Re-created

One of the blogs I follow is A Holy Experience (author Ann Voskamp, of One Thousand Gifts). Today, I read this journal post, in which she suggests to her husband that they leave the farm on which they live for a real vacation, and he quietly comes back with the suggestion that they go somewhere where they can serve rather than be served. At the end of the post, she muses on the beautiful ways in which God uses us, broken and insignificant though we are, to bring and become his kingdom.

And sure, we may all want anywhere other than suffering and ashes. But this is a dust-crushed world and Christ didn’t avoid it but chose to come to it. And the Farmer knows it. Why embrace dust and ashes? Because it’s out of dust and ashes, God grows the impossible.

Photo credit: Reigning Wanderer
reigningwanderer.blogspot.com

Because God exchanges dust and ashes for beauty and miracles and He cares so much that He doesn’t care that it’s not fair.

Because God raises whole people out of ashes and He writes mysterious grace in dust, and with Him, dust and spit and muddied things can still help us see.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Because though you are dust and will return to dust, though everything you know may be burnt to ashes, memory scattered to the wind — there is a God who can re-collect you, remake you, resurrect you and revive you with eternity.

When Lent & Valentine’s Collide 

I’m currently revising a review of Les Misérables (which will be posted here soon – hopefully next week). But Ann’s phrase “and with Him, dust and spit and muddied things can still help us see” is at the crux of my conclusions about the film – a muddied thing, how it can help us to truly see grace, to live it – to be new creations now.

Stay tuned.

The Goodness of Time

If in Christ ‘all things’ have found their fulfillment, then, presumably, the same is to be said of time as an integral dimension of the created order. (Theology, Music and Time, p. 71)

Jeremy Begbie’s book Theology, Music and Time (which I have briefly mentioned here) explores the connections between the interactions of music and time and a proper theological understanding of time. In Chapter 3, “In God’s Good Time,” Begbie sets out to use properties of music to suggest that time is intrinsic to creation and that time is essentially a positive part of God’s “good ordering” of the world (p. 71).

Photo credit: art knowledge news

To support the first assertion, namely that time is intrinsic to creation, Begbie draws on earlier arguments in the book, suggesting that music is necessarily made up of time in the very way it operates – that in music, time is seen not as a container, backround, or mental construct but as absolutely inherent to the “interrelationship between the physical entities involved in the production and reception of sound” (p. 80).

To support the second assertion, that time is good, Begbie presents four ways in which music demonstrates that a “link between time and fallenness” is not necessary:

  1. In music, change and order are seen to coexist; “change need not imply chaos” (p. 85). Tonal music (at least) is by nature subject to persistent change and yet embodies dynamic order.
  2. Music takes time not only to be created but to be. The implication is that the created world takes time to be, and that in music we can see that the fact that creation can only reach its fulfillment through time is not necessarily a negative, fallen characteristic of creation. Thus patience and waiting become potentially positive and enriching rather than empty. Music demands patience and waiting, the trust that there is something worth waiting for, and the realization that the “something” is not detachable from the music. (pp. 86-87)
  3. Different entities have different “time-structures,” different rates of coming into being, reaching a peak, returning to non-being. In musical works, multiple different temporal operations occur concurrently, often with irregularities (for those in the music world, an example is multiple layers of hypermeter, in which irregular hyper measures might occur), and these fluctuating and simultaneous layers of temporal action are crucial to the integrity of the piece. These differences and varieties should be seen not as signs of corruption but as signs of the diversity God has given his creation for good (pp.89-91).
  4. Finally, music challenges the assumption that finitude – boundaries and temporal limits – is by nature a fallen characteristic (p.91). As a result, Begbie suggests (with Barth) that limited duration in human life is “fundamentally beneficial and advantageous” (p. 94). A quote seems clearest here:

Music depends heavily for its meaning on finitude at every level… Musical continuity emerges from transience, from the coming into being and dying of tones, for in this way and only in this way can their dynamic qualities be sensed. The fact that music never solidifies or coagulates to form a thing or substance is critical to its intelligibility…(p.92)

Implicit in our finitude is an invitation and direction to through ourselves upon the divine graciousness…creation praises God in its very finitude and thus shows what authentic praise is…[T]he universe is suspended between nothingness and the infinity of God – music can exemplify and embody just this suspension. (pp.95-97)

As Begbie suggests, these characteristics of music in conjunction with the doctrine of Incarnation (Christ’s entering into the created order as God and man) should waken in us the conviction that temporality is an intrinsic dimension of God’s creation and that our interaction with it should recognize it as a gift, as an opportunity to recognize not only our limitations but also the divine goodness of our creator, as something with which we can work and live peacably, working in “the stream of God’s wisdom” (Rowan Williams, qtd. on p. 97).

…the purpose of music…

…the purpose of _De Musica_ is to bring the soul to a recognition of its fallen state and promote its return to God, to move from the world of sense to the world of intelligibility. The soul is fallen from the restful contemplation of eternal truth, into the busy-ness of temporal activity. Because of the fall, we are ordered by the tapestry of time, ‘sewn into’ the order of spatio-temporality. We have become so many individual ‘words’, each forming part of the poem of the temporal whole but unable to perceive the harmony and beauty of the connected work. By immersion in temporal sequence, we have lost the purview of the whole temporal series we possessed prior to the fall.

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…by the time we reach the _Confessions_ a more positive attitude to the created order, materiality and temporality is evident… The recitation of a psalm, though so obviously in time and subject to the distractions of the temporal order, is … used to illustrate the way in which the mind’s descent into diversity has not entirely effaced its ability to grasp that Unity from which all things proceed. Insofar as the mind achieves some ordering power over time, it approximates, albeit very weakly, to the perspective and character of eternity.

…For all the qualifications we have noted, it is hard to ignore the signs of the ancient tendency to run together temporality and fallenness, and especially significant for us is the way in which music is discovered and known insofar as we abstract from the temporal relations of physical realities patterns which reflect in some measure the order of eternity. Despite its considerable subtlety and fascination, for this vision to be advanced as offering a way forward for the theological deployment of music today would be, I suggest, dubious.

[Because] [t]onal music exhibits not the temporality of a single straight line but that of a multi-levelled matrix of waves of tension and resolution, in which the temporal modes interweave within an overall directionality[,]… it would seem that music is capable of demonstrating that such a strong link between time and fallenness need not be assumed, and that there is no necessity to distance ourselves from the mutable multiplicity of the temporal world in order to experience beneficial and enriching order.

Jeremy Begbie on St. Augustine’s remarks on theological engagement with time and music (some of which are quite beautiful); also questioning the assumption that temporality and fallenness go together, that materiality is only of value in its signification of that which is eternal. ~ Theology, Music and Time, 82-84, 68, 85

Remembering the Mystical

How do I practice music in such a way that I am treating the created world “as able to glorify God in its own way, by virtue of its own distinctive patterns, rhythms, and movements?” (Begbie, RT, 92)  This as opposed to viewing music as merely a pointer beyond itself to a Platonic ideal harmony, as dangerously earthy, emotional, nonverbal, as necessarily contained in its proper place by the clarity and purity of words and ideas.

As a theorist, I must necessarily treat music as a less-than-scientific whole.  The analytical-logical side of me longs to understand music as a science, to articulate how it works in an orderly, organized fashion, to hypothesize and experiment, to explain away its ineffableness.  And to a great extent, delving into the organized patterns that compose effective music is aesthetically and spiritually rewarding, leading to a grand appreciation of the existence of such order, physical and theoretical, in such an intangible subject, reflecting the grandeur of the entire universe.

But the temptation to quantify and organize can lead to a disregard of the most distinctive element of music: audible sound.  I have found myself drawn into the mathematical elegance of a theory for weeks on end, only to step back, listen, and realize that this particular pattern has little or no relevance to the way I hear the piece I’m attempting to understand.

Simultaneously, when I am drawn myopically to the quantifiable orderliness of this art, I fail to remember that every effort to quantify and organize music only reveals more clearly what makes it an art and not a science.  In spite of vast scholarship into music cognition and perception, we still cannot fully articulate why music is so emotionally profound, why it can change not only moods, but minds and hearts as well.  We can speculate on the numerous contextual elements that might bring us to a particular response, but we cannot fully understand it.  It is the mystical, spiritual, and human nature of music that confounds us.

Even among performing musicians, perhaps especially students, the hectic rush of daily life, practicing, lessons, recitals, and juries can keep us from remembering the poetical and spiritual richness and the humanizing nature of our art.

So perhaps at least a partial answer to my question is remembering: remembering that God formed the order and the mysticism that together are poured out in music, and that by participating in it, we are articulating (however imperfectly) a profound and otherwise inexpressible praise that is echoed in all of creation to the glory of His grace.

A preliminary defense

I remember a conversation a few years ago with a professor at Houghton in which I explained my struggle to reconcile my efforts in my faith and in my musical development, which I treated as two separate endeavors.   After a moment, he responded that he would pray that I would discover how the two can merge into one, unified trajectory.  At the time, I remember feeling frustrated.  I knew in a vague way that my study of music could glorify God, but I wasn’t aiming to be a worship leader and I struggled to understand how hours in the practice room – a solitary affair – could actually be as important as they felt to me.  However, through that conversation originated the pursuit of a theology of music that has led to this blog, a theology which draws a great deal from the doctrines of creation and salvation.

As Scripture opens, we are introduced to God as the Creator, expressing his creativity and passion in the creation of a remarkable world.  The culmination of this lavish, poetic process is the creation of humans:

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

We –all humanity – bear the image of God.  It has been tainted and broken by sin, but that image remains stamped on us.  And, arguably, one of the most distinctive ways in which we can recognize the image of God is in our creativity.  According to Philip Ryken, God’s calling and gifting of artists reveals the deep truth that God “himself is the supreme Artist” (Art for God’s Sake, 22).  Ryken further legitimizes this claim by specifically referring to God’s calling and gifting of the artists Bazalel and Oholiab, the artists in charge of the craftsmanship of the tabernacle, as well as his calling of Jubal and line of Levitical musicians (AGS, 18, 25).  These artists were skilled and intelligent, gifted by God, as well as willing to answer the call.

Music is also part of the cosmic order of things.  While certain aspects of it are clearly shaped by human culture, it also operates on its own plane, in the realm of sound and its interaction with the human body.  Jeremy Begbie states it well:

Since music is something made by humans, it will show the imprint of particular people, social groups, cultures, and their interests.  But at the same time, because it is made from given sound-producing materials and sounds and by people who share common physical features and together live in a temporally constituted world, it is not surprising if we find extremely pervasive patterns and procedures in most musics of the world.  In short, music seems to be a matter of both nature and nurture, and in gaining a Christian perspective on music, much depends on holding both of these perspectives together.  What is at stake theologically here is a full-blooded doctrine of creation that recognizes our embeddedness in a given, common physical environment. (Resounding Truth, 49)

In light of this understanding of music, the “sacred v. secular” dichotomy makes little sense, for “so-called secular music is an exploration of the world that God has made” (Ryken, AGS, 34).  Music has its own integrity within the sonic order at large and the patterned realm of musical sound, and should “flourish in all the fullness of [its] artistic potential, so that we may discover the inherent possibilities of creation and thereby come to a deeper knowledge of our Creator” (Ryken, AGS, 35).

Music has many functions, which have diversified to an unprecedented amount in the last century (see Begbie, RT, Introduction and Chapter 1).  One of its greatest strengths is its ability to express that which is inexpressible or inadequately expressible in words.  Music has great power to act on our hearts and emotions, as well as on our minds and even bodies… for which reason it has been linked with the spiritual, religious, and moral from the time of the ancient Greeks until the present.  This is not without its dangers, but I believe it is also dangerous to attempt to do away with the less ‘rational’ aspects of our humanity.  We could learn a great deal from Bach’s theological outlook, which “is hospitable to both music and word, allowing both to make their contribution, and often together” (Begbie, RT, 138, italics mine).   In addition, “Christian art is redemptive, and this is its highest purpose” (Ryken, AGS, 41).  Thus, the Christian musician expresses truths about the reality of the world, truths that are not solely bound up in words, truths that express both the ugliness and the beauteous hope of redemption.

Ultimately, the practice and study of music must be to the glory of God, but, to draw on Begbie yet again, “it is just because we are oriented to this particular God who desires things and people to flourish in their own integrity that we will long to give ‘room’ to the activities of making and hearing music… it is only as we are reconciled by the Spirit to this God … that we will be able to honor the integrity of music properly” (RT, 23).  Thus, the pursuit of music in its integrity may be a valuable expression of an important aspect of God and his creation, glorifying his creativity and lavish love for us… and for the Christian musician, it must be.