Theology and Classical Music: Partners in Evangelism

J. Warren Smith

In their introduction to a collection of essays, entitled Contemporary Art and the Church: A Conversation between Two Worlds (InterVarsity Press, 2017), W. David Taylor and Taylor Worley name forthrightly the antipathy between the modern art community and the church.“They are two different worlds, with their own logics, their own gravitational fields, their own ecologies…. At the extreme, each finds the other scarcely worthy of any careful thought or charitable feeling. At the very least, they have found themselves in a common state of frigid or indifferent relations.” Although Taylor and Worley are primarily thinking about the world of visual arts, their description applies across all artistic media. Artists, visual or musical, jealously guard their freedom and independence, both in artistic expression and manner of life.

For the church, by contrast, freedom is understood as submission to the lordship of the Spirit; consequently, artistic expression and manner of life must operate within theologically determined parameters. Whereas artists focus on the sensual experience—loving the object of art in and of itself—Christians of an Augustinian stripe view works of art, like all material creation, as signs that point beyond themselves to the One transcendent source of beauty and truth. As early as 1922, Max Weber observed this developing cultural divide: “[Although Christianity has been] an inexhaustible spring of artistic expression, the more arts becomes an autonomous sphere…the more art tends to acquire its own constitutive values, which are quite different from those obtaining in the religious and ethical domains” (quoted in M. Chaves, Congregations in America [Harvard University Press, 2004], 166-167).

This divide between church and artists is ironic because it is in local congregations that ordinary folk, who generally do not go to a museum or have a season subscription to the symphony, are exposed to the arts. In Mark Chaves’ analysis of the 1997-98 National Congregations Study, he found that arts of all varieties (choral music, dance, drama, etc.), both“high” and “low,” are prominent elements of the worship, educational, and recreational life of most congregations. It is precisely because of this lamentable irony that we have cause for rejoicing when the two come together.

Such was the case at a recent concert produced by the Duke Initiative in Theology and the Arts, entitled “Home, Away, and Home Again: The Rhythm of the Gospel in Music,” arranged and conducted by theologian and musicologist Jeremy Begbie. Originally entitled, “Sounds of Exile and Return: The Gospel of Homecoming through Music,” the production traced the pattern of home, exile, and return common to the narratives of the Pentateuch and salvation history as a whole. In most concerts I have attended, the music is treated the way fine paintings or sculptures are displayed in many art museums. The pieces stand alone, removed from an original context and placed in a completely white, sterile environment where the aesthetic qualities of the piece are experienced in themselves, pure, and with minimal commentary. The presentation seems intended almost exclusively for those already familiar with the piece or gifted with an educated ear or eye capable for discerning the nuances of the work.

This performance, however, proved different. After opening with the gentle beat of kettle drum and the call of the trumpets in Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, which set us on familiar ground, Begbie began a commentary that prefaced each piece, interpreting it within the matrix he called the rhythm of the gospel—a dialectic of creation, fall, and redemption. Copeland’s Fanfare was, for many different Americans, “home,” not just because of its familiarity but because the percussion and the clear peal of the horns give one the feeling of solidity, of strength, of surety. This, Begbie explained, is our starting point—home—in the One who is our source, the ground of our being, the One in whom we live and move and have our beginning. Yet because of sin we do not stay there long.

Quickly, the musical selections shifted. For each of the pieces—Dvorak’s Slavic Dance, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2 (second movement), Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No.2, Bartok’s Divertimento for Strings, and Sám! Sám! (Alone! Alone!) by Auschwitz survivor Karel Berman—except for Dvorak’s, composed during the period from the Russian Revolution through the Second World War to the Soviet occupation and domination of eastern Europe, Begbie explained the social and historical context and the way musically each expresses a different sense of being “away.” Sometimes the exile was literal; sometimes it was the feeling of being in exile because one’s home is so changed that it is no longer and never will again be home.

After intermission, Begbie took us “home again” with his interpretation of the opening movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.2 as resurrection. It is, he said, a joyful musical theme that is repeated in ever greater, ever expanding expressions that push the theme to the limit of variation. It then moves beyond that to a new height of grandeur, surpassing what one could imagine to be possible. Thus, Bach conveys the “ordered superabundance”—a musical experience of epectasy—of the grace of the infinite God to whom we return and whose excessive display of mercy and joy—like the father’s response to the prodigal’s return from the far country—swallows up the loss and hurt of exile. There were other wonderful musical moments along the way. For example, there was Luke Powery, the Stanford-trained vocalist and Dean of Duke Chapel, singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot and a five minute tambourine solo (who knew it could produce such a variety of interesting sounds). All of this seemed to build to the wordless climax of Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” from Gayne and the jazz masterpiece “Tico, Tico” by Zaquinha Abreu.

If sin is, as Paul describes in Romans 1, the enjoyment of the creature’s goodness rather than the Creator who is Goodness itself, then the eschatological redemption of soul and body must entail both the perfection of the material creature and the purification of the sight of the redeemed soul so that our worshipful gaze does not stop at the creature but rises to the Creator. In the resurrection, the soul simultaneously apprehends the goodness of the creature and delights in the beauty of the Creator revealed in the creature. Perfected creation becomes pure sacrament. Moreover, this vision of God’s incomparable glory and love will, like Paul’s vision of the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2-4), so surpass our experience of any creaturely beauty that we will be at a complete loss of words—a truly apophatic moment—and our praise will be expressed in a language unlike any we know now, except perhaps the language of music. Begbie’s theologically-rich narrative gave us words with which to think faithfully along with the music. It was fully an aesthetic experience that went beyond the experience of sight and sound because of his theologia. Yet in the end, pious joy replaced commentary as Begbie allowed the music to carry our souls into a register of doxology beyond words.

If love (caritas) is THE virtue, which is the source of perfection of all other virtues, then the perfection of this virtuoso performance came shortly before the musical climax. Before the final pieces were performed, Begbie brought up a middle aged woman known as Miss T. She is a member of the Reality Ministries community in Durham for “teens and adults with and without developmental disabilities to experience belonging, kinship, and [the] life-changing Reality of Christ’s love.” Miss T. told a story about how, after her care-giving grandmother died, she lived a home-less existence being passed from various relatives and foster care families until she came to Corner House—one of the homes that makes up the Reality Ministries community—where she found “home” in the love and affirmation of new friends in Christ. After she read a poem, one of the Reality Ministries staff led us in prayer for the people of Corner House and Begbie conducted us in singing “Guide me, O Thou Great Redeemer.” In that moment we were more than an audience—listeners—at a concert. We were synagogue. We were ecclesia. In that atmosphere of compassion and worship, we were church. (Incidentally, the proceeds from the concert went to support Reality Ministries.)

A final word needs to be said about the musicians, whose remarkable gifts and lifetimes of practice with instruments of wood or metal, blessed us that night. The musical quality was simply first rate. It was performed by The New Caritas Orchestra composed of musicians from the Boston Symphony, the American Baroque Ensemble, the National Symphony and university orchestras from around the country who are Christians seeking to bring their two worlds together. What a delight to see the pleasure they took in the performance—one unlike any they had done before.

The next morning the musicians gathered for a three-hour seminar by Begbie and theologian Alan Torrance on theology and music. Trombonist, David Yeo, who played for the Baltimore Symphony (1981-85) and the Boston Symphony (1985-2012), reflected later on the experience: “I confess that the three hours spent in this seminar were revelatory…. Jeremy’s discussion on the Holy Trinity have given me much to think about and meditate on. God was at work at Duke Divinity School last week and I left there refreshed and challenged.” I image that these musicians went back to their orchestras and told their peers—some of whom may well be skeptical of the church—about this strange concert with theological commentary and a speech by a woman with a developmental disability at a university divinity school. That is evangelism pure and simple. It is sharing the joy of the good news that touches our universal and primal desire for home and that reveals the God who desires us to find in him our home and our joy. That concert scattered seeds of the kingdom and so carried out the ministry of reconciliation that tears down dividing walls and unites strangers—Christians and artists—as fellow lovers of Christ’s beauty.

Posted Jun 25, 2018

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