Being a person with little training in music or the arts of any kind (I never took a music class after 7th grade until I had my one semester of music at seminary), the world of art and music remains to my perception a foreign language – I have a hard time recognizing the patterns of meaning that others so appreciate (see my blog Let There be Light). When viewing art or listening to music I feel the scriptural words are fulfilled: “‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive” (Matthew 13:14).
I found the Mars Hill Audio Journal interview “Patterns of Musical Meaning” with Jeremy Begbie, a musician and Duke University theology professor (Number 94, Nov/Dec 2008) to be most intriguing. The interview inspired me to purchase Begbie’s new book RESOUNDING TRUTH: CHRISTIAN WISDOM IN THE WORLD OF MUSIC, which I am now reading with great interest (and will comment on the book in a future blog). Among the things that host Ken Myers and Jeremy Begbie discussed which caught my attention and imagination:
Culture is the ordering of meaning, providing a framework of understanding of the world around us. Christian culture seeks to perceive the meaning to be found in God’s creation. In this thinking any form of art is about the discovery of order and meaning in the universe. (The Akathist, “Glory to God for All Things,” says, “The breath of Your Holy Spirit inspires artists, poets and scientists. The power of Your supreme knowledge makes them prophets and interpreters of Your laws, who reveal the depths of Your creative wisdom. Their works speak unwittingly of You.”) Artists see and help us see things and to perceive meaning that are not immediately obvious to us, but they help us make connections which enable us to “see”. Begbie offered the quote, “Love achieves its creativity by being perceptive.” That is the job of the artist and the poet and the scientists – to be perceptive enough to see patterns and meaning and truth in the world around us. It is also what “wisdom” contributes to the spiritual life – not law but understanding the world to know the when, why, where and how to apply the teachings of Christ.
The main idea of Begbie’s which I found most provocative was his sense of how music is a different way of “seeing” the world. When we see the world with our eyes alone, space takes on a certain meaning – we can see only one thing in a given space, and anything that occupies one space is not present in the rest of space. But with music one “sees” space in a totally different way. For in music, though one note fills the space around us, we still can add more notes to the same space and yet still perceive the different notes at the same time in the same “heard” space. He gave several examples of this and I will only mention the sympathetic resonance – where a note is played with the same note one octave lower – the sounds do not cancel each other out but in fact magnify each other.
Begbie offers this characteristic of music – the ability for more than one thing to fill a space at the same time and still be clearly perceived – as an alternative way to understand how an omnipotent God can allow His creatures to have free will. If our only way of “seeing” the universe is visually, we cannot understand how we can be free beings and have an omnipotent God. But if we “see” the world in the “heard space” of music, we come to understand how this is possible. Sympathetic resonance gives us a clue. God’s freedom doesn’t oppose or replace ours. God’s freedom and ours can enhance/resonate with one another and even increase the freedom for us to be who we are.
If we only perceive visually we cannot see how God’s activity in the world can be consistent with ideas of human freedom – since visually only one thing can occupy any given space. Music however gives us a model to re-image or re-imagine how freedom might work. It also allows us to “see” better the Trinity – how the Three Persons can share the One divine nature – for as in music any “space” can be occupied by more than one note or Person even when that “space” was completely filled by the first.
Myers called harmony singing “a parable of what it is to be free” – for voices singing in harmony are each freely following their own path, and yet together they make beautiful music. It is also an image of how Christian are to help one another – working in harmony to build up the church by having each freely use the gifts God’s Spirit has bestowed upon him or her.
“Seeing” the universe through music seems so appropriate for Christians. For in the beginning, when God spoke there was light (Genesis 1:3). It is not sound but light which God’s spoken word brought into existence. We see space and time visually but we also need to “see” the “heard” space and time if we are going to use all of the senses with which God has blessed us to discover the meaning He has implanted in the cosmos.
See also my blog Resounding Truth: Music and the Flourishing of Humankind
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