“A Modern Day Sage” Reblog

This post expresses very well the exact things I find incredibly appealing about G.K. Chesterton’s writing style. If you have never read anything by him, consider doing so. If you are interested in apologetics, I’d recommend starting with Orthodoxy, as it is beautifully written, extremely applicable, and short. If you are interested in fiction, I’ve heard the Father Brown stories are wonderful.

Lost In Grace

Have you ever read an author from the distant past whom you felt was responding to your news headlines and fighting your present-day battles?   Most likely not.  Have you ever read an author who transported you out of your own present situation only to bring you back with the realization that they had given you more than just a couple hours of escape; they had actually said something that you think could influence the course of people’s lives today?  The list of such authors is very small, but one who has and continues to have such an impact is G.K. Chesterton.  Gilbert Keith to be exact.  When did British authors begin using initials?

If you have been enriched by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and even J.K. Rowling, you have been influenced and enriched by G.K. Chesterton.  He is one of the most engaging, witty and insightful writers of…

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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

Selections from my bookshelf

(re-)Read in 2012

  • Photo credit: SPCK Publishing

    be not afraid (Samuel Wells) – A slim but encouraging volume on the nature of fear, whether it is all bad, what kinds of things we are afraid of, and why and how our hope in Christ should influence the way we handle fear. I found this volume particularly helpful in my own struggles with anxiety this past year.

  • The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis) – A re-read item, but I don’t actually remember the exact time I last read these lovely books. As an adult, I found returning to these fanciful stories with a greater understanding of Scripture, literature, and the other writings of C.S. Lewis to be both delightful and stimulating. The Last Battle is especially puzzling yet illuminates some of the glorious ideas Lewis had about eschatology and the community of believers.
  • Cranford (Elizabeth Gaskell) – I am a long time fan of 19th and early 20th century British literature, especially of novels written by female authors (e.g. Jane Austen; Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte). Elizabeth Gaskell is a relatively recent discovery of mine through her books (and their recent film adaptations) Wives and Daughters and North and South. Cranford is less a single narrative than a collection of intertwining stories of the residents of the sleepy town of Cranford. The narrator – Mary Smith – records events with a partial eye, but her participation in the story is the window into the light and yet serious matters of the unimportant characters in the story.
  • An Acceptable Time (Madeleine L’Engle) – The finale to the Time series engages in questions about the nature of time, how we interact with past and present and future, how God’s presence might have been known (if at all) among those who had no opportunity to hear of him. If you’ve never read the children’s series (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, An Acceptable Time), I’d highly recommend it to any adult reader. Some of L’Engle’s ideas about time and the universe are fanciful, but her imagination brings a breadth and depth to our engagement with things we don’t understand about the cosmos. Perhaps creation is singing, and has been sung into existence, and we just can’t hear it unless we listen.
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events (David Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, narrator) – Another
    Photo credit: Goodreads.com

    Photo credit: Goodreads.com

    children’s series… I read many “easy” books this year due to my need for rest from my studies, but this series, along with The Chronicles of Narnia and An Acceptable Time, is very interesting to read as an adult. Based on the premise that the three Baudelaire siblings face many unfortunate events, most of which are perpetuated by the villain, Count Olaf, the series follows the siblings as they face questions about the nature of good and evil, the difficulty of making a decision when all the options are poor, and the potentially deceptive nature of language. The tone is actually comedic – somewhat darkly so – but the undercurrent of hope in familial bonds, trust in each other, and forgiveness draws these books together in an unexpectedly redemptive narrative.

  • Orthodoxy (G.K. Chesterton) – Another re-read item, this book is one of the most charming, well written, and compelling defenses of faith I have ever read. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in how one might find belief in Christ and God a foundation and a rock in the swirling turbulence of ideologies and uncertainty in our day. Another great book in a similar vein is C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

Current/To-read queue

  • Theology, Music, and Time (Jeremy Begbie) – I’ve tried to read this book a few times, but in the middle of the dense readings of my degree program, I had not found the energy or concentration I needed to delve into the meaty prose of this work. Now that I have the opportunity, I’m intrigued by the coincidence between many of the issues Begbie deals with and the broader issues I encountered in Contemporary Aesthetics (Spring 2012). Begbie critiques and expands on Zuckerkandl in an effort to explore the dimensions of time in music and how these might affect our understanding and experience of time through a theological lens.
  • Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen) – The Jane Austen novels are dear friends; I return to them on a regular basis, especially to Pride and Prejudice, which I read every year. Northanger Abbey is the closest in tone to Austen’s juvenilia, even though it was published posthumously. I re-read it less often than most of the other novels, so I found returning to it this time to be a very fresh take on the story. Austen’s satire and wit is closer to the surface in this novel, which makes it both a pleasant read and a window into the ideas that informed her writing style in her later novels.
  • Wisdom and Wonder: Common Grace in Science and Art (Abraham Kuyper) – I’ve heard so much about Kuyper in my readings and discussions about the way our theology should impact our engagement with culture. This translation of a partial volume of Kuyper’s is exciting and approachable – I’m looking forward to exploring it further.
  • Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World (Timothy Keller) – One of my favorite reviewers says this about Every Good Endeavor:

it … remind[s] us that we join our work to God’s work because of God’s gracious overtures and the gospel’s effective power in our lives… From the good plan of God to the hard news of sin to the exciting news of a Kingdom approach, these three units offer a great structure for a great book, and Keller plumbs this well.  It isn’t a cheap structure or a casual one, it is profound. His astute teaching about all this helps us see that.  Like other things in life — from sex to art, science to politics — we can see what is good and wondrous, what is sinful and broken, and what is being redeemed by gospel transformation, and how to take up our vocations into the world in wise and proper ways.  This is the story of the God’s redemptive work in the world and is how we take up the calling, as in his subtitle, to relate our daily work to God’s work. ~ Byron Borger, Hearts and Minds Books

  • Photo credit: Tyndale

    The Just Church: Becoming a risk-taking, justice-seeking, disciple-making congregation (Jim Martin) – If I’m honest with myself, I’ve let much of the conversation on social justice in the church pass by me. This book just came out last year and appears to be grounded in the gospel and practical. Again, I quote Byron Borger: “this incredibly useful book does just what its subtitle promises — it helps integrate justice advocacy into ordinary discipleship, and helps ordinary churches realize they must be proactive in building wholistic disciples.  Dare our churches not take risks for the cause of justice, dare we sit on the sidelines of the great historical battle for justice and liberation, dare we continue with church-life as usual?” 

  • Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (Richard Mouw) – I’ve been wanting to read this book ever since it came out, and I just haven’t gotten a hold of it yet. One of my biggest frustrations with public conversation (and private conversation sometimes) is the tone – we are so quick to condemn others, to be angry, to insist that we are right – we are so often uncivil and unwilling to hear others. This book calls us Christians to a totally different mindset.

Alongside this last book, I’ll just mention that this weekend is the Institute for Biblical Studies in Ithaca, NY, and Richard Mouw is the speaker this year. If you are nearby, I’d encourage you to attend.

For other book ideas this year, see my friend Bethany’s recent post: The year in books: 2012

Vocation, Justice, and a New Creation | Chesterton House

Vocation, Justice, and a New Creation | Chesterton House

Written by my friend Karl Johnson, this article addresses our need for a doctrine of vocation – why does our work matter before God?

Today, we need the doctrine of vocation as much as ever but for mostly different reasons. Whereas Luther argued that “vocation” ought to include labor, today’s secularized version of the work ethic reduces vocation to nothing but labor. Instead of holding too low a view of work, many students suffer from careerism, associating work not so much with service as with self-fulfillment.

Thinking of our calling as a response to God’s calling also expands the notion of calling to include all of life. “The word vocation is a rich one,” writes our recent guest Steven Garber, “having to address the wholeness of life, the range of relationships and responsibilities. Work, yes, but also families, and neighbors, and citizenship, locally and globally—all of this and more is seen as vocation, that to which I am called as a human being, living my life before the face of God.” Or as Os Guinness puts it in The Call, “everyone, everywhere, and in everything lives the whole of life in response to God’s call.”

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.

Why is it so challenging to be a Christian musician?

As an undergraduate student of piano at a Christian liberal arts college, I struggled with my chosen vocation.  I found myself asking questions like, “is this subject really worth studying as a Christian?” and “shouldn’t I be pursuing something more obviously “ministry” oriented?”  Ultimately, I longed to know how the study of music can be a legitimate calling for a believer.

Why these questions, this terrible pressure to justify my calling?  Among the reasons were these:

First, I felt the tug of my field on my heartstrings.  The music world tends to be all-encompassing.  It can inspire whole-hearted devotion because it is both powerful and demanding, but this devotion easily becomes idolatry.  As Philip Ryken puts it, “Art is always tempted to glory in itself, and nearly every form of art has been used to communicate values that are contrary to Scripture” (Art for God’s Sake, 12).  I have seen this born out very deeply in my surroundings during my current studies in a secular environment, where many of the musicians around me live and breathe the music they play.

Second, there seems to be a modernist attitude implicit (and occasionally explicit) among many Christians that music “doesn’t concern anything objective, anything that could invite claims to truth” (Begbie, Resounding Truth, 14).  Or if it does have anything to do with objective truth, as it was thought to in ancient Greek philosophy and Augustinian theology, it simply points beyond itself to those objective things and has little or no value in itself (Begbie, RT, 83).  Related to this issue is the frequent verbal orientation of the church’s view of music.  Music is often seen solely as a servant of words instead of a form of communication and worship in its own right.

Finally, and poignantly, there are more urgent issues out there, such as natural disasters, climate change, hunger, AIDs, and unreached people.   As a result, it is easy to conceive music and the arts as trivial and inconsequential, a distraction from life (Begbie, RT, 14-15).  I wondered if this were true, and if I were devoting my life to something with a negligible role in the process of serving God and others in the world.

Fortunately, my path did not stop here.  In my next post I will explore in brief the reasons that have helped me to develop a more well-rounded theological view of music as a Christian vocation.