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Theological Music

“The end is music.”  Thus Robert Jenson ends his magnificent systematic theology in describing the visio dei in distinctly aural terms.  The vision of God, the beatific vision is here conceived not first and foremost as seeing, but as hearing, as listening to the intonations, harmonies, and rhythms of the eternal discourse of the Trinitarian persons.

This vision is rooted in a central theological sentiment, namely that music has incredible theological vitality and power.  However, what is it that makes music theological?  And what constituted good theological music?  How are such aesthetic judgments to be made in the theological task?


  1. Andrew wrote:

    while i do not necessarily have a substantive answer to these questions, this post allowed me to think of the second portion of david bentley hart’s the beauty of the infinite as primarily a dialog with robert jenson (someone i know he credits and critiques quite often in the book).

    i think the radical orthodox crew, specifically milbank, might actually be on to something with their explorations in baroque poesis and the whole aesthetic from that period (even if they are annoying as hell sometimes). it was one apparently (as i am not personally well versed in baroque theory) teleologically oriented, aimed at expressing ‘Trinitarian’ (a potentially meaningless term, if unclear) themes both in harmonic selections and constructions (this is actually true of the baroque period. even note selection allowed for a kind of hidden reflectiveness of theological themes).
    however, in a modern context, i am not entirely sure what that might look like. while ben myers has done a magnificent job of presenting groundwork for an ‘apocalyptic’ aesthetic in his sustained posts on tom waits (and i mean apocalyptic in a yoderian sense here, a breaking in wrought with alieness), i do not know quite what a Trinitarian aesthetic looks like. i should probably stop there…

    Tuesday, May 20, 2008 at 5:56 pm | Permalink
  2. AmbassadorTex wrote:

    There are dozens of paths to go down based on those questions…nice.

    All the Pythagorean stuff about ratio/order, etc., that Pickstock has discussed. But also the surprisingly robust account Tolkien gives in his “creation myths” at the beginning of the Silmarillion…and on to the contemporary attempts (many flawed and clueless, in my opinion) to articulate analogies with improvisation.

    The problem I always run into is that so few people are musically literate (even among “elites” like philosophers and theologians) there is now little hope of being able to speak at any level of complexity and expect understanding.

    We could list examples of composers/performers who get it right, but I think it would be much harder to explain why.

    Tuesday, May 20, 2008 at 8:18 pm | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    You guys pretty much hit everything that came to mind for me: the Silmarillion, Hart on Bach, etc. and Pickstock/Milbank.

    Tuesday, May 20, 2008 at 8:45 pm | Permalink
  4. AmbassadorTex wrote:

    …a FEW places a FEW people get a lot right:
    Coltrane – A Love Supreme, Crescent, Dear Lord, and Welcome
    Zbigniew Preisner – soundtrack to “Blue”
    Bach – B minor Mass, Cello Suites
    Ellington – 2nd Sacred Concert
    Gorecki – 3rd Symphony
    Beethoven – 9th Symphony, late quartets
    Stravinksy – Symphony of Psalms
    Mozart – C minor Mass, several arias
    Wynton Marsalis – “I Am,” “Majesty of the Blues,” “Father, Son and Holy Ghost”
    Charles Wesley – everything?!

    Now if we ask what these things have in common?…or how much explicit intent plays in the listeners’ perceptions of theological meaning?…or how unorthodox or downright heretical beliefs on the part of the composer/performer should affect our reception?…who can say?

    Tuesday, May 20, 2008 at 9:50 pm | Permalink
  5. Ben Myers wrote:

    I’ve always been intrigued by Augustine’s discussion of church music in the Confessions: he finds music so overwhelmingly beautiful, so excessive, that he experiences it as a temptation. It’s easy to scoff at this (Augustine’s distrust of the senses, blah blah blah), but when you think about what it’s really like to experience beauty, there’s something movingly honest and authentic about Augustine’s anxiety.

    Sorry, I know this is off on a tangent: but one of the things that intrigues me about beauty is the (sometimes quite overpowering) sense that it’s just too much. The feeling of poetry on my tongue, the sight of a woman’s naked body, the transporting radiance of a Mozart concerto, the broken loneliness of Bob Dylan’s voice — when I’ve really experienced these things, I’ve found the beauty of it to be so shattering, so excessive, that I can’t help fearing that my own identity might be dissolved and lost forever in the blinding clarity of that moment.

    So anyway, I’m just improvising here, but I wonder if Augustine’s anxiety over music (together with Barth’s analysis of Mozart and the “shadow side” of creation) might be taken up into some sort of “apocalyptic aesthetic” (following Andrew’s comment above), in opposition to D. B. Hart’s conception of beauty as infinitely calm and impassible.

    Tuesday, May 20, 2008 at 11:03 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    I may have to steal the term ‘apocalyptic aesthetic’. That’s great stuff.

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008 at 12:04 am | Permalink
  7. Ben Myers wrote:

    Yeah, I might have to steal it too: thanks, Andrew!

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008 at 12:21 am | Permalink
  8. mike d wrote:

    “Now if we ask what these things have in common?…or how much explicit intent plays in the listeners’ perceptions of theological meaning?…or how unorthodox or downright heretical beliefs on the part of the composer/performer should affect our reception?…who can say?”

    Its because of this that I’ve always thought that aesthetic judgment belongs in a second tier of sorts. That if its to be edifying it must be examined in the light of our moral knowledge (especially the knowledge we gain from the scriptures) and perhaps our general knowledge of the ‘great things of the gospel’. It just seems that aesthetic judgment offers the opportunity for our depravity and lack of clarity to creep to the forefront. Revelation gives us plenty of material for moral judgment but much less for musical criticism.

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008 at 5:37 am | Permalink
  9. Andrew wrote:

    to ben and halden:
    check out david toole’s waiting for godot in sarajevo.
    he puts yoder into dialog with foucault in an interesting (yet, in my opinion ultimately incomplete) way.
    yeah, use the apocalyptic aesthetic all you want. :D

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008 at 7:15 am | Permalink
  10. Chris Green wrote:

    In his lecture “Faith, Reason, and the Eucharist” (available via iTunesU) Denys Turner says, “Music is matter entirely alive with meaning. The most bodily therefore and at the same time the most formal of human communications. Now this is why I suggested that if you were Thomas, you might say-and of course he didn’t-that music is the most rational of human activities. For in music, physicality and meaning, body and meaning, have become perfectly identified. Music is nothing but sound and fury signifying nothing but the sounds and the fury themselves that signify. Music is all body but precisely as language-this animality, this most transparent form, as rationality.” (Thanks to Cynthia at Per Caritatem for the transcript).



    I can’t agree with you about Augustine. I don’t think he was speaking from Christian conviction when he spoke about the temptations of beautiful things. It may be “easy” to accuse him of neo-Platonism on this point, but it is nonetheless accurate because easy. Perhaps it is so easy because it is so accurate.

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008 at 9:24 am | Permalink
  11. Andrew wrote:

    i think i might second your point, chris.

    ben, i would only add that hart may not see beauty simply as ‘calm and impassible’. he grants to God jealousy, among other things. the way he actually writes (though idiosyncratic and verbose) is indicative not of simple serene passivity but expressive of the visceral nature of our experience of beauty.
    i would caution confusing Divine apatheia with human emotions.
    *by the way, i really liked what you had to say about this point of our experience of beauty as almost cataclysmic at times. regardless of whether you read augustine correctly is almost a moot point (and i am not at liberty to say), this is really good stuff. :D

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008 at 10:00 am | Permalink
  12. jake wrote:

    I have to disagree with mike d.

    he says:
    “That if its to be edifying it must be examined in the light of our moral knowledge (especially the knowledge we gain from the scriptures) and perhaps our general knowledge of the ‘great things of the gospel’. ”

    i dont agree. from the genesis account, whether literal or poetic, creation (nature and beauty) was done before mankind and declared good. The beauty of nature and creation is ultimately where our ideas on aesthetics come from our understanding of nature.
    We do not interpret aesthetics and beauty through a specific moral code. these things are higher than morality. We do not decide if something aesthitically pleaseing based on an understanding of hermeneutics or from scripture.
    These things are pleasing and aesthetic because that is there creative power and inate job. They were declared beautiful and pleasing before man existed. before anyone could write a moral code, before scripture, before the fall.
    we respond to these stimulus because it is in its nature and it is in our nature.
    this is also why no matter where you are, no matter what religion…even satanists and other biblical contrarians can agree on beauty and aesthetic quality in nature. A sunset over the ocean is amazing to a christian, an athiest, a muslim, a buddhist, a satanist etc.
    C.S. Lewis in his space trilogy talks about certain ideals and structures (specifically gender and sex) being larger than humanity, it is something that we fit into not that reflects us.
    we as humans are very “humancentric” in the sense that we believe we give meaning to beauty, that trees are phallic because they look like a penis, etc.
    but all those things existed before us and were in the same nature before us.

    it a tree falls in the woods does it make a noise?
    quantum physicists struggle with this idea of relativity?
    what is everything in relation to? The luminefrous ether was a structure developed in the late 19th century “used to describe a medium for the propagation of light.” that all things are in relation to.
    as christians we know that all things are in relation to God.
    some people say that without an observer to view and declare value, nothing would be beautiful. that without humans beauty doesnt exist because no one can view it.
    this is a flawed argument. in the first, beauty exists for more than aesthetic purpose. it helps propogate many species of flowers by attracting bees and bugs. beauty also helps attracts mate for animals. they dont look at is as aesthetics, they just want to bump and grind that fine genetic material!!
    but also we forget that God is still observing and is the universal observer. it is beautiful because he made it and he observes it.

    if this is true, which it is, than these things dotn have to be examined in the light of our moral knowledge. they can be revelled in in our essential existence. its the framework, the basis, the foundation. we can rest in them.

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008 at 10:06 am | Permalink
  13. mike d wrote:

    Hi Chris,

    Might Augustine’s worry here be akin to your worry (on the be a man post) concerning sentimentalism with approach to worship? Perhaps sometimes its “too much” (to use Ben’s phrasing) because we’re prone to misuse the experience of beauty. I’m thinking here of a family member who has told me that sometimes he needs to pull back in worship to make sure that his focus (I have no other way to describe it) is directed God-ward and not elsewhere.

    I don’t have my copy of Confessions in front of me so I’m just floating it.

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008 at 10:07 am | Permalink
  14. mike d wrote:

    Hi Jake,

    I subscribe to the objectivity of aesthetic truth. Given God as good creator that seems pretty clear – and its a great thing too. That is, I see aesthetic truth as metaphysically objective but less so epistemically . I do agree that by nature we have the ability to recognize and appreciate beauty. And you’re right to point to Lewis in this arena. He is the foremost aesthetic apologist (that passage where he describes space as warm and full and not cold and empty in the Space trilogy is one of my favorites). So I don’t mean to say that aesthetic judgment is purely subjective (even in the epistemic sense) but it seems that by its very nature aesthetics is beyond the demonstrable (or less strongly, somehow show-able) – its much more experiential – and so prone to frailty of human subjectivity. And I would think that part of the process of salvation/sanctification (however you want to construe that) is , perhaps, a growth in learning to ascertain beauty as God would have us to do. God repairs our aesthetic faculties or something like that.

    At least not in whole can I agree that our understanding of beauty is not regulated by scripture. The Psalmist saw the Law as beautiful and I don’t that’s possible without revelation. We view the cross as beautiful and in doing so it certainly seems as if our understanding of beauty is corrected by revelation. Apart from revelation the cross is simply a curse and ugly. Within God’s narrative it becomes the most beautiful more of loving service imaginable.

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008 at 11:08 am | Permalink
  15. jake wrote:

    is it possible that it didn’t need a revelation. but that the cross of the law were beautiful because they rang true to something greater and already existing in the world.
    they coincided with the aesthetic/artistic/creational laws of the universe?

    i am having trouble seeing yout stance as you say you believe in objectivity of aesthetic truth and you also say “its much more experiential – and so prone to frailty of human subjectivity.”

    for example the Fibonnaci sequences that appear in nature all the time.
    has a cool review of them.

    I can’t believe that these things are subjective.
    where subjectivity comes in is in taste.
    i prefer the mountains over the desert, or i like sunrise more than sunset.
    taste and preference are subjective. How can they be subjective if they were declared good and complete before there was ever a subject?
    this is where philosophy has a stumbling block, when we bring in the supernatural element.

    i disagree that aesthetics are not showable or demonstrable. they are written in nature for all to see.
    is this part of God writing his name in the heavens and the rocks and the trees crying out? maybe.

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008 at 11:29 am | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    Jake, I don’t know if I can go with your first paragraph. I have trouble seeing a seamless unity between revelation and nature precisely because the cross and resurrection of Jesus is so utterly disruptive in nature. The resurrection does not simply illustrate things that are already true about the universe as it is, rather it established a whole new reailty, a new creation which displaces, interrupts, and relativizes the old. This is not to say that there is no continuity between creation and new creation, only that there is a genuine novum, a radical generativity which cannot be situated within the logic of the old age. The resurrection endows all things with an utter newness, exploding the logic of the old age. It is, as Paul says, a stumbling block and foolishness.

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  17. mike d wrote:

    I’m in agreement Halden.

    Suppose you reflect on the cross – completely devoid of the narrative that goes along with it (I don’t find this to be an easy thought experiment – I’m not even sure how to go about starting). I just don’t think it presents itself as aesthetically pleasing.

    But within the context of God’s narrative and even specifically Christ’s life- his act on the cross becomes beautiful. This is disruptive to our aesthetic judgment.

    It might fulfill our aesthetic judgment (our natural faculties) – but it fulfills it in a disruptive way. It doesn’t necessarily say everything you thought about beauty is wrong but it does say here is the highest beauty and you wouldn’t know that apart from God’s action in the world. Now you can view beauty more fully since I’ve (God) renewed your aesthetic faculties.

    I’m obviously framing this in an epestemic way – building on Plantinga’s work.

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008 at 12:21 pm | Permalink
  18. jake wrote:

    the cross was exploding the old way of man. it was disruptive of the law of men.
    it was not disrupting all history, just from after the fall to the moment of the cross.
    the history, the ways and the culture that christ was overthrowing was not Gods ideal plan or purpose.
    i totally agree with you on the aspects of the cross being a disruptive/revolutionary moment of turning the world on its head .
    but i am speaking on in essence, even before man existed. these aesthetic laws were in place. the cross was speaking to those things, the perfect love of God, the beauty of pre-fall existence.

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008 at 3:36 pm | Permalink
  19. jake wrote:

    i am also an external processor. who loves to process through ideas by talking about them.
    by no means am i presenting my ideas in stone.

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008 at 3:37 pm | Permalink
  20. Chris Green wrote:

    Mike D.

    It seems to me, Augustine’s fear of the beautiful is a manifestation of his desire to be in control of himself, to maintain via apatheia a hold on his sense of identity. He feared abandonment in this case, just as he feared abandonment of another kind in the case of friendship. (Remember his vow after Nebridius’ death not to love any one so deeply again.)

    And, as Ben so eloquently said of his own experience of beauty, it can be identity-threatening. During worship, pulling back from the beauty of the music or lyrics or architecture does not help me to focus on God. If anything, it means I am focussing on myself! I’m thinking about myself thinking about God, and that aborts an attitude of worship as quickly as anything can. Not to say we shouldn’t be careful. But I don’t think Augustine’s (in this case, I should say Plotinus’) way is the one we should follow.

    One more point. The problem with sentimentalism is not that it is “too much”; if anything, it is “too little”! It is “over the top,” to be sure, but not in the way Ben described. The “apocalyptic” dimension of beauty – I should say, beauty in its truer manifestations – does not indulge our sentiments, but blinds and purges them.

    Saturday, May 24, 2008 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

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