Jeremy Begbie, Music and Theology

Jeremy Begbie

Jeremy Begbie is Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity School. He received a PhD in 1987 from the University of Aberdeen. In this interview, he shares his thoughts on the unique powers of music and how they enrich our understanding of theology.

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Edited transcript

GD: Jeremy, thanks for being with us. You have talked about the powers of various arts, and music is one of them. I was wondering if you might demonstrate for us some of those powers that might apply to life in general and perhaps worship, things like that.

JB: We were talking earlier about knowing your medium, and for some people, there’s a danger that they’ll think that music, for instance, is a mere thrill. It has no theological power or substance to itself. If I hear that and I’m anywhere near a piano and I’m with Christians who worship, I often speak about this tune: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” right? That’s the well-known tune, and it’s fairly upbeat and fun and easy-going. “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.” There’s not a great deal about sin and grief there, but there’s plenty of cheerful joy.

If we set it to this [other] tune, everything changes, because this is heavy. It’s dark. We’re reminded that he is our friend, but he’s the friend who’s borne our grief, the griefs which we bear. March, that’s the kind of plodding marching thing. It’s different. The words are exactly the same, but they’re now inflected, nuanced in all sorts of different ways through the music. Film composers know this, of course. It’s just taken the church a little time to wake up to that, because then you can flip around these tunes and it makes a difference, as if the tunes were simply varnish on what we could see quite well otherwise. No, the varnish can change the way you look at that wood very dramatically.

I’ve taught theology for most of my adult life, I suppose. I’ve found over and over again that music has distinctive powers, to help us not only feel and sense things, but actually understand them, as well. One powerful way I think in which that’s the case is when it comes to thinking in Trinitarian terms, which is very much an interest of your own. Part of the difficulty we’ve had in Christian theology and thinking about the Trinity is we will tend to rely very much on our eyes. The way we look at the world, things will occupy bounded locations, but they can’t be in the same place at the same time and visible as different things. A patch of red on a canvas that a painter has put there and patch of yellow on the same space, you try to put those together, either the yellow hides the red or it could be the other way around, red hides yellow, or if the paint’s wet, they merge into orange.

In the world that we see, you can’t see two different things in the same space at the same time as different. In the world of sound, you can and do all the time. That note or any note that I play, that note fills the whole of your heard space. You don’t say of what you hear, “Oh, it’s there, but it’s not there.” There’s no interval between anything. It’s just there in the whole of your heard space. If I add another note, that second note fills the same space and yet, you hear it as distinct. Undeniably, two notes. In the world that we hear, things can be in and through each other. They can sound in and through each other. They can inter-penetrate. Now if we go to John’s Gospel, and all that language about the Son in the Father, the Father in the Son, I love that “in” language, what Richard Bauckham calls the “in-one-anotherness” of Father and Son. That is very hard to draw.

When I’m teaching, at that point, I would take a pen and give it to a student and say, “Would you like to draw that for me?” Of course, no one does. Not even those Bibles that have all those illustrations will try to demonstrate that visually. It’s very hard, but it’s very easy to hear, because what you’re hearing there is two sounds in and through each other. It can go further than that, because if this was a real piano, then there would be two strings here, and they would be setting each other off. One string will tend to resonate with another if they have what’s called a harmonic series in common. The more this resonates, the more that resonates. Now, between those two, you have Father and Son who love each other, who mutually establish each other, you might even say, in some Trinitarian theology.

Now we’re into the Trinity, and I’m sure you’ve got there already. This three-note chord is, in my own view, by far the most potent way of not only sensing but also beginning to comprehend intellectually all that “in-one-anotherness” language that pervades the New Testament. The trouble is, a lot of Trinitarian theology has over-relied on the eye, and therefore what can you see? You can see oneness, you can see three separates, or you can go kind of modalist. You can think there’s one in the middle but three on the outside. You can see how so many struggles of the church with the Trinity have been because they’ve over-relied on the eye.

If we begin to think sonically, that isn’t the case. Here we have a kind of sonic space and a mutually resonating space that opens up the Trinity in extraordinary ways. Then what happens is other notes around that will resonate with that and get caught up in it, and you can understand, therefore, participation in the Trinity through the Spirit as a form of attunement. We are tuned into God. You can think of sin as a matter of being out of tune with God, radically so, and unable to communicate, therefore.

What the world of sound has done for me is help rethink all that area, and also re-read the history of doctrine. I think there’s a lot of work to be done, but it’s a lovely thought that something as simple as a chord, something as simple as something you could strum on that guitar in the corner of your room that you’ve neglected, it’s just sitting there waiting. If you ever preach on Trinity Sunday, as you do in my denomination, I’m telling you, I think it’s a lot better to be using that kind of personic metaphor and embodiment, you might even say, not just a metaphor, than many of the visual illustrations we typically trot out and confuse people with. Also, with the Trinity, we tend to present the Trinity as a problem to be solved. That way, it becomes a mathematical problem to be solved. The Trinity is not a problem to be solved — it’s something to enjoy.

GD: That certainly opens up for us the connection between theology, the words of theology and the arts and music. Thanks so much. It’s been a pleasure.

JB: Thank you very much indeed.

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Last modified: Saturday, January 26, 2019, 8:25 PM