In our last post, we found that music was profoundly moral for the formative period of the church. Music was either oriented away from God and towards demons, or it was oriented back towards God within a redeemed cosmic order through the redemptive work of Christ. The job of the composer was to reveal the world as recreated in Christ and thereby facilitate the sanctification of the soul. To the extent that our musical tastes and sensibilities were in the service of this larger cosmic reality, they were reflective of this redemptive vision.
Music: Then & Now
I lament that this vision of sonic revelation has all but disappeared in the life of the church. The Jewish, Greek, and Christian worlds had a fundamentally different understanding of music than we modern Christians. Music historically understood was no more a matter of mere taste and preference than were the physical laws of the universe. Nor was it composed, practiced, and distributed as a commodity for the consumptive habits of market-driven demographics. Neither was music reduced to mere melody and rhythm with its meaning limited solely to words. Music, particularly in the Christian tradition, revealed the interrelated intricacies of the world as divine creation, and was a facilitator of sanctification and redemption, which operated much like a divine physics that awakened and attracted the soul to divine life. Music revealed the fact that the cosmos was indeed a grand design, a moral world dependent upon a divine creator for its origin and sustenance.
In many respects, then, recovering the classical Christian vision of music involves nothing less than rediscovering the lost world to which such music is wedded. The world of the Jewish and Christian imaginations involved a divine theater of creation and revelation. The world of the modern imagination involves a vast network of physical, chemical, and biological processes that have no meaning or purpose apart from that which we choose to impose upon them. Classical Christians believed in creation, we moderns believe in nature; their life centered on the sacraments, ours centers on secular science.
The irony, of course, is that the purposeless world indicative of our modern age is not the world that gave us Bach, and therefore is not responsible for the Beatles either; in the case of both, there were some objective principles of music making forged in the sonic life of the church from which they could draw. By relativizing music, by perpetuating the idea that all musical standards are mere personal preference, we undermine those frames of reference that gave us the very music we currently enjoy in the first place.
I like reminding my students that, while there are what we call Christian radio stations, virtually all of the music that they hear on the radio is Christian. Of course I am initially greeted with skepticism. But that is only because they assume that the meaning of music resides solely in the lyrics. A song is Christian only insofar as it has Christian words or is the product of a Christian composer. But the music that constitutes our Top40 song lists exemplifies tonal and harmonic structures that have a history, and at the center of that history is the church and its development of Jewish and Greek musical traditions. From one end of the radio dial spectrum to the other, that tonal tradition continues.
In the prequel to his grand epic, The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien describes the creation of Middle Earth by the god Eru Ilúvatar. He gives to the angels a melody that they are able to develop and express into a cosmic song: “I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. … I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been awakened into song…” (The Silmarillion). By recovering the music of creation, perhaps we will experience the world blossoming with the sounds of a Narnia-like spring tide, echoing the joy of creation and sanctifying the souls of its listeners with divine Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. For it is then that we shall awaken the divinely imparted meaning to the cosmos and thereby voice creation’s praise.
I hope you have enjoyed these sets of posts on the cosmology of music. How has exploring sonic cosmology, the music of the spheres, changed your conception of music? What do you think of Augustine’s insight that God is music, infinite and eternal melody, harmony and beauty?
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