October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
March 30, 2008
Music is surely the most ubiquitous art form in our world, finding its way into virtually every corner of our lives, and making inroads into every subset of our culture.
It’s in the Church, too, in our worship services, at our gatherings, and on our Christian radio stations. How do we approach music as Christians, and how do we with fairness exegete its influence on our culture while also seeing in it at least the possibility of the glory of God’s good creation? Jeremy S. Begbie attempts to present a Christian account of music in line with the Bible’s attitude towards music, orthodox Christian theology, and certain streams of historical western and Christian thought about music. Specifically, the Christian doctrine of Creation proves to be pivotal as well, both being enlightened by Begbie’s suggestions about music as well as shedding considerable light on the subject of music itself. Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music presents a way of thinking about music that both respects the intricacy and beauty of music itself, while also respecting the place of music in the overall scheme of things, not elevating it to the level of an idol, but showing ways in which it points beyond itself, to Jesus Christ and to the Trinitarian God found in the pages of the Bible and proclaimed in Christian churches all over the world.
The first chapter offers a brief foray into the complexities of inquiring about the musical landscape, with particular emphasis placed on the relatively recent developments in the technology and marketing of music. The idea here is that the more we are aware of the ways in which we as a culture collectively think about music—and how very recent and novel many of those ways of interacting with music are—the more likely we will be able to open up the conversation a bit, seeing through the cultural blinders we might be wearing in order to understand and appreciate music on a larger scale. Accordingly, he describes music as being primarily composed of actions—largely of music making and music hearing—a more holistic description than typical Western musicology’s account of music as being thought of in terms of “works” by composers. Another important concept for Begbie is the “sonic order” in which music is embedded. This involves not only sound waves, but also the physical matter that produces these waves—bronze, catgut, horsehair, wood, etc.—the physical human body (that both manipulates these materials as well as receives the produced sound waves), time, and the peculiarities of the space in which the music is heard. Music for Begbie is always “a matter of both nature and nurture, both humanly produced and grounded in the wider world, both social-cultural and embedded in the physical matrices that we all share and of which we are part.” These tensions hold together much of the thought about music that has typified Christian thought on the subject (inherited from Greek philosophy) on the one side and the more contemporary emphases on the human and the cultural aspects of music. Affirming the value of the latter, Begbie proceeds to both critique and restore some of the benefits of the former that have been recently lost.
The second chapter explores the Bible’s attitude toward music. The Bible’s references to music are admittedly sporadic and unsystematic, making little to no attempt at answering many of the specific questions the modern reader might ask concerning music and theology. Begbie persuasively argues, however, that the Bible’s attitude towards music is a very positive one, with the exception of a handful of negative passages in the prophetic writings when music is distracting people from the worship of YHWH. But even these aren’t attacking music as a whole, but only the abuse of music as a good gift from God. The vast majority of Biblical references to music is more positive, and clearly cannot be the source of later negative Christian attitudes towards music.
The second major part of the book is devoted to a collection of historical accounts of the ways in which music has been viewed in Western culture at large and the Christian church more particularly, along with how certain musicians interacted with theology. This account is much more episodic than comprehensive, which is appropriate for the overall aim of the book, and tends more towards readability and less towards tedium. The opening chapter introduces the “Great Tradition,” tracing it from Pythagoras and Plato, to Augustine and Boethius. Essentially, the Christianized version of this way of thinking about music claims that “musical sound, especially musical harmony, coincides with and gives expression to cosmic order, which in turn reflects and in some manner gives access to the Creator.” Of course the Great Tradition has a darker side as well, treating music as a mere means toward the end of understanding the cosmos, and therefore the thinkers in this tradition tend towards suspicion of music as music, noticing its effect on the emotions (often viewed as something to overcome) and its frequent use in pagan worship. The modern age, starting as early as the 16th century, has seen a dramatic shift in our culture’s views about music. Where it was once seen in terms of what it revealed of the divine and the harmony of creation, it has become a mere tool for the human will. Part of this is likely to be viewed as a gift, for in it we are (eventually) able to enjoy music just as music, but Begbie also argues that something big has been lost here, namely the idea of music as a place in which we are “‘cradled’ in God’s harmonia.” Recognizing some of these potential dangers, this is the direction Begbie wishes to move us.
Continuing our survey of historical-musical “encounters,” we are next led into the sixteenth century, in which we meet the three major figures of the Reformation, exploring their attitudes towards music and the place music held in their theological outlook. Martin Luther thought of music “as full and glorious, a good gift, with little sense that its physical, material, and sensual nature is a potential hindrance to union with God.” In this way, Luther seems to follow after some of the best of the Great Tradition. He is also easily the most positive towards music of the three Reformers dealt with in this chapter: Calvin approaches music with a great deal of caution (especially when it comes to instrumental music), but acknowledges it as a necessity in the church, while Zwingli, being himself a gifted musician, ironically sought its eradication from the life of the church.
Next, is Bach, whose work is often “full of the unexpected while at the same time meticulously calculated.” Begbie demonstrates how Bach’s music—with and without words—leads us to hear the “simultaneous presence of radical openness and radical consistency,” while he also shows how Bach’s music lends itself to a Trinitarian account of creation. Bach connects the world created by God with human words in a way that holds for Begbie a very important tension in the midst of the turmoil associated with the modern (anthropocentric) turn in Western thought about music.
The subsequent chapter deals with “three musical theologians,” that is, three very prominent theologians of the last few hundred years whose thoughts about music Begbie considers significant. The first is the nineteenth century’s Friedrich Schleiermacher, who finds “God-awareness” in our human experiences and awareness. And toward this end, he holds music in high esteem for its ability to turn us inward and to enhance that present experience and awareness. Begbie seems to be more than a little skeptical of Schleiermacher’s enmeshing of music and religion, not least in its apparent negative spin on the power of words. It seems that music, for Schleiermacher, is powerful at least partly because of its ability to allow us to dispense with words. Begbie counters, beautifully and succinctly, “Though words cannot hold God, through words God can hold us.” This is a characteristic example of the fine lines that Begbie is able to navigate well—affirming both the great gifts and profound dangers of a particular movement or viewpoint.
Next, Begbie briefly interacts with another theological giant, this time from the twentieth century—Karl Barth. Barth was completely infatuated with the music of Mozart. He describes Mozart’s music as being parables of the kingdom of God, demonstrating the freedom that is found in the gospel. The last of Begbie’s three musical theologians is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who in his Letters and Papers from Prison often thinks in terms of music (though he surely had access to none in his Nazi prison cell) while he wrestles with the questions of who Christ is for us today and how the church is to be truly the church. He “envisages a polyphonous kind of life for the church in the world, a rich life shot through with joy.” For Bonhoeffer, this polyphony coheres in the person of Christ, “in whom the broken themes of praise are restored.” In Bonhoeffer we see an example of music remembered informing theological reflection in a good, mutually beneficial way.
The last of our historical-musical “encounters” involves two contemporary composers—two “theological musicians”—both being Catholic Christians, and both also offering something that Begbie seeks to highlight for us. The first is Olivier Messiaen, a twentieth century French composer. Begbie points out some of the theology in Messiaen’s music, particularly the ways in which it evokes eternity. The music does this largely by a number of clever ways of undermining the traditional paradigms of Western tonal music, not resolving in quite the way that you’d expect, for instance, so that the piece feels like it might have no end, and maybe no beginning either. James MacMillan is the second theological musician in this analysis and his is a different approach: whereas with Messiaen time was drawn out, almost eliminated, “for MacMillan it is God’s cross-shaped involvement with this world of time.” MacMillan uses time to show his audiences the grittiness of the cross and the reality of conflict that happens here and now, within time.
Begbie then seeks to apply all of the previous matter, forming what he refers to as “Christian Ecology.” This is Begbie’s account of the ways in which music might inform Christian theology, particularly the doctrine of creation, as well as an exploration of how those streams of thought effect the calling of humanity on the earth, and particularly the calling of Christians. But this is no hackneyed plea for recycling or driving hybrids, though Begbie is not numb to such concerns, instead his is a distinctly Christian approach to creation, focusing not on how we should be shaping the world, but on how God’s shaping of the world in the act of creation might shape our own world today. It is in this way that we will be able to get around our particular biases as modern Westerners so that as we approach the topic of creation in this way we might also be enabled to approach music afresh.
He begins by asking what kind of Creator creates. The answer is found in the Trinity. Christ reveals the “why” of creation, the way the Creator relates to creation, and the goal for which all things were created. The Spirit is to bring about in the world what has been accomplished in Christ and therefore anticipate the final re-creation. He then proceeds to ask what kind of cosmos has been created, and the answer is that this creation is radically and profoundly good, but still it is not God. The two meet, of course, in the person of Christ, in which “Creator and creature meet without subverting or compromising each other.” And then Begbie poses our calling in this world: “not simply to acknowledge the cosmic symphony, but also to enable, articulate and extend it in ever fresh ways.” This chapter is full of passion and beauty, and surely one of the best short treatments of creation theology I have ever read—soundly Trinitarian, strongly Christocentric, and all moving towards the eschaton.
Next Begbie treats the topic of music in God’s world. “Music is one of the ways we can voice creation’s praise.” Begbie’s emphasis is on the radical physicality of music, and the inherent goodness of that. We can physically participate with the physical world and create something beautiful—music—to the glory of God. While warning against the idolatry of music that can be found in our culture and through history, he shows how music demonstrates many important truths of our faith, incorporating theology alongside a bit of music theory in order to show at a very base level some of the ways music voices creation’s praise, without falling into a number of easy pitfalls.
Then he explores music in God’s calling. Defining sin as corruption of praise, we are rather to “enable creation to be more fully what it was created to be, a theater of divine glory, anticipating that final day when all things will fully resound to the Creator’s honor.” To explore the role that music has—both in the making and in the hearing of it—Begbie uses the categories of discovering, respecting, developing, healing, anticipating, together. He proceeds to present our responsibility to creation as Christian believers in those terms. The book ends with a chapter about the power that is inherent in music, and the responsibility to wield such power well, in the world, as well as for our own spiritual formation.
Begbie’s work is a persuasive and engaging exploration of the connections between theology and music, and I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the topic. I question at some level the flow of the book as a whole from beginning to end, the connections between subsequent chapters, and especially the insufficient tying in of the material involved in the historical-musical “encounters” found in the second section of the book. Regardless, I found it a thoroughly enjoyable and edifying read from cover to cover, and learned more than a few things about theology, music, and the ways in which I might, as a Christian in the twenty-first century, interact well with both.
 Jeremy S. Begbie, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 57
 Ibid., 79
 Ibid., 95
 Ibid., 100
 Ibid., 119
 Ibid., 136
 Ibid., 152
 Ibid., 161
 Ibid., 180
 Ibid., 190
 Ibid., 194
 Ibid., 201
 Ibid., 212
 Ibid., 238
Cabe Matthews is a United Methodist pastor in the Houston, Texas, area. He earned an MDiv from The Seattle School and a ThM from Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. Find him on Twitter @cabematthews and online at cabematthews.com.