Music in God’s World?

(This is Neil.) The September/October issue of Books and Culture has a very interesting short article by the Anglican theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie about “Music in God’s World.” Begbie has a forthcoming book on this topic that we should discuss on this blog in November.

Why is it surprisingly difficult to discuss the theology of music? In an earlier post, based on an article by Peter Jeffery, I suggested there that we really need to speak with precision. There is a clear, if often unacknowledged, distinction between the Tridentine principles of “sacred music” and the claims of the exponents of “inspired music” that church music should have the “power to enrapture.” We still repeat unexamined assumptions about “folk music” and we continue to ignore the fact that many cultures happen to make sharp distinctions between music used for worship and other music.

Besides our lack of conceptual clarity, Dr Begbie’s article suggests that we also suffer from the effects of two negative tendencies, perhaps “assumed by default,” when we think about music –

The first is the outlook that encourages us to think of music as purely spiritual or conceptual, disregarding its origins in the material reality of breath or even (at times) “rough hair over catgut.” Begbie quotes his colleague Trevor Hart’s description of the outlook that “would prefer it if some direct transmission of the spiritual or intellectual opus between minds could be arranged, short-circuiting the messiness and crudity of mediation through fleshly realities altogether.”

Begbie writes of the long history of this tendency from Platonism to Romanticism and its continuation in the emphasis on sound quality or tonal patterns in much contemporary music:

This … surfaces prominently in the ancient Greek tradition, not least in some Platonic music theory: as part of this material world, music can be of serious value only insofar as it directs our attention to the ideal and enduring harmonies beyond the material. Even in Augustine there is a marked ambivalence about physical beauty and the materiality of music (especially in his early writing). In this current of thinking, musical sounds become a vehicle for the contemplation of eternal or ideal beauty, hence the colossal emphasis in much medieval writing on the superiority of intellectual theory over the practical making and enjoyment of music. Commonly, the thrust seems to be to look beyond material sounds to the order or beauty they reflect or point to rather than to welcome them as valuable embodiments of God-given order and beauty in their own right, with their physical character intrinsic to that value. Related ideas colored Zwingli’s attitude to music: the spiritual set against the material and an overplayed fear of anything that might imply an idolatry of music. Some modern evangelical approaches to music (and the other arts) have followed similar tracks: music, bound up as it is so closely with physical things, is regarded as at best irrelevant and at worst dangerous, tugging us away from the more real, nonsensory “spiritual” realities.

In modern times, it is probably fair to say that this reluctance to give lasting value to the physical in music has led to a focus not so much on Platonic-like eternal forms but more on the inner life of the individual, especially the emotional life. What Ernst Kris notes in the development of visual art from the 16th century—a shift from the artist as manual worker to the artist as individual creator—could well apply to music: “The work of art is for the first time in human history considered as a projection of an inner image. It is not its proximity to reality that proves its value but its nearness to the artist’s psychic life.” Perhaps the best-known version of this outlook is the philosophy of “individual expressivism”—the view that music is (or ought to be) the outward expression of inner emotion, an externalizing of emotional urges and surges, sometimes with the aim of stimulating the same emotion in others. The physical elements of music become the mere means to conveying and provoking a (supposedly) nonphysical emotion. This is an immensely popular outlook, often simply assumed by default, not least in Christian churches.

This mind-set received classic expression in the romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries (though with much greater subtlety than in most contemporary versions). With some of the Romantics, the artist’s inner life became linked to the rhythms of the cosmos, the restless, infinite, spiritual momentum of nature. The Great Tradition thus received a new lease on life—music was thought to turn into sound the infinite play of the cosmos, through the strivings and struggles of the romantic composer or performer. It was thought by many that music unencumbered by words could do this best: instrumental music came to be exalted by many as supreme. Rendered marginal for so long in modernity, art (in the form of music) has returned with a vengeance to assume massive proportions as part of a vast cosmology revolving around the human ego. But what we should not miss here is the implicit devaluing of the physical as physical. Indeed, in some versions physical nature, far from being honored and listened to in its own integrity, is seen as needing the creative artist to come to fulfillment.

The problem with the “devaluing of the physical as physical” is that liturgy is in part about bodies (see my post here on Revelation 4 and 5), especially as it is meant to “grant a foretaste of what it will be like to have a spiritual body beyond death.” It isn’t primarily about ideas or emotions. Music in liturgy, then, should have some sort of kinetic quality – some relation to the “laws of biological motion.”

Second, there is the related modern tendency, already described above, to think about music as the “projection of an inner image,” perhaps the “outward expression of inner emotion, an externalizing of emotional urges and surges.”

Begbie reminds us that music should instead correspond to the New Testament’s emphasis on “koinonia, variously translated as ‘fellowship,’ ‘communion,’ ‘togetherness,’ ‘sharing.’” Liturgy is in part about communities. Christians should thus be polyphonic for:

In polyphony, more than one melody is played or sung simultaneously, each moving to some extent independently of the others. A central cantus firmus gives coherence and enables the other parts to flourish in relation to one another.

Begbie writes:

The contrast with the Romantic model of the artist and with his pale echo, the postmodern aesthete, could hardly be greater. In “Pentecostal polyphony” my relatedness is part of who I truly am. For the Romantic, relations with others are secondary to the process of artistic expression, in which my unique inner life is externalized. (Indeed, relations with others are more likely to impede than aid the creative process.) For the modernist self, the first step to discovery of the true self is the individual agent’s inward turn; unbounded space to be is the key to freedom and fulfillment. And for the postmodern, even this self is shorn of responsibility in the endless play of aesthetic desires and thus is always on the verge of collapse.

In Pentecostal polyphony, by contrast, both the suffocating individualism of modernism and the erasure of personal uniqueness of postmodernism are overcome. True enough, the self is always and already a social product (an important postmodern concern), and yet the self is centered when addressed and treated as a distinct you by another person or other persons. I discover who I am in koinonia—as I am loved and as I love in the power of the Spirit, with a forgiving love, rooted in God and now opened out to us through Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. My identity is discovered not despite but above all in and through relationships of this kind. The contemporary Greek Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas is sometimes cited in this connection, in his insistence that my hypostasis—my particularity—is discovered in ekstasis, “a movement toward communion,” as I am turned outward, as I am directed by and toward another person in love.

The questions, then, are: Can (and should) we try to escape from the tendencies that would lead us to think of music as purely spiritual or conceptual, and the “projection of an inner image”? Is this (along with speaking with precision) a necessary step for us to take before we can begin to constructively consider the role of music in the church?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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7 Responses to Music in God’s World?

  1. Pingback: Music » Music in God’s World?

  2. Pes says:

    Can (and should) we try to escape from the tendencies that would lead us to think of music as purely spiritual or conceptual, and the “projection of an inner image”?

    This question is faulty because it assumes a distinction where there is none. There is no “purely spiritual or conceptual” approach to music. Even monks who meditate with chant at Mass are embodied. When we (i.e. lefties and righties) use our brains, we’re thereby using our bodies. Synaptic activity is kinetic. Singing is kinetic.

    Is this (along with speaking with precision) a necessary step for us to take before we can begin to constructively consider the role of music in the church?

    Yes, let’s do speak precisely.

    The Church has already spoken quite a bit about sacred music. What are you (or Begbie) hoping to add? Pentecostal fervor to the Mass? Because Mass is just not exciting enough to “be still, and know that I am God”?

    This is a pointed question, but an honest one.

  3. Neil says:

    Dear Pes,

    Thank you for writing, but I am afraid that you have completely misunderstood my post. It is most probably my fault – let me try to be clearer here.

    1. Nobody denies that “Even monks who meditate with chant at Mass are embodied” (How could it be otherwise?).

    However, there are approaches to music that lack or disregard what Begbie calls “a sense of music’s profound physicality—its embeddedness in God’s given material world.” He clearly describes some of them. There is, for instance, the Platonism that claims “music can be of serious value only insofar as it directs our attention to the ideal and enduring harmonies beyond the material.” There is also the Romanticism that values music as the turning into sound of “the infinite play of the cosmos, through the strivings and struggles of the romantic composer or performer,” similarly devaluing “the physical as physical.”

    These approaches might affect the way we think about music. Begbie thinks that this would be a bad thing.

    Does this make sense?

    2. I am aware that the Church has spoken about sacred music. I thought that my post was quite compatible with the Church’s emphasis on raising our minds to heavenly things and worship as a prefiguration of the heavenly Jerusalem. As my reference to Revelation 4 and 5 suggest, this heavenly Jerusalem is an embodied and communal reality.

    You state that your final question is “pointed” but “honest.” Fine. I am still confused by it. My original post and Begbie’s entire article do not speak of “fervor” nor “excitement.” I do not know where these phantoms come from.

    The phrase “Pentecostal polyphony” refers to a conscious “relatedness” – a “movement towards communion.” This is compatible with an emphasis on “active participation of the whole people” and a “whole congregation expressing itself in song” (see Musicam Sacram 16), but it is incompatible with what Begbie calls “the Romantic model of the artist.”

    Does this make sense?

    Thanks again for your comment.


  4. Liam says:


    I am not sure what Pes thought of “Pentecostal polyphony” but I know it stopped me dead in my tracks as ambiguous/equivocal. I had to re-read the piece to see the connection.

    Understand that, in the American popular religious context, “Pentecostal” worship has been hijacked to refer to a highly emotive, ejaculatory and individual experience (albeit with others present). I have a intuition that may be how some people read the phrase and perhaps what Pes picked up on too.

  5. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    You are right to note that the phrase “Pentecostal polyphony” is, well, unusual. I would not have chosen it myself. But our response to being unsettled by a text should be to read it again more closely.

    Then, I think, we would note that Begbie first speaks about and then emphasizes Pentecost, initially uses the phrase within quotes, describes his meaning at some length, and ends with a quote from a Greek Orthodox (not Pentecostal or even evangelical) theologian. Furthermore, I can’t think of any earlier post of mine that suggested that Mass is presently not “exciting enough.”

    What is my point? I have no reason to believe that Pes isn’t honest.

    I am just worried about having to continually distinguish everything that I might say from every possible bad idea and preemptively put to rest any conceviable suspicion. I wouldn’t be able to say anything.


  6. Liam says:


    Indeed, what I did was read it again, as I noted, and I thought I had figured out the intended meaning as you outline. But I was merely noting that what it seems Pes picked up on was in fact my first understanding of what you assembled.

    Don’t get neurotic about the writing. Just be prepared for the results of the inevitable misunderstandings by being able to shift to the reader’s perspective when receiving input from him/her. Which, btw, I think you usually do very well.

    As a musician, I will tip you off to something: music – and discussions of music – pushes non-intellectual buttons of people at a much higher rate than many other types of discussions Christians have. Aristotle would have predicted that… So, when we write about music, we should keep in mind that it’s a kind of radio-active topic prone to misunderstandings of the type shown here. Musicians (well, at least those of us with many years under our belts, and I am not a professional) can get inured to this phenomenon.

  7. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks. There is a lot of wisdom in what you’ve generously written.

    I hope that my earlier responses didn’t show too much impatience. But they probably did …

    Take care,

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