Jeremy Begbie, Journey in 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 discusses the beginnings of his passion for music and theology, and explores various historical approaches to music.

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Edited transcript

Gary Deddo: I’ve been reading your book, Resounding Truth, and find it fascinating. It’s an important topic that you bring up there, of the relationship of Christian faith with the arts, and music in particular. I’d like us to talk about that. But before we get into that, you have an unusual background that brings together music and theology. Can you tell us how that happened?

Jeremy Begbie: The theology came much later than the music. About the age of three or four, I started playing the piano and improvising. I was entranced by this world of music and the kind of sounds you get out of this strange instrument. My mother was very musical (my father, not so), so I was surrounded by music from an early age. I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life – there was no question of anything else. Right through my school years, that was the chosen profession. I was composing; I started the oboe when I was 13; I was playing in competitions.

Throughout that time, I had no particular interest in Christian faith. My mother was a churchgoer. My father sporadically, but we didn’t talk about those things much. I had no evangelical background or anything like that. Then I went to the University of Edinburgh to study music and philosophy. It was during that time that I caught up with an old school friend of mine called Alan Torrance. We’d been at school together in Edinburgh. I had a spare slot in my degree program for an elective. He said, “Why not go along and hear my dad lecture in theology.” It was a crafty thing to do, but I thought, “Yeah, I’ll do that.” I sort of snuck along there like Nicodemus at night, concerned not to be recognized, and sat at the back. I listened to a lecture. I think he was talking about Hebrews and the High Priest of Christ.

GD: This is James Torrance?

JB: James Torrance. I don’t think I understood a word he said, but he had something I didn’t have. I knew that. He was full of a kind of profound joy that I had not met before. He was also intellectually very sharp. This is probably the first Christian I had met who was clearly very brilliant as well as very devout. Indeed, he started with prayer as well. I met a kind of wholeness in that person that I had not seen before, and that captivated me. I thought, “Whatever he’s on, so to speak, I wouldn’t mind having a bit of that or at least getting to that more fully.”

Through many conversations with Alan and his father, James, I started reading the New Testament, which I had not read before, and reading the rest of the Bible as well, or at least large parts of it. I fell into faith over a period of about two or three months. Grace got hold of me. From the beginning, all I heard was a message of grace. I had never heard this before. I didn’t know that’s what Christianity was. That struck me.

Another thing that struck me, I think most of all… I didn’t come to faith through feeling terribly guilty about something. If you had said to me at the age of 19, “Are you aware of a great gap in your life?” I would say, “No, not really.” Isn’t there some deep running unhappiness deep down in you? I’d have said, “No, not really. I’m quite content, thanks very much.”

What initially attracted me about Christianity was it was a worldview. It was an entire way of looking at reality with Jesus Christ at the center. That was extraordinary. I said, “This is a way of accounting for things. It’s a way of integrating things.” Its initial appeal was intellectual, and I saw it lived out in a family, with the Torrances. They took me into their home and I had the kind of welcome that I had not experienced before. I asked crazy and very aggressive and angry questions. They just took all those and answered them gracefully. That’s how I came to faith. It was later I was aware of sin and guilt and the cross, but that’s not how I came into it.

Then the challenge was: how is music going to be integrated with that?

GD: Right. You were training to be in music performance.

JB: Music performance and possibly in the academic world, maybe a PhD, something like that as well, because I was academically very interested in music. There was a sudden change. I felt a strong vocation early on to be a minister for the gospel. That shocked my parents, but they took it sort of well.

Short of it, I was due to go on to Oxford to do another degree in music, but I decided to do theology with James Torrance at Aberdeen. He was an extraordinary teacher and gave me a Trinitarian, particularly Christological, but also Trinitarian view of reality; it just fired me up intellectually. My years at Aberdeen were incredibly happy.

As far as music was concerned, I was performing then. I was teaching. I was doing all that. I kept it going. But in those days, there was very little written that would integrate the world of music and the arts with vibrant theology. Now, we have a lot. Not so much possibly music, but certainly in the arts generally. There’s been a great burgeoning of literature, but then there was not very much.

That was the challenge. Since then, I’ve been trying to hold those worlds together. Yet, even that’s not quite right: I’ve been trying to see how they are integrated and can be integrated.

GD: Why is that important? It was personally important; that’s clear. Aren’t they distinct disciplines? Music, Christian faith, worship, theology itself, aren’t they separate?

JB: It’s important for all sorts of reasons. One is that there’s no society known on the face of the earth that’s not done something like music. However poor, however deprived, they’ll always be singing. They’ll always be playing. Music is at least as universally and ancient as language, easily so.

If we’re giving a Christian account of reality and a concern that our entire life is Christ centered and integrated with our faith, then something has to be done with this extraordinary phenomena we call music. That’s the main reason. If Christ is Lord of all, we need to see and show what it means to have Christ as Lord of music (he is already Lord of these activities that we call music). That’s first of all why it’s important.

Then along with that, music has been used in worship from the beginning. What’s going on and how can we use it responsibly? Another reason is that music can be used for great harm as well, and has been. It can be very manipulative. It can be divorced from ethics, and in worship, sometimes divorced from the word or scripture and take on a life on its own. It easily becomes an idol. We need to ask, “How do we avoid that or how are we going to get a grip on those questions?”

GD: Right. In your book, you talk about the importance of the doctrine of creation. I don’t know any Christian that would say, “I don’t believe God is creator.” That’s just standard. God is the creator. That’s fine, but they don’t necessarily take that much further. On the other hand, Christianity is about Jesus and Jesus is about the cross. Isn’t that the center? Jesus is interested in redemption. We tend to align creation with the Father, and redemption and the cross with the Son. But really, that’s not the whole story. In some ways, that music question and Jesus being Lord of all raises, what does Jesus have to do with creation?

JB: That’s the key issue. Jesus is about the cross and redemption, but what does Colossians say? “The one in whom, for whom, by whom all things were created and all things have been redeemed through the blood of the cross” (Colossians 1:16, 20; Romans 11:36). In other words, you have Christ at the center, at the center of the entire creation. He is the rationale behind the making of the universe. The risen Christ is the embodiment of the end of the universe. If we want to know what the entire created order is about and what it’s meant to be doing, that’s where we go first.

That’s Paul and the very earliest traditions. Christ was being linked not simply to the human sphere, though quite rightly and properly, but also to the entire created order. (Sadly, in a lot of Protestantism, and indeed in a lot of evangelicalism, these things have been separated out. Christ is about the salvation of your soul, but the world at large and also probably your body, physicality as well, these things can be set to one side because Christ is not interested in those.) That seems to be in Colossians, Ephesians, 1 Corinthians, virtually every book in the New Testament ... John’s Gospel is often forgotten; there is an incredibly important theme of the new creation in John’s Gospel. The one through whom all things were created is the one who will recreate all things. The resurrection is being portrayed as the new creation; there’s no doubt about that. It’s right through John’s Gospel as well.

That was the vision that excited me from James Torrance. I should also mention the name of Colin Gunton. He was the one who pushed that even more strongly, the kind of a creation-wide vista. That’s why it’s important to get that perspective on music.

When we’re thinking about the history of the thinking about music, musicology as it’s called, history of music and thinking about music, there was a big change around roughly 1450 to about 1650. Up until then, by far the dominant tradition in thinking about music was a cosmological tradition, that music turned into sound the order of the cosmos. The cosmos, the creation at large, has an order to it, a glorious beauty about it. What music ought to be doing is that we’re tuning into that and turning it into sound.

Sounded music becomes the embodiment of created order. That’s behind the “music of the spheres.” It’s in in Plato, Pythagoras, it’s taken into the Christian Church, particularly via Augustine and then a little bit later Boethius, and right through the medieval era. It was just assumed that music was giving expression to lots of things, but first of all to the order of the universe. When it wasn’t tuned into the universe, it was liable to do you a fair amount of harm.

For all sorts of reasons during the late Renaissance and then early modern period, music gets pulled out of that context. It becomes justified primarily and mainly in anthropological terms, or human-centered terms. Music becomes a way in which we influence each other, in which we persuade each other emotionally, in which we move each other. It’s primarily a means of emotional communication and nothing else. The ancients thought that as well. They set it in this cosmic context. Music has been taken out of that context, largely in the modern years. Now we just take it for granted. It’s nothing to do with nature at large. It’s to do with whatever I make it to be. It’s a very constructive view of music. As you know, Gary, that’s not just in music, but right across the board in many disciplines, that’s been the case. Charles Taylor I think speaks about the dis-embedding from the cosmos at large. Ethics taken out of cosmic context becomes what I…

GD: Yes. It can be reduced to, “What’s the benefit to me?” If I can’t discover what that is or nobody can explain it to me, then it’s irrelevant.

JB: When I teach courses in theology and music, I say there’s a question that is disallowed for the next thirteen weeks. That is, “Do I like it?” There’s another question. “Dr. Begbie, what kind of music do you like?” They often want to know that. I say, “Not going to tell you.” The reason, not because that doesn’t matter, but because I think we need to learn the discipline of not making that the first question. The first question we ask is, “What’s going on here?” Then yes, like it or dislike it. But we live in a culture that said, “Do I like it? Yes. Do I not like it? No. If I don’t like it, I needn’t even listen to it. I needn’t bother with it.”

To think if we treated everything like that, if we had no curiosity about the world at large, but simply responded “Do I like it? Is it good for me? Is it going to give me a good experience?” It would be a very sad world.

GD: Very small.

JB: A tiny view of reality that would be, wouldn’t it? Depressing.

GD: Most Christians I know recognize God in nature. Sometimes you can see God in the waves and in the clouds, in the stars and things like that. There’s that recognition – there’s got to be some connection there even if it’s not directly connected to Jesus Christ. What about the arts? I find a couple of different things. For a small group, the arts is in some ways more spiritual, most spiritual and out of that, probably music is the most spiritual. Others are saying, on the other track, arts are like icing on the cake. It’s just extra. It’s embellishment. It’s fun, but it’s not essential. You can take it or leave it. I may like it, but there’s not that much missing if it’s missing. I find two streams dividing in that way. What would you say about that and how to address that?

JB: If I understand you on the kind of spiritual, are you talking about a view where the arts are kind of inflated in their significance?

GD: I think so. They would say pure spirituality is esthetic and sometimes non-cognitive, non-rational.

JB: In the nineteenth century, this was the Romantics’ view of music. In the high Romantics and particularly German Romantics, music offers the supreme experience of the infinite. That’s what they want to say. If you want to get high on the infinite and the infinite aesthetic experience, music is where you go. Along with that, they said the fact that it seems distant from language or that it can’t assert things like “this is a table,” this is a settee, or whatever, is an advantage. It can be free from the particularity of words and take you into the (well, there are various versions) infinite movement of the divine spirit or something like that. That is one extreme.

The modern versions of that pop in at all sorts of places. Often, people come up to me after talks and say, “I listened to this or that music and it was a spiritual experience. It was incredibly powerful.” What they often mean is it was a very strong emotional experience, which is fine. We need to be very careful in aligning that with the Holy Spirit of God and the Spirit of Jesus Christ as if we could divorce spirit from that entire theological nexus. I usually try to retranslate that language and say, “God is indeed giving you an experience of wholeness by his Spirit insofar as that prefigures the new creation and the final re-creation of all things. Hallelujah. But you might just be enjoying yourself and nothing else, so be careful.”

Another thing we have to be careful of is running into ... This is the Romantics thing again, running into the arts for an extreme experience in order to get away from words. If I’m asked to speak at a church on a Sunday morning, they often say, “Will you need a piano and demonstrate lots of music?” I said “No. I just need a music stand or a pulpit or whatever you put your notes on.” Christianity is irreducibly verbal at its core. That doesn’t mean it’s exclusively verbal, but at the heart of it is a message that has to be spoken. I think we should be unapologetic about that. That’s not because of some kind of Protestant obsession with words. It’s because God has become a human being who has spoken. Words have been validated, sanctified, confirmed as vehicles for his self-communication.

There never comes a time, it seems, that a Christian absolves him- or herself from responsibility to words, supremely that means the words of Christ and the words of Scripture. But I want to say at the same time, God has also given us nonverbal media to access the realities of which those words speak. He’s given us J.S. Bach to access the glorious redemptive truth of the crucifixion of Jesus in the Matthew Passion. He’s given us Bach’s musical genius to do that. What’s happening there is we’re not running away from words or running away from Scripture. We’re saying God has given us different ways of accessing those realities and sometimes in ways that can’t be spoken.

GD: So they’re complementary.

JB: Precisely.

GD: And not in competition.

JB: There’s never been competition. There’s some kind of aestheticism around. There are evangelicals (I say this in all kindness. I count myself as an evangelical. There’s no problem with that…) who have been hammered with a certain kind of word-obsessed theology. Then they run away into the arts and hold hands and look at pictures and sing songs and say, “Forget all that wordy stuff.” I think that’s a big mistake. I can understand why it was done, but I think it’s a big mistake. It’s why I’m not ashamed to use words, but basically I’m a systematic theologian in the midst of the arts. Do you see what I’m trying to get at?

GD: I think it makes a lot of sense.

JB: That was the spirit thing. The other was “they’re mere frills.” To that I say, “Why then is it that every society has music of one sort or another?” When people say that, I say, “You go to church?” Right. “You sing?” Yes. “Suppose I said you’ll never have any more music for the next ten years?” They respond, “Well, I don’t know about that.” Then I go to a piano and I demonstrate the difference between words sung to one tune and then to another tune, the dramatic difference in meaning. That’s another thing I do.

Then if I’m being interviewed like an occasional like this, I might point to pictures on the walls, in their house perhaps. I say, “Do you think these are just frills? How much did that cost?” They say, “It was about $500.” I say, “Really? You spend $500 on a frill?” In my own country, when Princess Diana got killed, what happened? Thousands of poems get written. Is it just a frill? When people lose a loved one, they will instinctively lament in some form, in musical form. Is that just a frill?

If we take art to include metaphorical expressions, it’s hard to speak without some kind of metaphor, without something approaching poetry. The Bible is absolutely stuffed full of metaphorical expressions and artistic forms. We often treat the Bible as if God unfortunately gave us the wrong kind of book. If we could just translate it into five points all beginning with P or something, then we would make the meaning clear. That’s not what he gave us. Are we going to respect the forms that God used? That’s the kind of reply.

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Last modified: Saturday, January 26, 2019, 8:24 PM