September 01, 2009
What is music? How does it work? What does it do to us, for us, in us? What do we do with it? Why does it wield such immense power in the lives of so many? Despite the fact that we are constantly surrounded by music, most people rarely ponder such questions. Christians, oddly, are no exception here. Although there have been innumerable attempts to relate the claims of the Christian gospel to most facets of human life and culture, not to mention the recent resurgence of writing in the area of theology and the arts, serious and substantial treatments of the relationship between theology and music are relatively thin on the ground.
Professor Jeremy Begbie has spent most of the last 20 years seeking to redress this deficiency. As a respected Christian theologian and a musician of considerable ability and reputation, Begbie has published a series of books and articles in which he has sought to fuse together some of ‘the best musical thinking about theology and the best theological thinking about music.’1 His latest book, Resounding Truth, is arguably his finest work yet and consequently has received an almost endless string of glowing commendations and reviews that express profound gratitude for his achievement.
The purpose of the book is to probe the connections between music and theology by way of a deep engagement with three sources: Scripture, musical history and contemporary culture. Begbie’s project is to help readers grow in ‘theological discernment about music’. But this is no exercise in ‘armchair theology’. It is all with a view to active, practical engagement, so that we might better explore how God’s truth might ‘sound’ and ‘re-sound’ in the realm of music (p19). Otherwise put, his aim is to ‘develop Christian wisdom that can engage with the extraordinary business of making and hearing music today’ (p 25).
Part one of the book sets the scene. The first chapter sketches some basic features of the way music is practised in Western culture before going on to examine what the word ‘music’ actually means. The second chapter contains a brief but helpful survey of the biblical references to music, noting ‘the essentially positive impression of music given in Scripture’ (p74).
Part two seeks to provide the reader with a historical perspective on the book’s theme, beginning with a look at the ‘Great Tradition’ that stems from Pythagoras through Plato, to Augustine and Boethius. This is followed by a fascinating chapter on three Reformation theologians (Luther, Calvin and Zwingli) and a stunning chapter on J. S. Bach. Then comes a chapter on three modern musical theologians (Schleiermacher, Barth and Bonhoeffer). Part two concludes with a chapter on two more recent composers who have sought to bring theological wisdom to bear on their work: the French organist and composer, Oliver Messiaen (who died in 1992) and the contemporary Scottish composer and conductor, James MacMillan.
Part three attempts to set music within what Begbie calls ‘a Christian “ecology”’. He uses this term in a double sense. In the first instance he means ‘something like a “guiding framework”, a network of basic beliefs or faith commitments that together shape and pattern our perception of the world’ (p185). Otherwise put, a Christian worldview shaped by the gospel. But Begbie also wishes to retain the more common and concrete sense of the word ‘ecology’, as a way of talking about the created world. In other words, he is seeking to set music within a doctrine of creation. This is important. For seeing music as an aspect of creation, particularly as a form of engagement with the physical world, causes him to ask the following question:
to what extent is music grounded in or obliged to be faithful to a world we did not make, a world that we did not fashion but that is in some sense given to us? (p187).
Part three sets about answering this question. Begbie’s driving conviction is that thinking and rethinking the Christian gospel in all its height, length, breadth and depth will help us understand the place of music in God’s purposes. In practice this means we must seek to discern the large currents and patterns of meaning in Scripture and to think about music (with a view to making and hearing it) in the light of these currents and patterns. This necessarily involves setting music within a vision of the purposes of the Triune Creator, who through the coming of Christ and the sending of the Spirit is working to bring all things to their intended end, and so through Christ and the Spirit calls us to ‘voice creation’s praise’. This is a valid and important exercise and Begbie undertakes it with great energy and skill!
But as Begbie seeks to get more specific in his discerning of Scriptural currents and patterns, and how these are reflected in music, his use of Scripture recedes into the background. He is aware of this, frankly acknowledging that ‘the links between music and God’s cosmic purposes cannot be read off the surface of the biblical text’ (p211). Rather, imagination is required to discern ‘the unseen and unspoken connections’ (p212). However, this is where the door is opened to the realm of speculation and subjectivity, even arbitrariness. Begbie is sensitive to this and seeks not to overstate his case. Nevertheless, some of his points of parallel between music and creation (e.g. in terms of things being made to flourish towards their end or ‘ordered openness’, ‘diverse unity’, etc), whilst having a ring of common – indeed biblical – sense about them, are patent of other interpretations or articulations, and are therefore more tenuous.
Part three is, nonetheless, full of potent insights and timely exhortations. For example, Begbie urges us to affirm the goodness of music as an aspect of creation, but to avoid the idolisation of music, for ‘the good world is not God’ (p194). In addition to this there is an extremely helpful chapter on some of the distinctive powers of music that make it especially well suited to ‘re-sounding’ Christian truth. Similarly, the section on the emotional dimension of music (pp294-302) is particularly valuable. Above all, Begbie’s desire to relate all aspects of creation to the Lord Jesus Christ, the one in whom all things (music included) find their end, is impressive and commendable.
It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Begbie is seeking to create a new variety of Christian apologetics. His approach is most definitely one of fides quaerens intellectum (‘faith seeking understanding’), rather than the other way round. In other words, Begbie is coming at creation in general, and music in particular, through the revelation of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He is not seeking to establish a natural theology pathway to knowledge of God through reflection upon creation.
This is an important and welcome book. It is both thoughtful and profound, while at the same time being clear, engaging and enjoyable to read. As well as 50 pages of endnotes, the book includes an extensive bibliography and Scripture, Name and Subject indices. Resounding Truth will repay the time given to it and, as Begbie intends, assist readers in fostering ‘godly habits of judgment that can form, inform and re-form the practicalities of making and hearing music’ (p305). ©
Rob Smith lectures in theology at Sydney Missionary and Bible College and is an assistant to the director of Ministry Training & Development in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. He is also an accomplished musician and a writer of contemporary Christian hymns.
Jeremy Begbie is also the author of Theology, Music and Time (2000). He is currently the Associate Director of the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at St Andrew’s University in Scotland. He is also the Associate Principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge, and an Affiliated Lecturer at the University of Cambridge, where he teaches systematic theology. In addition to this he is the founder and director of the international research project, Theology Through the Arts. He has recently been appointed as Thomas A. Langford Research Professor at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina, a post which will involve him teaching systematic theology, further research and writing, and in establishing a number of new theology and the arts ventures, both in Duke and the UK.
Jeremy Begbie was the New College Lecturer in 2010.
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1 I here borrow some words of commendation for Begbie’s work from John D. Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and Associate Professor of Music and Worship, Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary.
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