Anyone for an Institute of Christian Drainage?
A review of RESOUNDING TRUTH: Christian Wisdom In the World of Music by Jeremy S. Begbie, Baker Academic, 2007 (a much shortened version of this review was first published by Books & Culture: A Christian Review, July/ August 2008)
“What can Christian theology bring to music?” In chatty theological circles, a lot of folks seem to be asking that kind of question (hit Google with “Christianity” and “music” and you pull up a half million hits, expand it to “Christianity and the arts” you get a million plus, search music on ChristianityToday.com and you get over thirteen thousand), but no one is asking it in greater breadth, enthusiasm—and footnotes—than the British theologian and pianist Jeremy Begbie. In the twenty years since his Aberdeen dissertation (Theology, Ontology, and the Philosophy of Art), Begbie has prodded this discussion with Voicing Creations Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts (1991); Beholding Glory: Incarnation through the Arts (2000); Sounding the Depths: Theology Through the Arts (2002); and Theology, Music, and Time (2005) as well as numerous articles, chapters in other books, and lectures on both sides of the Atlantic. He is also the founder of the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts. Housed at Cambridge, the Institute’s purpose is to “discover and demonstrate ways in which the arts can contribute toward the renewal of Christian theology.” Having asked how music can “enrich and advance theology” in his Theology, Music, and Time, Begbie’s Resounding Truth, Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, just published by Baker Academic, is more than simply an inversion of that previous volume. It is in many ways a capstone of Begbie’s thought. Incorporating expanded versions of passages Begbie first presented elsewhere along with new materials, the nearly four hundred page heavily annotated book has received prepublication endorsements by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Durham, and a retired professor of philosophical theology at Yale (among others) and their enthusiasm for the work testifies not only to their admiration of Begbie’s writing but also to the importance many folks think Begbie’s subject carries. The arts, and in particular music, is something with which Christians should have a particular concern. There needs to be a theology of it, and Resounding Truth is Begbie’s outline what that theology might be, or how “God’s truth might ‘sound’ and ‘re-sound’ in the world of music.”
I wish I could be more enthusiastic about all that reverberation. Begbie is an important writer who has thought about this subject for some time. His work merits careful consideration. But while Resounding Truth contains sections of real interest, its factual missteps and blinkered view combine to weaken the book’s central points. Indeed, at least for me, Resounding Truth is a good argument for why the whole business of “theology and the arts” needs to be greeted with more skepticism than it has generally received. Begbie’s thought largely grows out of two areas: his understanding of the role music plays in contemporary life and the notion of a divinely ordained “cosmic order” which is a combination of a Pythagorean/Platonic “Great Tradition” and the acoustic phenomenon of the overtone series. But his analyses in both areas are problematic. Take this passage: “Few doubt that music can call forth the deepest things of the human spirit and affect behavior at the most profound levels. Anyone who has parented a teenager will not need to be told this—study after study has shown that music often plays a pivotal part in the formation of young people’s identity, self-image, and patterns of behavior.” Well, no. Not really, or not quite. Music’s proven affect upon behavior isn’t profound; it’s actually pretty trivial. The tempo of particular kinds of music played in particular kinds of grocery stores can affect the speed in which shoppers will generally move through the aisles (but it isn’t particularly good at selling individual products: funny animated critters are better—think of that lizard selling car insurance). And like the Chippendale furniture and brass sconces in the law office that suggest sober stability, music can be used as décor. As décor it can do all the things that décor can do: set mood, play upon cultural memory, suggest appropriate behavior--but music cannot dictate behavior any more than the furniture can get you to sign a contract if you don’t want to. And relationships between parents and peers play the pivotal role in an adolescent’s formation, not music. Music is a means of expressing those relationships. The pattern is this: the teenager feels an amorphous emotion, searches for a music which he or she finds that will give that pre-existing emotion a logical shape, and, finding that piece of music, has a moment of self discovery. It’s the “yeah, that’s how I feel” moment on the IPOD. Here music does not so much cause an emotion as much as it articulates an emotion previously inexpressible. If behaviors can be understood as actions growing out of emotions (among other things), then the choice of music itself is a behavior, an expression of an emotion, one item in the constellation of acts through which adolescents develop their sense of self: clothing choice, language, even posture. The idea that music affects behavior is part of the “Great Tradition.” Begbie’s discussion of Greek ideas about music is much better than many in that he recognizes that what modern readers understand as “music” isn’t necessarily what is meant when we read “music” in translations of ancient texts. Many times “music” refers to notions stemming from the mythology of divine number (divine because they are changeless) and has nothing to do with the world of musical pieces that is familiar to us (or to the Greeks
themselves). But he slips in his understanding of the mechanics of Pythagorean intonation and fails to deal with its inherent contradictions (for instance, the tuning system is not concerned with pitch but instead with the intervals and the system yields two differently sized half-steps, not one). While he gives a glance to the complaints musicians have leveled at the Pythagoreans since Aristoxenus, he fails the grasp that these complaints are not arguments between sensualists and intellectuals but between people of rivaling intellectual positions. Begbie relies heavily for much of his argument about the legacy of the Pythagoreans on work of Daniel Chua (the British writer perhaps best known for describing the opening chords of Beethoven’s Erocia Symphony as “the testicles of the hero”) and his topic would have been better served with a more skeptical use of Chua’s problematic analyses. The overtone series is an acoustic phenomenon. Produce any pitch, and that pitch will itself generate a series of pitches above it. It is for musicians what the color spectrum is for artists. Believing that a Christian theology of music should grow out of a of “full blooded doctrine of creation that recognizes our embeddedness in a given, common, physical environment” Begbie seeks to ground Christian music in the overtone series. But here he again missteps. He seems to believe that the overtone series produces the same tones as are constructed through Pythagorean tuning. It doesn’t. The thirds are markedly different. While being careful not to argue that the harmonic language of Western Europe has a kind of theological superiority to music of other cultures, Begbie does suggests that there is direct relationship between the overtone series the harmonic syntax of tonal music, writing that the tonic, dominant, and subdominant chords so important in harmonic tonality are implicit in the overtone series itself. But this is not at all the case. Put very simply, if C is our fundamental, a pitch a perfect fourth above that C, or F, isn’t found within the first sixteen partials of the overtone series at all. Without that F, we have neither the dominant seventh chord (upon which the whole syntax harmonic tonality is based), nor the subdominant chord. Instead of an F, we find an “out of tune” F sharp at the eleventh partial, flat from an equally tempered F sharp by almost a quartertone. In order for the pitches of the overtone series to be musically useful in tonal music, at least one very important pitch must be altered according to purely culturally derived aesthetic criteria. We have to flatten that eleventh partial. It’s not too far off the mark to say that the tonal music exists in spite of the harmonic series, not because of it. For most of its existence, the music of Christianity hasn’t been tonal, but modal. Except for discussions of several contemporary composers, Begbie limits his musical world to that of harmonic tonality, or the music of Western Europe composed from the seventeenth to the beginning of the twentieth centuries. There is no mention of the motets of the Ars Nova (perhaps our culture’s most sophisticated musical/theological artifacts), Pope John XXII’s 1324 bull against polyphony, Docta sanctorum partum (which helps contextualize Zwingli’s complaints about music two centuries later), or the Council of Trent’s long debate over music. Begbie is not only largely silent about music in medieval Christianity; he also ignores more recent important Roman Catholic materials about
theology and music. No mention is made of either Pope Pius X’s 1903 motu proprio “Tra le Sollecitudini” (which lays out the character of sacred music) or the reforms of Vatican II. Begbie is not an anti-Catholic bigot; he includes discussions of Roman Catholic composers Olivier Messiaen and James MacMillan, but since he includes extended discussions of the Protestants Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Barth, and Bonhoeffer, the lack of a Roman Catholic theological perspective significantly narrows the “Christian wisdom” he reviews for his readers. And because his purpose is to postulate how that Christian wisdom can affect the world of music, Begbie’s readers would have been helped if he had discussed two occasions before the seventeenth century where “Christian wisdom” did dramatically affect musical content. Around the middle of the twelfth century, the Cistercians began to edit the Gregorian chant they had inherited from the Benedictines, purging a number of chants of their extended melismas and suppressing accidentals in others, thinking that the music exceeded the ranges of the ten stringed harp mandated in Psalm 143.9. The notes themselves violated Holy Writ, or so they thought, and by singing the illicit pitches the Cistercians feared that they were taking sin into their throats. In 1570, at the urging of his Catholic intelligentsia, France’s Charles IX created the Académie de Poésie et de Musique, one of the purposes of which was to conform music in his kingdom to the dictates of Begbie’s Great Tradition. The Cistercian reforms resulted in a repertory of chant that can only be called mutilated (and pretty boreing). With the exception for the works of the Calvinist Claude Le Jeune, the mandates of the French Académie resulted in works of leaden dullness. At least in these cases, we do not have reason to be particularly grateful for a particular kind of “Christian wisdom” enforced upon music. Like the Cistercians and the members of the Académie before him, Begbie argues against the position that understands music as “essentially a human construction and human expression, earthed in nothing bigger than the ideology of a culture, a social group, or the desires of the individual.” But I think Begbie is wrong (and I’m not just complaining about using “earth” as a verb: I earth, you earth, he/she/it earths?). Like grass huts and Coca Cola bottles, music is something we humans construct out of our environment. And what is and what is not considered to be a musical sound, a kind of sound that is found in a piece of music and distinguishes it from noise, is a cultural function. As Christians, we say that God created the heaven and the earth. So He made silica and lime and heat and cold but it’s up to human beings to mix them together to make pop bottles or the windows of Chartres. And whether you make pop containers or wall cathedrals with the product, glass itself is a point of adiaphoria, or indifference. So is music. (Which makes me realize how fortunate we are that the Greeks didn’t discover the spectrum of light or we’d be burdened with a mythology of color as irritating as the mythology of Pythagorean intervals).
Contra the “Great Tradition,” music isn’t a kind of privileged form of communication that unlocks mysteries nothing else will reveal. With apparent approval, Begbie quotes an ethnomusicologist who writes “music is . . . vital to conveying the word of God. . . Music [is] a preferred medium for expressing religious meaning.” Poppycock. Words are the preferred medium for expressing religious meaning: Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, Mohammed, Joseph Smith and L.Ron Hubbard, there’s not a crooner in the group. Signs and wonders too, you bet. Arias? Not so much. Certainly music is a powerful medium of emotional self-discovery and expression, but so too is poetry and story telling. And the Chinese have an ancient and sophisticated tradition of porcelain appreciation. But somehow music be must different than those other things, more powerful and influential. We need to have a theology of it because Begbie believes that music is “embed[ed] in a cosmos created out of the inexhaustible abundance of the Triune God.” Well, of course. But so is my daughter’s gerbil. And my shoe. Does this require us to have a “theology of rodents”? Or footwear? Because everything participates in the “inexhaustible abundance of the Triune God,” are we required to have a theology of music, a theology of accounting, a theology of carpentry? And if we’re going to have these theological orders, with all the passages in scripture about farming (sowers, husbandmen, shepherds, etc.), and so little about music, shouldn’t we develop a theology of agriculture before we have one of music? And in the scheme of things, good plumbing is more important than good music; wrong notes are a bother but dysentery can kill. Shouldn’t we have a theology of plumbing? Perhaps even an Institute of Christian Drainage? We don’t need a Balkanized theology, lists of theologies of “this” and “that.” Theology is for the most part ill equipped to dictate the proportions between a column and its capital, or rotating sorghum with alfalfa, or the size of the interval of a major third. Instead its purpose, as Paul Holmer frequently said, is to make things like belief in God, and repentance, faith, hope, and love plausible. To answer Begbie’s initial question, Christian theology can not bring anything to music, just as Christian theology can not bring anything to architecture, or plumbing, or animal husbandry. Instead, architects hunger and thirst after righteousness, and build buildings. And plumbers seek to be pure in heart, and lay the drains. And musicians say “. . .be it unto me according to thy word” and make music. When Boswell told Dr Johnson the raptures into which an opera had sent him, Dr. Johnson is reported to have said, “I should avoid going if it made me such a fool.” Our society is music mad. From the hocus pocus of the “Mozart Effect” to the imperial fortunes we heap upon our pop singers to the new age notions that the rhythms of Gregorian Chant can cure disease, we seem to have lost all sense about music. We’re fools about it. I think that a little quiet sobriety about the subject is in order. Resounding Truth, at least to me, contributes to the ruckus. But, as shown by the lofty endorsements I mentioned above, there are those who find the din, well, musical.