theo-musicology, two blokes, and a song in my head

I recently read (but didn’t understand) much of Jeremy Begbie’s Theology, Music and Time. I have many questions and comments to make about this book, but you really don’t need to be subjected to that. Begbie (BLOKE #1) is Vice Principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge University, where he teaches systematic theology. He is also an ordained Anglican minister and a member of the Doctrine Commission for the Church of England. And a musician.

He addresses many musical features such as rhythm, meter, resolution, repetition and improvisation and attempts to show how these aspects of music can inform theology. He specifically addresses creation, salvation, eschatology, time and eternity, eucharist, election and ecclesiology. He makes some quite interesting points, several of which he reiterates in the conclusion.

One paragraph in particular really set my thinking on a strange trajectory which ended with a re-reading of ‘Ainulindale‘ in Tolkien’s Silmarillion. Begbie writes:

The second matter concerns the danger of deifying the dynamic patterns of creation and culture. At an early stage in writing, I considered calling this book ‘The Sound of God’. I quickly grew dissatisfied with that title. For if the creaturely rationality of music is to be given due weight, it is more accurate to speak of music, at its best, as the sound of the created order praising God, in its contingency, finitude and non-divinity. (This, as we have seen, was the heart of Barth’s theological appropriation of Mozart.) To say this is not to question either the reality or the created goodness of the world, or its power to glorify God; precisely the opposite, it is an attempt to ‘allow room’ for created reality to perform its true vocation in praising the Creator, refusing to assimilate what is properly creaturely to the divine. –p277.

He is, of course, right. Especially given his additional remarks on the impact of the fall on music in general. If music can help form theology by helping to form the theologian, as Begbie argues, then it can indeed occupy a substantive (and heretofore largely ignored) place in the dialogue of theology.

Enter the Oxford don, J. R. R. Tolkien (BLOKE #2).

One of the most beautiful pieces of English prose I have ever read is Tolkien’s Aunulindale — the creation myth in the fictional world of his “Middle Earth.” The Silmarillion is less well known than his Lord of the Rings trilogy (plus The Hobbit, which was even better), but the Silmarillion is the creation story of how the world in which Bilbo, Frodo and the gang came to be. It is a beautiful analogy of the Biblical creation story and the subsequent Fall (but don’t press the analogy too far — it is, after all, fiction). Tolkien tells of the Ainur (the Holy Ones), the music which Iluvatar (God) creates for them to perform for his good pleasure, and the discord that Melkor (Satan) creates by interjecting his own melody. Tolkien writes:

And it came to pass that Iluvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the spendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Iluvatar and were silent.

Then Iluvatar said to them: ‘Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.’

Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Iluvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Iluvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void…

But now Iluvatar sat and hearkened, and for a great while it seemed good to him, for in the music there were no flaws. But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor [interpretation:Satan] to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Iluvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself…

Some of these thoughts he now wove into his music, and , and straighway discord arose about him, and many that sang high him grew despondent, and their thought was disturbed and their music faltered; but some began to attune their music to his rather than to the thought which they had at first. Then the discord of Melkor spread ever wider…

Then Iluvatar spoke, and he said: ‘Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them in Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Iluvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.’

I am sure that my relative ignorance of the academic study of music and its relation to theology and philosophy has led me to oversimplify this issue, but it seems to me that music is more unique and objectively substantive than theologians are usually willing to admit. Its mathematical complexity, its ability to convey emotion, its clear analogical relationship to creation ex nihilo by God, and, of course, the biblical presence of music before and after the eschatological realization of the kingdom of God all argue for more attention from theologians — especially from conservative, Reformed evangelical theologians.

We are quick to enter the discussion when it comes to music and worship style. We are quick to condemn the abuse of music’s ability to evoke emotional responses. We are quick to condemn the use of specific musical styles in corporate worship. And indeed we should continue to be vocal in these discussions. But implicit in these responses is the recognition that music must have a proper place in church life, and therefore in ecclesiology proper. If ecclesiology, then theology.

Begbie is right that music can help inform theology by helping to form the theologian. I’m sure Begbie goes astray at many points. But I’m also sure that we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

So the result of all this is that I am longing all the more for the day when I join the real Ainur in an even more glorious melody in which God finds perfect pleasure and in which I find perfect satisfaction. A more glorious song that is not tainted by sin and the Fall. A more glorious orchestration of God in which my redemption is not only complete, but realized — and I finally see that God has made something beautiful of my life.


And then, to complicate things even further, I read Carl Zimmer’s article on musical hallucinosis, the brain disorder that causes people to literally hear music all the time. Great. Musical hallucinations. I’ve been walking around for two weaks with the jingle from a 1980s television ad campaign stuck in my head — “What would you do for a Klondike Bar?” I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the Great Music which Tolkien imagined.

Klondike Bar

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