirety of my aural space." And as to the relation of those two or more notes to each other: while they remain, and are heard as, distinct, they nonetheless "interpenetrate" each other, they "sound through one another," with the result that a new third thing, a chord, emerges. No Christian theologian, taking note of these features of music, could fail to wonder whether perhaps we have here a fruitful model for thinking about the Trinity and the Incarnation. That's the idea that Begbie explores in his essay—though, as he himself would admit, much too briefly to know whether the idea really does prove fruitful or whether its promise is illusory.

In his book, Begbie discusses two additional features of music that he judges can serve a significant modeling function in theology. And let me say that Begbie's discussion of these two features is extraordinarily rich and insightful; it's worth reading these discussions for their own sake.

One phenomenon that he discusses with insight is improvisation by a musical group. His suggestion is that careful attention to what goes on in such improvisation can serve as a model for thinking through the relation between freedom and constraint, including the constraint of tradition, and for thinking through the doctrine of election as presented by Paul in Romans 9-11. In what was for me one of the most interesting and imaginative parts of the book, Begbie analyzes election in terms of what he calls "improvisational gift-exchange" between God and humankind.

The other feature of music that Begbie thinks carries significant potential as a model for theological thought is the one to which he gives the bulk of his attention. Fundamental to Western tonal music of roughly the past four centuries is the building up, by metrical, rhythmic, and intervallic devices, of layers upon layers of tensions and relaxations. By virtue of meter, distinct notes within a given measure will vary in the intensity of their "wanting something to follow them"; the members of pairs of measures will in turn vary in the intensity of this quality; the members of quadruples of measures will also vary in this regard; and so forth. And when we then add rhythm and intervallic relationships, we have complex layers upon layers of such comparative tension-relaxation relationships stretching across the entire composition.

Music doesn't have to be structured this way. In the music of Olivier Messiaen, Arvo Part, and John Tavener—all of them Christian composers of the latter part of the twentieth century, the latter two still alive—this tension-relaxation structure is weak at best. One hears much of their music as vertical blocks of sound succeeding one another in time rather than as sounds wanting other sounds to follow them. Begbie asks why it was that tonal music emerged in the West around the time of the Renaissance and Reformation; he speculates, albeit rather hesitantly, that it may have been because of the prominence of the Christian story of redemption in the mentality of the West. That fits with his criticism of John Tavener's music as mystical neo-Platonist in its theology; one assumes that he would make the same theological criticism of Messiaen and Part (a criticism that would be considerably more plausible, in my judgment, as applied to Messiaen than to Part).

After very insightfully analyzing this multi-layered tension-relaxation structure of Western tonal music, Begbie goes on to suggest some ways in which this structure can serve as a helpful model for theological thought. He suggests that it can serve as a model for thinking about the story line of salvation, so that that line is not understood as a "uni-directional line" of promise (expectation) and fulfillment, but is rather understood as a story line of promise (expectation) fulfilled, or partially fulfilled, that fulfillment then giving rise to a new, more expansive promise (expectation), and so forth. Jesus as the Messiah is of course a paradigm of this. He also suggests that this multi-layered tension-relaxation structure can serve as a model for understanding how it is that liturgical repetition can be meaningful: just as repetition in music is never pure repetition—the "repetition" occupies a different position in the layered tension-relaxation structure than did the first sounding of the theme—so too liturgical "repetition" is never truly repetition.

Has Begbie succeeded in his project? Definitely. Of course his goal was, in a way, exceedingly modest. All he hoped to do was show the promise, for theology, of using these three aspects of music as a model; his brief theological discussions were meant as no more than sufficient for that purpose. Whether the promise can be fulfilled in a full-length treatment of election, of the structure of biblical promise-fulfillment, and so forth, remains to be seen.

Let me close with a comment and a point of criticism. Rather than taking works of music as the fundamental musical entity, Begbie takes the practice of music-making and hearing as that. If one starts with works, one will be tempted to think that the fundamental theological import of music is that it presents us with the timeless, whereas if one starts with the practices, one will see the theological import of music as inhering in its temporality. Now I too think that the fundamental reality of music is the practice of music; and I think that Begbie has very interesting things indeed to say about the way in which music inhabits time. Nonetheless, there is the fact that the same theme, the same work, and so forth, can be played again; the very same theme, the very same work. This dimension of music Begbie neglects entirely. Thereby he misses the opportunity to go beyond exploring the temporality of music to exploring the relationship, fundamental to music, between that which perishes and that which endures unchanging in such a way as to make it possible for it to be played again.

A related point is this: Begbie repeatedly says that music displays for us a unique mode of temporality, and thus can serve to expand our understanding of temporality; it's that expanded understanding of temporality that promises to be useful as a model in certain parts of theology. I'm dubious. Study music as one will, I don't see that one gets any closer to answering Augustine's famous question, "What is time?" Music doesn't present us with a special kind of time, a special kind of temporality. It presents us with a way of being in time that's very different from the way in which material objects and persons are in time. Begbie doesn't like the picture of time as something within which things happen; that's what leads him to say that in music we find a special kind of temporality, not a special way of being in time. As I say, I'm dubious. But here is not the place to explain why. And in any case it doesn't matter. We can debate later whether music presents us with a special way of being in time or with a special mode of temporality; the question in hand is whether what it presents us with, however understood, proves fruitful as a model in theological thinking.

Nicholas Wolterstorff is Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University.

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