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Resounding Truth - Christian Wisdom in the World of Music

Author: Jeremy Begbie
Published By: SPCK (London)
Pages: 412
Price: £12.99
ISBN: 978 0 281 05984

Reviewed by Alun Brookfield.

For this reviewer, this is a superb book, quite the best thing I have read on this subject. But before I encourage you to rush to buy it, I should issue a couple of health warnings. First, this is not specifically a book about music in worship, although it has a huge amount to teach the reader about the proper use of music in worship. Second, it’s not an easy read unless you are either a professionally trained musician or a very competent amateur performer or at the very least a very knowledgeable music listener with a knowledge of European and American music of all kinds.

It is, however, a very scholarly exploration of the connections between music and theology, but written with a clear, relaxed and lucid style which is capable of engaging any reader. Few authors are better qualified than Jeremy Begbie to make such connections. He is a fine concert pianist who is also honorary Professor of Theology at the University of St Andrews, associate principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge and an affiliated lecture in the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. This is not his first foray into the theology of music. Previous works include: Voicing Creation’s Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts and Theology, Music and Time.

Begbie starts his book by asking why it is important to have a theology of music, and asserts that it is important because, in our modern culture as, more than ever before, music is pervasive, universal and is accorded a very high level of importance in the lives of many people. He goes on to argue that there is a strong link between music and, for want of a better term, religious impulses, that in a wide range of musical genres Christian themes are being explored and that music has habitually played a key part in the Church’s worship. He expresses the hope that “this book will help Christians, and anyone with more than a passing interest in music, to develop a Christian wisdom about music, that is, generate Christian habits of judgement that can form and perhaps re-form the practicalities of making and hearing music, whether that means listening to a symphony, composing a song, or playing in a rock band.”

He then goes on to define what he means by music and points out that there are different kinds of musics, some of it confined to private listening and performing, but much of it unavoidably intrusive. Amusingly, and correctly, he observes: “We have no earlids” (p.34). He is clearly concerned that, with modern electronic technology, we are able to carry music with us in a way that our forebears, even a generation or two ago, could not.

The author argues for a rethinking of music. He argues, correctly in the reviewer’s opinion, that, until the Renaissance, music was something which was done, not something which was observed aurally. It is only in relatively modern times that we have come to think of music as non-participatory - something composed by experts (composers), performed by other experts (musicians) and listened to with rapt attention by a largely non-involved (except aesthetically and/or emotionally) audience. Not that there is anything wrong with this, but it does have implications for our theology of music - is it something God-given and therefore finding its context and value in God; or is it something man-made and therefore finding its context and value in what we make of it, how we interpret it?

This reviewer has noted for many years (and often tried to explain to uncomprehending listeners!) that music does indeed have a power to move human beings to action or inaction. Begbie tells of a plane journey to the USA during which soothing music was used by the airline to encourage calmness and serenity in the passengers during take-off and landing; strongly rhythmic music during the safety video (in order to get attention!); and no music at all during the explanation of what to do if the plane plunged into the ocean! The point the author makes is that music is not neutral - it can affect our moods, our purchasing behaviour, our religious behaviour and a host of other behaviours. We do well to take it a lot more seriously than we do.

For the sake of anyone who may not have come across it, he expounds what has become known as The Great Tradition, an approach to music which claimed that music in some way reflected the order of the created universe, and which still in subtle ways affects our thinking about music even today, even though it began to lose its influence from the Renaissance onwards.

There follows a chapter in which Begbie explores what little we know of music in biblical times, and in (largely European) history. He expounds the attitudes to music of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, and the place of the incomparable Johann Sebastian Bach and of some modern composers in our thinking processes about music.

Chapter 8 is entitled “A Christian Ecology”, and this, together with Chapter 9, is the chapter in which Begbie begins to spell out his proposed way of thinking about music theologically. He starts from the outside, with the whole created order and cosmos, and works his way inwards to identify that God has made a world which is stable, but which also incorporates an “unpredictable fruitfulness”, and here we’re in the world of jazz, with its basically solid structures and shapes over which even moderate performers can improvise. I strongly comment pp.204-207 as a beautiful invitation to join with Christ in worshipping God through the medium of creative music.

There are more than 100 pages of notes, bibliography and indices.

All leaders of churches should buy this book, and, if you find it difficult to follow Begbie’s arguments due to a lack of breadth in your musical knowledge and experience, buy a copy for your musicians too and learn together.

The book abounds with wonderful language to match the quality of the music under discussion and we end this review with this salutary warning: “It is unlikely that there can be a transforming Christian musical presence in society until the church refinds its musicians and musicians refind the church” (p.21).

Alun Brookfield

Editor of Ministry Today

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You are reading Issue 42 of Ministry Today, published in March 2008.

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