Book Review

“Music, Modernity, and God: Essays in Listening” by Jeremy Begbie

Micah Everett
Jeremy S. Begbie
Sunday, January 1st 2017
Jan/Feb 2017

Jeremy Begbie, the Thomas A. Langford Research Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity School, is perhaps the foremost Christian thinker on the interactions between the arts, theology, and philosophy. Having trained extensively as both musician and theologian, he is uniquely qualified to discuss these interactions in a serious and fulsome way. Instead of addressing surface-level theological and practical concerns, Begbie digs into historical and philosophical considerations, presenting music as not only a human activity but as a tool for engaging in theological reflection. Those approaching Begbie from a Reformed perspective will find that he sometimes suggests conclusions with which their confessional commitments will not allow agreement, but there is much here that is worth consideration, and the seriousness with which he approaches the subject is refreshing.

The present volume is a collection of essays in which, after a brief introductory chapter, the author proceeds in a historically sequential fashion before presenting larger conclusions in his final essays. In the introduction, Begbie notes music’s major role in the shaping of modern sensibilities since the Renaissance and Reformation, while lamenting that in scholarly works on history and philosophy music is often considered to be “no more than a gloss, a trivial, diversionary froth thrown to the surface of cultural streams whose ideological currents operate at much deeper levels” (2). Noting that musicologists have been rather open to considering theological questions as they pursue their work, he suggests that musical considerations can also help in formulating theological ideas.

Begbie begins these considerations with a chapter on John Calvin (1509–1564). Musicologists are frequently unfair to Calvin, criticizing his views on music as excessively austere. Begbie avoids this pitfall, instead presenting Calvin as one whose thoughts on music and worship and whose approach to setting the Psalter to music were in keeping with contemporary trends in music theory. He further states that the differences between Martin Luther (1483–1546) and Calvin regarding music, while significant, are overplayed and have to do with Luther’s standing in the late medieval way of thinking about music, while Calvin’s approach is more modern. Still, Begbie faults Calvin for insisting that in worship, music must be subservient to the text rather than “locating music clearly within a theological ontology of creation” (39) as earlier thinkers did.

Moving ahead a couple of centuries, Begbie considers the music of J. S. Bach (1685–1750) as presented in works by the musicologists John Butt and Karol Berger. Again discussing the divergence between premodern and modern ways of thinking, Bach is seen as combining a medieval view of a divinely ordered cosmos with a modern view of vocation, which he applied to his work by striving for superior craftsmanship and perhaps even a redemptive aim in his compositions. While Bach’s works are faulted by Berger for being too temporally static when compared with the inexorable linearity of the works of W. A. Mozart (1756–1791) and his contemporaries, Butt sees an energy and movement in Bach’s works even as there is on a larger level a sense of God’s transcendence of linear time. Once again, a contrast is drawn between a medieval outlook and a modern outlook: the former presenting music as a means of reflecting upon God’s orderly creation, and the latter taking a mechanical approach that ultimately takes music less seriously.

A similar contrast is presented in the next chapter, this time between Bach’s French contemporary Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764) and the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). In this pairing, Rameau is the “modern” man, demonstrating in his Treatise on Harmony (1722) and other writings a desire to gain for music theory a respectable place in the scientific community of his day. The older cosmologies and theological perspectives found no place in Rameau’s attempts to construct an “empirical” approach to music. Rousseau lamented this abandonment of music’s passionate nature, declaring that the subjugation of melody to harmony and of vocal music to instrumental is unnatural, and detrimental to both music and language. Once again, Begbie seems to side with the comparably premodern viewpoint of Rousseau, but he stops short of agreement with those who would propound a “natural theology” as a way of knowing, independent of God’s revelation of himself to us in Jesus Christ. As this chapter draws to a conclusion, Begbie jumps ahead a couple of centuries, contrasting the intensely ordered music of Pierre Boulez (1925–2016) with the intentionally random works of John Cage (1912–1992) in a way that is analogous to his earlier pairing of Rameau and Rousseau. Here the ultimate unworkability of the two extremes becomes even more evident. Somehow the cerebral and the emotional have to come together in the best music, and Begbie is by this point trying to craft a way of thinking of music, theology, and philosophy that allows for music’s expressive powers to be brought to bear, while nevertheless retaining some scriptural grounding.

Philosophical consideration of music reached its zenith in German Romanticism of the nineteenth century, which Begbie has labeled a “Musical Apotheosis.” Christians will rightly view much Romantic writing about music as idolatrous or even pantheistic (109), but Begbie asks his readers not to dismiss these writers too hastily. The newfound emphasis on instrumental music during this period brought new perspectives on the relationship of music and language, including Friedrich Schleiermacher’s (1768–1834) concept of the early Romantic: “The notion of music tapping into a level of reality sensed only through immediate self-consciousness,” and further described as “an awareness that is pre-conceptual, prelinguistic, and precognitive” (114). This concept of music informing or enabling theological reflection divorced from language will raise “red flags” to the reader who is committed to the primacy of God’s written revelation, and Begbie again appears to stop just short of fully embracing this way of thinking.

In the historical periods and figures considered thus far, Begbie has contrasted those representative of an older view of music—one that is thoroughly emotive on the individual level, while also serving as a means of observing and even participating in larger cosmic realities—with those presenting a more modern, mechanical view, of which the author is generally critical. The final three chapters leave behind this historical progression, instead offering synthesis and application of the ideas presented throughout the book. Departing from the sometimes convoluted presentation of the previous chapters, Begbie succinctly presents one of his key points:

My proposal is fairly modest, but I hope not thereby insignificant: that in modernity, an unwarranted reliance on conceptual frameworks that favour spatial visualization and its associated language have likely aggravated, and in some places perhaps generated, a range of problems that have repeatedly frustrated and distorted Christian theology in its attempt to explicate the New Testament’s rendering of the character of freedom, divine and human.

If we move from the visible to the audible, however, a rather different world unfolds. (154–55)

This is a fascinating proposal. Even as attempts to explain (or that begin to explain) certain doctrines (the Trinity, the dual natures of Christ, God’s interaction with the world while remaining distinct from it, and even the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility) often fail when presented in terms of spatial visualization, Begbie contends that musical perception (particularly that of harmony) offers a way of considering these things that can bring clarity. Citing the work of Austrian musicologist Victor Zuckerkandl, Begbie employs the “interpenetration” of musical tones when sounding in harmony as a metaphorical tool for considering theological concepts that appear especially paradoxical when viewed in spatial terms. Later the term “resonant order” is introduced in further discussing God’s interacting with the world in a way that invests the choices of human agents with meaning and freedom without impinging upon the prerogatives of divine action. Here, as always, Begbie presents his ideas with caution, admitting that such metaphorical application of musical categories to theological concepts is not without limitations and must be undertaken with care. With that caveat in mind, this and other conclusions in the final chapters are worthy of thoughtful consideration, though few readers will advocate their wholesale adoption.

Once again, Jeremy Begbie has demonstrated what serious consideration of the interactions between music and theology can look like, and the result is a challenging and worthy read. This volume should be read with caution, however, particularly as the author comes close to subverting the primacy of the word in favor of musical, social, or even emotional considerations, though he never quite steps over the line, at least not overtly. The concept of using sonic metaphors as a way of engaging with difficult doctrines is novel in the present milieu, but it seems promising and will hopefully be further developed in the future by Begbie or other authors. Indeed, one can only hope that in the coming years more theologians—including those of a more Reformed or evangelical stripe—will engage the arts with this same energy and integrity.

Micah Everett is associate professor of music at the University of Mississippi. He and his family are members of Christ Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Oxford, Mississippi.

Sunday, January 1st 2017

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