In our last post, we discovered the profound link between time and eternity with which the church has invested music. Rooted in my own experience of music piped through a car radio, I was drawn to the church fathers who understood music in terms of the redemption of Christ. Through his salvific grace, music on earth is transformed into the divinely revealed bridge between heaven and earth, the eternal and the temporal, that draws us up into the world of celestial life, the infinite plenitude of Being that is the inner life of God.
This cosmic harmony is exemplified beautifully in the choral arts. There is a reason why every political or social movement is expressed in corporate song. When we sing together, we are not merely claiming to create a social harmony and unity; we are demonstrating social harmony. Our collective singing realizes and manifests tangibly in time and space the very Christological unity our hymns profess.
But think further how time itself is realigned in our choral singing. We can think of our experience of time in at least four ways. First, there is subjective or individual time, the time I experience as an individual (the time between breaths, the time between heart beats, the tempo of my speaking, whatever); secondly, time is experienced socially, these are representative of our corporate experience of time (this is time conceived of in terms of breakfast, lunch, dinner, rush hour, Sunday morning worship, Christmas, Thanksgiving). We experience as well a sense of historical time (the time of the Romans, the missionary travels of Paul, the documents of the Founding Fathers). And finally, we can think of a cosmic sense of time, a time of great epochs and civilizations, the time of creation, the sun, moon, and stars, and even heaven itself.
Now, through the choral arts, these various experiences of time are all drawn together in a communal experience that creates a completely unique sense of time. When we sing together, we are obviously experiencing corporate time; however, we are singing the same song, the same words, the same thoughts, at the same tempo, taking the same breaths, so we are collectively experiencing subjective time; and if we are singing hymns or psalms composed by our spiritual forefathers with tunes of old, we are in fact experiencing historical time; and because of the theological content of our songs, focusing on God and his works, we experience cosmic time.
So what we have witnessed here is how the choral arts blend together experiences of time in corporate song in such a way as to manifest a totally unique experience of time, what we can call eschatological time embodied in a Christ-centered social unity, a true expression of Galatians 3:28, “We are all one in Christ Jesus,” our identity as an eschatological people is profoundly manifested in song, and hence our senses are awakened to a manifestation of eschatological reality. We have just seen how music does in fact recreate the world.
My Own Damascus Road
As I sat in my car, listening, the strings eventually dissipated ever so slowly into the original silence that I mistook for dead air. The radio announcer’s voice calmly broke the stillness and informed me of the name of this sonic rose: Adagio for Strings by the American composer Samuel Barber. I don’t remember how long it was after this initial encounter until I purchased an LP by that name, but it wasn’t long. Leonard Bernstein’s rendition was played constantly on my turntable.
Perhaps it is a bit much to say that, in many ways, that moment in my car parked on the side of the road was my own Damascus Road experience. But I knew that I encountered something not of this world. And I knew I couldn’t keep it to myself. The piece had such an impact on me that I would drive around with the record in my backseat, hoping for an evangelistic opportunity to share with others this audible glimpse into eternity.
I can still remember attending a party on a weekend evening and telling my friends of this acoustic encounter. To my delight, they invited me to retrieve the album from my car and play it for them, which I most enthusiastically did. Shortly after the needle touched the vinyl, the laughter and jests that characterize the soundscape of a party suddenly ceased; they respected this melodic sea with silence and indeed awe. For the next several minutes, there we were, high-schoolers partying on a Saturday night, surrounding a record player and together listening ever so intently at these sounds; where minutes transformed into a moment, a revelation of the beauty of creation.
I will not forget that night. It impressed upon me the power of music to capture the imagination in the most unlikely of circumstances. For we are creatures with souls to which God has imparted a deep sensitivity to beauty. And it is the awakening of this beauty through the Christ-restored sounds of eternity that ultimately calls us, beckons us, and leads us to our eternal home.
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 I borrow this temporal schema from Ray Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 222-25.
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