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Music at the Theological Roundtable

What it teaches us about God and the universe

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 Transience is essential to music, not an unhappy accident to be superseded somehow, someday.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.

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September
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