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Jeremy S. Begbie

Music in God's World

For the Christian, the physical world we inhabit can never be seen as just there, a naked fact, to be treated as a neutral boundary or (worse) as something that is basically an impediment to a fulfilling life. The cosmos did not have to be. It is made freely, without any prior constraint or necessity superior to God's nature or will. It is given, and given in the rich sense: as an expression of divine love, the love that is God's own trinitarian life.

In his book Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony, Leo Spitzer puts his finger on the decisive issue here in the context of a discussion about music as a metaphor of the cosmos. "According to the Pythagoreans," he says, "it was cosmic order which was identifiable with music; according to the Christian philosophers, it was love. And in the ordo amoris ('loving order') of Augustine we have evidently a blend of the Pythagorean and the Christian themes: henceforth 'order' is love." There is a huge difference between regarding the harmony in which musical sounds are grounded as simply a bare fact or as an outpouring of love.

Music making and music hearing are ways we engage the physical world. Even in the case of electronically generated music, the body is often involved through, say, a keyboard, and patterns of vibrating air are mediated through physical speakers. The physical things we involve ourselves with in music have ultimately arisen through the free initiative of God's love—they are part of the ordo amoris. To treat them as given in this full sense has a series of radical implications for understanding music. The most basic response of the Christian toward music will be gratitude. This does not mean giving unqualified thanks for every bit of music we hear, but it will mean being thankful for the very possibility of music. It will mean regularly allowing a piece of music to stop us in our tracks and make us grateful that there is a world where music can occur, that there is a reality we call "matter" that oscillates and resonates, that there is sound, that there is rhythm built into the fabric of reality, that there is the miracle of the human body, which can receive and process sequences of tones. For from all this and through all this, the marvel of music is born. None of it had to come into being. But it has, for the glory of God and for our flourishing. Gaining a Christian mind on music means learning the glad habit of thanksgiving.

Brought forth from God's own free love, the cosmos as a whole is value-laden, the object of God's unswerving faithfulness and the theater of God's loving intentions. As such it is able to sing his praise despite the pollution that evil has brought. God, we said, has pledged himself to the world in its physicality—a pledge confirmed in the coming of Jesus, the Word made material flesh.

Sadly, this is often just where the church has been most hesitant about music. It is not hard to trace a double tendency marking much thought about music in the Christian West: a proneness to doubt the full goodness, and with it sometimes the full reality, of the physical. The outcome is that music, along with the other arts, has frequently been seen as fulfilling its highest function insofar as it denies, shuns, or leaves behind its own materiality.

This twin tendency surfaces prominently in the ancient Greek tradition, not least in some Platonic music theory: as part of this material world, music can be of serious value only insofar as it directs our attention to the ideal and enduring harmonies beyond the material. Even in Augustine there is a marked ambivalence about physical beauty and the materiality of music (especially in his early writing). In this current of thinking, musical sounds become a vehicle for the contemplation of eternal or ideal beauty, hence the colossal emphasis in much medieval writing on the superiority of intellectual theory over the practical making and enjoyment of music. Commonly, the thrust seems to be to look beyond material sounds to the order or beauty they reflect or point to rather than to welcome them as valuable embodiments of God-given order and beauty in their own right, with their physical character intrinsic to that value. Related ideas colored Zwingli's attitude to music: the spiritual set against the material and an overplayed fear of anything that might imply an idolatry of music. Some modern evangelical approaches to music (and the other arts) have followed similar tracks: music, bound up as it is so closely with physical things, is regarded as at best irrelevant and at worst dangerous, tugging us away from the more real, nonsensory "spiritual" realities.

In modern times, it is probably fair to say that this reluctance to give lasting value to the physical in music has led to a focus not so much on Platonic-like eternal forms but more on the inner life of the individual, especially the emotional life. What Ernst Kris notes in the development of visual art from the 16th century—a shift from the artist as manual worker to the artist as individual creator—could well apply to music: "The work of art is for the first time in human history considered as a projection of an inner image. It is not its proximity to reality that proves its value but its nearness to the artist's psychic life." Perhaps the best-known version of this outlook is the philosophy of "individual expressivism"—the view that music is (or ought to be) the outward expression of inner emotion, an externalizing of emotional urges and surges, sometimes with the aim of stimulating the same emotion in others. The physical elements of music become the mere means to conveying and provoking a (supposedly) nonphysical emotion. This is an immensely popular outlook, often simply assumed by default, not least in Christian churches.

This mind-set received classic expression in the romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries (though with much greater subtlety than in most contemporary versions). With some of the Romantics, the artist's inner life became linked to the rhythms of the cosmos, the restless, infinite, spiritual momentum of nature. The Great Tradition thus received a new lease on life—music was thought to turn into sound the infinite play of the cosmos, through the strivings and struggles of the romantic composer or performer. It was thought by many that music unencumbered by words could do this best: instrumental music came to be exalted by many as supreme. Rendered marginal for so long in modernity, art (in the form of music) has returned with a vengeance to assume massive proportions as part of a vast cosmology revolving around the human ego. But what we should not miss here is the implicit devaluing of the physical as physical. Indeed, in some versions physical nature, far from being honored and listened to in its own integrity, is seen as needing the creative artist to come to fulfillment.

This hesitation to give enduring value to the physical qua physical can take rather different forms, however. In 1910 the painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) completed what was to become a famous and much-read essay, "On the Spiritual in Art," drawing on ideas from a philosophical movement known as Theosophy. Kandinsky is of particular interest here because he pulls in music to buttress his argument. He is anxious about a crass materialism in contemporary culture, a widespread belief that anything not verifiable by our five senses is meaningless: "Only just now awakening after years of materialism, our soul is infected with the despair born of unbelief, of lack of purpose and aim. The nightmare of materialism, which turned life into an evil, senseless game, is not yet passed; it still darkens the awakening soul."

The only effective response is to recognize that all reality has a nonmaterial, spiritual dimension and that to be truly human is to find and resonate with this supersensuous presence. It is the artist's challenge and calling to produce art transparent to the inner soul of humanity and nature. Though the artist is concerned with self-expression, this is only to the end that reality's inner soul may come to expression, and the physical character of the world is a potential stumbling block to this process. Physical forms must be isolated from their everyday contexts and treated with a high level of abstraction so that their inner nonphysical meaning may shine forth, so that their physicality and particularity can be transcended. Hence the move in Kandinsky's own painting toward abstraction. Reality's deepest life can be expressed only if we relinquish the desire to depict objects, to represent the material world in its external, perceivable features. And here, significantly, music is held up as exemplary. Kandinsky was a keen music lover, an amateur pianist, and a cellist. Music is our "best teacher," he claims. Why? Because for some time it

has been the art which has devoted itself not to the reproduction of natural phenomena, but to the expression of the artist's soul and to the creation of an autonomous life of musical sound. A painter who finds no satisfaction in mere representation, however artistic, in his longing to express his internal life, cannot but envy the ease with which music, the least material of the arts today, achieves this end.

Interestingly, a not dissimilar view emerges from one of the few Christian theologians of modern times to write about music (apart from those we have looked at already), the Congregationalist theologian P. T. Forsyth (1848-1921). Forsyth's basic belief is that music is concerned essentially with releasing us from the bonds and limits of the finite and material order. Music is the least material of the arts (with the sole exception of poetry). Forsyth is struck by its impermanence and insubstantiality (it does not end up as a concrete object), its inwardness (it primarily arises from and is directed toward our emotional life), and its indefiniteness (it cannot refer with any precision to things beyond itself).

A rather more extreme example of pulling apart from physicality is seen in perhaps the most notorious of modern composers, Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951). As it happens, Kandinsky greatly admired Schoenberg's skill, and they enjoyed an extensive correspondence. The painter writes, "In your works, you have realized what I, albeit in uncertain form, have so greatly longed for in music. The independent progress through their own destinies, the independent life of the individual voices in your compositions, is exactly what I am trying to find in my paintings."

Schoenberg believed that music's sensory pleasure—how beautiful it sounds to the ear—is irrelevant to the question of artistic significance (and to this day, the music will sound jarring to many). Music should be concerned chiefly with the creation and development of artistic ideas; the pleasure it affords should be primarily intellectual. The enduring significance and value of music lies not at the level of the physical at all; we must learn to rise from the mere materiality of sounds, Schoenberg believed, "to be coldly convinced by the transparency of clear-cut ideas."

Whatever form it takes, Trevor Hart sums up well the outlook I have been tracing:

It is as if the artist must … regret the inherent physicality of artistic manifestation in the world, and would prefer it if some direct transmission of the spiritual or intellectual opus between minds could be arranged, short-circuiting the messiness and crudity of mediation through fleshly realities altogether. That it cannot, that some sort of enfleshing of the work of art must occur, is a problem rather than something to be celebrated … . The material artefact serves to translate us from the physical world into a spiritual one, to direct our attention quickly away from itself to some other, higher and more pure, object of consideration.

Views of this kind are not, of course, the only ones available in the modern marketplace. But, arguably, they have been influential and in some places dominant. A biblically informed Christian response refuses to apologize for music's embeddedness in material reality and actually may want to recover a fuller sense of it. As we have stressed already, music involves physical entities. Sounds, themselves physical vibrations of the air, are produced by regularly constituted material objects. Music comes by pushing air from our lungs through vocal cords, plucking taut wire, drawing rough hair over catgut, depressing a key, stimulating the cone of a loudspeaker. And none of this in and of itself should make music suspect; indeed, it can remind us that goodness, beauty, and truth can be embodied by and expressed in such objects.

Here we join hands with numerous Christian writers on the arts of the last few decades. The Calvinist philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff urges that "the fundamental fact about the artist is that he or she is a worker in stone, in bronze, in clay, in paint, in acid and plates, in sounds and instruments, in states of affairs." This is not to reduce music to the material, to explain it away as something wholly explicable by the physical sciences. But bearing in mind the long-standing legacy of thinking about music we have just considered, which has arguably suppressed a great deal of music and led to unnecessarily negative attitudes toward it (not least in the church), we might do well to regain a sense of music's profound physicality—its embeddedness in God's given material world.

With this will go a retrieval of the significance of the human body. The physical world we inhabit may be known intellectually and emotionally, but it is mediated initially through our bodies. To use Michael Polanyi's language, we "indwell" the physical world. There need be no shame over our bodily involvement in music just because it is bodily. Again, given the church's often ambivalent attitude to the body and the part this has played in suspicions about music, we may well need to develop a fuller awareness of its place in music. Our own bodies—themselves part of the good physical creation—are intrinsically part of musical experience. To insist that Christians are to be spiritual is indeed quite proper, but to be spiritual is not to renounce the body per se (though it is to renounce immoral uses of the body). It is rather to be Holy Spirit inspired, an inspiration that encompasses the body—indeed, liberates the body—and as such grants a foretaste of what it will be like to have a spiritual body beyond death (a body animated by the Spirit, 1 Cor. 15:42-49; cf. Rom. 8:11). There is a proper bodily involvement in the world that enhances the inherent value of our bodies in the process. This outlook has perhaps never been better expressed than by a composer, that virtuoso of the visceral, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971):

The very act of putting my work on paper, of, as we say, kneading the dough, is for me inseparable from the pleasure of creation … . The word artist which, as it is most generally understood today, bestows on its bearer the highest intellectual prestige, the privilege of being accepted as a pure mind—this pretentious term is in my view entirely incompatible with the role of the homo faber.

Patrick Shove has suggested that the problems many concertgoers have with serious contemporary music may be due in part to its distance from the body:

Many twentieth-century composers focus on sound qualities or on abstract tonal patterns, and performers of their compositions often neglect whatever kinematic potential the music may have. The absence of natural motion information may be a significant factor limiting the appreciation of such music by audiences. While compositional techniques and sound materials are subject to continuous change and exploration … the laws of biological motion can only be accepted, negated or violated. If more new music and its performers took these laws into account, the size of the audiences might increase correspondingly.

A parable: A few years ago I was part of a group that organized a large celebration event in the University Concert Hall in Cambridge. In one item we asked the whole orchestra to improvise on a given melodic shape and chord structure, in the midst of a giant chorus of praise sung by a sizable congregation. The majority of players were Christian. But some were not, among them a 14-year-old in the second violins. Later, she told others that she came to faith during this extravagant extemporization. Normally when she played in an orchestra she would play exactly the same notes as the seven others in a second violin section. Here, for the first time in her musical life, she discovered her own "voice," but she found it through trusting, and being trusted by, others—and in the context of praise.

What was enacted for that girl through music was what the New Testament describes as koinonia, variously translated as "fellowship," "communion," "togetherness," "sharing." In Acts 2 we are told that on the day of Pentecost, with the coming of the Spirit, three thousand converts devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, fellowship (koinonia), breaking of bread, and prayers (v. 42) and had all things in common (koina, v. 44). Bonhoeffer's metaphor of polyphony comes to mind here. In polyphony, more than one melody is played or sung simultaneously, each moving to some extent independently of the others. A central cantus firmus gives coherence and enables the other parts to flourish in relation to one another. Taking his cue from Bonhoeffer, Micheal O'Siadhail writes of contemporary living:

Infinities of space and time. Melody fragments;
music of compassion, noise of enchantment.
Among the inner parts something open,
something wild, a long rumor of wisdom
keeps winding into each tune: cantus firmus,
fierce vigil of contingency, loves congruence.

Bonhoeffer uses the image to speak of the relation between our love of God and the loves and desires that shape the rest of our lives. But we could also use it to speak of the relation of Jesus Christ to his church, and us to one another. Christ crucified and risen is the cantus firmus, the rumor of wisdom at the heart of the world. The Spirit takes human lives and weaves them into a polyphony around this cantus firmus. Moreover, by extension we could say: Christ lives in the polyphony of the Trinity, and by the Spirit we are granted, through him, a share in this trinitarian "enchantment."

Christians are thus polyphonic people. At Pentecost, in opening the disciples and crowds to Jesus Christ and his Father, the Spirit opens people out to one another. Those otherwise closed in on themselves—because of language, culture, race, religion—now find themselves resonating with one another, communicating, and living together in radically new ways. Later, Jew is reconciled to Gentile, the stubborn apartheid of the day subverted. People become responsive to one another, tuned in to one another (the reversal of Babel, where confusion and dissonance reigned). But uniqueness is not erased; the crowds in Jerusalem were not given one language. They heard each other in their "own tongues" (Acts 2:8 KJV, cf. vv. 6, 11; "native languages," NRSV). More than this, as the New Testament makes abundantly clear, the Spirit not only allows difference but also promotes it: in 1 Corinthians 12, where Paul speaks of the church as the body of Christ, the Spirit generates and promotes diversity, allotting "to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses" (1 Cor. 12:11).

The contrast with the Romantic model of the artist and with his pale echo, the postmodern aesthete, could hardly be greater. In "Pentecostal polyphony" my relatedness is part of who I truly am. For the Romantic, relations with others are secondary to the process of artistic expression, in which my unique inner life is externalized. (Indeed, relations with others are more likely to impede than aid the creative process.) For the modernist self, the first step to discovery of the true self is the individual agent's inward turn; unbounded space to be is the key to freedom and fulfillment. And for the postmodern, even this self is shorn of responsibility in the endless play of aesthetic desires and thus is always on the verge of collapse.

In Pentecostal polyphony, by contrast, both the suffocating individualism of modernism and the erasure of personal uniqueness of postmodernism are overcome. True enough, the self is always and already a social product (an important postmodern concern), and yet the self is centered when addressed and treated as a distinct you by another person or other persons. I discover who I am in koinonia—as I am loved and as I love in the power of the Spirit, with a forgiving love, rooted in God and now opened out to us through Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. My identity is discovered not despite but above all in and through relationships of this kind. The contemporary Greek Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas is sometimes cited in this connection, in his insistence that my hypostasis—my particularity—is discovered in ekstasis, "a movement toward communion," as I am turned outward, as I am directed by and toward another person in love. We have all known what it is to greet at the station or airport a very close friend we have not seen for years: we don't care what we look like; we run toward that person with a self-forgetful joy. We recall the father running out to greet the prodigal, and the son discovering who he really is as he is embraced. Such is the ecstatic love at the heart of the Triune God in which we are invited to share.

Jeremy S. Begbie is honorary professor of theology at the University of St. Andrews; associate principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge; and an affiliated lecturer in the faculty of divinity at the University of Cambridge. This essay is excerpted from his new book Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (BakerAcademic). Copyright 2007 by Jeremy S. Begbie. Used by permission from the Baker Publishing Group. Please note that documentation for quotations, included in the book, has been omitted here.

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