The theological experts have gathered. Over here is the exegete; over there is the philosopher; beside him is the systematic theologian; and beside her is the … musician? Theologian and musician Jeremy S. Begbie, who teaches at Cambridge and St. Andrews universities in Britain, suggests that musicians do indeed belong around the theological table. His recent book, Theology, Music, and Time (Cambridge University Press, 2000), offers abundant proof for his surprising contention. Begbie asserts that when theology is considered in reference to music, "unfamiliar themes are opened up, familiar topics exposed and negotiated in fresh and telling ways, obscure matters … are clarified, and distortions of theological truth are avoided and even corrected."

Five examples of such collaboration between music and theology will perhaps suffice to woo readers into exploring the riches of this fascinating project.

  • Is time itself good? Begbie notes the ambivalence toward time in various branches of Christian theology. Eternity typically is considered "timeless" or "beyond time," yet if it consists of an unimprovable state of perfection, it may appear to be static—even monotonous, one might say. Begbie shows that in music, time is not something to be transcended. Instead, it is good—indeed, it is intrinsic. Themes begin, unfold, and give way to others, only to be (perhaps) restated and reworked into new beauty. Transience is essential to music, not an unhappy accident to be superseded somehow, someday. Thus music challenges us to reconsider the life to come. We can hardly defer gratification now (another theme Begbie explores) unless we hope for two things: one, eschatological resolution of our current problems, and two, continuing elaboration of the beautiful themes of creation in the next world.

  • How is prophecy fulfilled? Music shows us how tension can be built up and then resolved, only to continue with a new tension that arises out of the previous section—and that in turn seeks resolution that is both fresh and reminiscent of the first. Begbie shows how each bar of music (at least in most Western music since the 18th century) has its own rhythmic and melodic logic, which typically connects with the next bar in a phrase (forming thereby a "hyperbar"). This hyperbar is a component of a four- or eight-bar unit (a hyperbar at a higher level), and so on to embrace the entire piece as a hyperbar. (Indeed, Begbie's logic would extend to seeing the various movements of a symphony as themselves components of the symphonic "hyperbar"—and then, perhaps, to considering the symphony as part of the entire career of a composer.)
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The famous opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony start as a self-contained unit (ba-ba-ba-bah). But then they both continue and change in the next bar into a chord that cannot rest there. It is, as musicians call it, the dominant chord, and we all "want" it to resolve back to the first chord, the tonic. The third bar does resolve back to the tonic chord, but Beethoven proceeds to elaborate on this simple theme more and more, so that the initial, deceptively simple motif blooms into an astonishing sequence of promise-and-fulfillment patterns. Thus a prophecy can be fulfilled at a particular juncture, while at the same time pointing forward to richer developments to come.

  • How should we celebrate the Eucharist? In an inspiring argument against the idea that taking the Lord's Supper frequently makes it dull (a logic that would seem to lead inexorably to celebrating it just once in a lifetime), Begbie explores music's ability to repeat without boring the listener—indeed, without ever being quite the same.

Because music is temporally located—the music in the second bar lies between the music in the first and the third—it always has a context, and each bit of music has its unique context. Thus, paradoxically, the initial statement of a theme is different from the next statement, even if it is note-for-note identical to it, precisely because its location in the music is different. Indeed, the second statement somehow also reaches back to affect our sense of the first (for example, we might feel, "Oh, that statement is more important than I had first sensed: the composer is repeating it"). All the more is repetition not merely reiteration when we hear the same music in different circumstances.

Thus, Begbie argues, each time we take the Eucharist we are enjoying it in a different context—indeed, in several different contexts. This partaking is framed by my partaking last week and the many weeks before when my life was different than it is today, when the worship theme was different than it is today, when world events were different than they are today, and so on. Each repetition adds something new to the experience of Christ and his church in the present moment, even as it both recalls his once-for-all work on the cross in the past and points ahead to the hope of his return in the future.

  • How should we relate to tradition? In the third part of his book, Begbie explores musical improvisation, with the jazz combo as his main illustration. He shows how improvising musicians "submit" to a theme on which they all agree. It might be a distinct melodic phrase, or perhaps simply a particular progression of chords and pattern of beats. Having agreed on this "tradition," however, the musicians do not slavishly repeat it. Instead, they use it as material for their own creativity. As they work together, furthermore, they might generate a new theme, chord progression, or rhythm that becomes the new tradition on which they then improvise. (Begbie points to instances in the history of jazz in which particularly famous improvisations eventually become treated as separate songs, such as "Anthropology" derived from "I Got Rhythm.")

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  • What about freedom? Music shows how the improviser cannot work without constraints. There is no creation ex nihilo for human creators, and yet there is both genuine freedom and genuine creativity. We always, necessarily and inescapably, work with what God has already provided: in the history of music, in our own abilities and limitations, in the present moment of imagination, and so on.

Begbie cites David Sudnow's memoir of his attempt to move from classical piano to jazz, Ways of the Hand, as a superb example of the embodiedness of our creativity. The possibilities of creation rest within our (trained, yet also generative) bodies, as we "get the beat into the fingers" and then play. Yet we also appreciate that "the pace of notes [is] closely tied up with the physical possibilities of the hands and fingers in relation to the keyboard." We are, ourselves, instruments with particular possibilities and particular limitations, just as one can play a completely smooth glissando on a slide trombone and cannot do so on a piano, while one can play many more notes simultaneously on the latter instrument. We are free to be who and what we are.

In sum, music offers us "enrichment through enactment." We get to see and hear theological themes playing out (literally) in music in ways that help us sort out our theology better than before.

Martin Luther once wrote, "Next after theology, I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor. I would not exchange what little I know of music for something great." As Jeremy Begbie shows, music is valuable not only in itself but also as a stimulating companion to theology.

John G. Stackhouse Jr. is an amateur musician who also teaches theology and culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He is the author of several recent books, including Evangelical Landscapes: Facing Critical Issues of the Day (Baker Academic).

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Related Elsewhere

Evangelical Landscapes: Facing Critical Issues of the Day, No Other Gods before Me?: Evangelicals and the Challenge of World Religions and Can God Be Trusted?: Faith and the Challenge of Evil by John G. Stackhouse Jr. can be ordered through

Other Christianity Today articles by John Stackhouse include:

The True, the Good, and the Beautiful ChristianBeauty is making a comeback in science and theology. Will it find its place in the lives of believers? (January 7, 2002)
What Has Jerusalem to Do with Mecca?Two new books on the world's religions raise new possibilities, and new questions, for evangelicals. (September 4, 2001)
Mind Over SkepticismPhilosopher Alvin Plantinga has defeated two of the greatest challenges to the Christian faith. (June 20, 2001)
The Seven Deadly SignsMinistries that think they can do no financial wrong deceive themselves. (June 30, 2000)
An Elder Statesman's PleaJohn Stott's 'little statement on evangelical faith' reveals the strengths and limitations of the movement he helped create. (Feb. 14, 2000)
The Battle for the Inclusive BibleConflicts over "gender-neutral" versions are not really about translation issues. (Nov. 5, 1999)
Finding a Home for EveWe are right to criticize radical feminist scholars—and wrong to ignore them. (Mar. 1, 1999)
The Jesus I'd Prefer to KnowSearching for the historical Jesus and finding oneself instead. (Dec. 7, 1998)
The Perils of Left and RightEvangelical theology is much bigger and richer than our two-party labels. (Aug. 10, 1998)
Bad Things Still HappenA concise, clear argument for how God can be both good and omnipotent. (July 13, 1998)
Fighting the Good FightA plea for healthy disagreements. (Oct. 6, 1997)
Confronting Canada's Secular SlideWhy Canadian evangelicals thrive in a culture often indifferent to religious faith. (July 18, 1994)

For more articles and commentary on music, see the Christianity Todayarchives and Music Channel.

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