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Theology, Music and Time Jeremy S. Begbie


Jeremy S. Begbie, Theology, Music and Time: Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Pp xiv+317 ISBN: 0 521 44464 0 or 0 521 78568 5 (pb)


Books abound on the theological significance of music. (One need think only, for instance, of the many discussions of Bach’s chorales.) There has been, however, a dearth of material on the “musicality” of theology. Specifically, there appears to have been no treatment, theologically learned and musically accomplished in equal measure, of those aspects of the created order for which time is more than merely the complement of space. Here Begbie has filled a lacuna in both the theological and musical disciplines. One of his mentors, Victor Zuckerkandl, points out, “There is hardly a phenomenon that can tell us more about time and temporality than can music”. Begbie illustrates the assertion by exposing the reader to the kind of temporality essential to music, and thence to the kind that he deems to inhere and order the world at large. In light of the role of time in music, Begbie explores features of music (rhythm, metre, resolution, repetition) that he finds helpful additionally in providing new perspective on traditional themes of the faith: creation, salvation, eschatology, election, ecclesiology. The book’s sublime achievement remains an imaginative exploration of gospel truth in which the significance of music’s temporality, together with the assorted temporalities that are constitutive of the cosmos, are theologically related to each other through being related primordially to the temporality of God’s incursion in the Incarnate Son.

Yet Begbie’s book attempts even more: it aims at showing that music can enable theology to do its job better. Despite the fact that music is at best half-articulate (everyone maintains it “communicates” but no one knows precisely what) Begbie insists that music can deepen our knowledge of God. In the course of showing how music may and must sophisticate theology he indicates how music’s deployment of time assists theology in providing resources for understanding the temporality of the created order from a new perspective, for rejoicing in the inescapable “time signatures” of human existence, and for acquainting us thereby with previously unnoticed angles of vision that deepen theology’s grasp of the depths of creation, of our “fit” in it, and of the wisdom of the Creator of it all. Not least, he illustrates how a knowledgeable grasp of life’s “metres” and “rhythms” also highlights several unconscious yet untoward distortions that have skewed theological thinking.

Yet nowhere does Begbie attempt a “natural” theology of music that holds up music as a source of revelation, the nature of music thereby acquainting us with the nature of God. The book, rather, holds up everywhere Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, as the event in which we are made the beneficiaries of God’s redemptive and creative gifts through the activity of the Holy Spirit.

Similarly the book nowhere submits to the older (i.e., late eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth century) notion of Kulturprotestantismus. According to Kulturprotestantismus, supported by many thinkers in one era of Germany’s intellectual history, the kingdom of God is understood in terms of developments within history, the culmination of which is a cultural achievement whose genuine richness only the philistine would deny. Yet as world-occurrence was soon to make manifest, the richest cultural achievements are not the kingdom of God, are not revelatory, have no power to redeem (whatever else they might do as a creaturely good), but rather can be and have been co-opted by powers that few have hesitated to pronounce demonic.

The Introduction includes two groundwork chapters, “Practising music” and “Music’s time.” In the former Begbie acquaints readers lacking musical expertise with the nature of music. Music-making, for instance, is “the intentional bringing into being of temporally organised patterns of pitched sounds.” In accommodating the musically uninformed Begbie points out features of sound that are unarguable as soon as we ponder them yet which we should fail to note had he not drawn our attention to them; e.g., we can see only what our visual “space” contains at one moment. (We can’t see in a room, for instance, what is behind us.) On the other hand, in the same room we can hear simultaneously the several sounds (as in a three-note chord) that occupy the same aural space.

In “Music’s time” he explicates aspects of music that he will return to throughout his book. Tonal music of the west, for instance, “goes somewhere”; its teleology is reflected in the constantly repeated pattern of tension and resolution; the resolution “gathers up” what has preceded and finds rest, even if the rest is only fleeting and an ingredient in the next sequence of sounds (“hyperbar”) that is itself a meta-exemplification of tension and resolution.

Plainly rhythm and metre pertain to music’s directionality. In fact temporality in music is manifested primarily through rhythm interacting with metre, the latter being chiefly a patterned succession of beats (e.g., “waltz time”), while the former is articulated by tones. (We hear the tones that acquaint us with the rhythm, and sense the metre through the rhythm.) Rhythm and metre, together giving rise to waves of tension and release, prevent the “time” of music from being no more than the linear regularity of metronomic monotony.

In this chapter Begbie demonstrates a “realist” conviction that the temporality that is one of the structures of the world at large is just that; it is not projection. Temporal patterns are found, after all, throughout life’s “clocks” from the macro-scale to the micro, from the larger rhythms of sleep and digestion through the smaller rhythms of the central nervous system (e.g., heartbeat) to the micro rhythms of subliminal neural impulses. Time is simply basic to human order; time is a function of the way things are intrinsically related. More to the point, music’s time-intensiveness is connected not merely to the temporality of the human mind and body but to the temporalities of the physical world at large in which diverse human temporalities participate. Begbie maintains, in his consistent realism, that much of the creation’s intrinsic temporality (e.g., bodily kinetic impulses) are implicated in the music we hear; part of what we experience through music is this intrinsic temporality. Temporality, then, is not the environment in which music occurs; it is a crucial part of what music is — of what everything is. Music is meaningful, then, not because of its representational power (unlike some forms of painting it largely lacks this) but rather through the interplay between music’s temporal processes and the manifold temporal processes that shape our lives.

In this regard the reviewer is reminded of a remark he heard from violinist Isaac Stern (d. 2001) when last he spoke in Toronto. A promising young violinist played for Stern and admitted she couldn’t get the phrasing of the music correct despite re-phrasing it repeatedly. Stern told her to sing the part. “I have a poor voice and I don’t want to sing”, she told him. “Sing the violin music anyway”, he told her. She did, and the phrasing fell into place immediately. “You see”, continued the old master, “when you sing you have to breathe. Breathing is a natural, temporal event; the breathing that is part of singing will acquaint you with the natural phrasing — the timing — of the violin music.” The point that Stern made about the relation between the timing and rhythm of breathing, a human occurrence whose “realism” no one denies, and the realism of the phrasing of the music; this relation, an intertwining of music with the temporality of the world at large and also with the temporality of the Incarnate one through whom and for whom all things have been made, Begbie explores ingeniously and articulates compellingly everywhere in the book.

In the second major section of the book “In God’s Good Time”, Begbie exposes and distances himself from the Greek philosophical understanding of time that continues to haunt the church, principally through the influence of Augustine. Hellenistic philosophy undervalued the ontic significance of time, insisting that only timeless existence is true existence. In the light of God’s incursion in the Word Incarnate, however, a proper recognition and affirmation of time corrects Augustine’s neo-Platonic deficits, insisting instead on (i) the world as the venue of God’s salvific activity, with an emphasis on Jesus Christ’s engagement with the totality of the creation; (ii) the work of the Spirit who directs all creation to its fulfilment. Having noted the Hellenistic-Augustinian difficulty with time’s reality, Begbie addresses its comparable difficulty with time’s goodness. Here he probes Augstine’s De Musica, noting that Augustine restricts his reflections on music to rhythmics and metrics concerning the way (thanks to Plato, his successors, and the realm of Forms) the mathematical ratios they illustrate riddle the universe. For Augustine the significance of music lies not in music’s sounds but in its mathematics, musical theory helping us to grasp immaterial reality, and thereby moving the soul from the tainted world of sense (music’s sounds would only fix it there) to the realm of intelligibility. While Augustine can speak positively of music, then, he does so not because of a temporality that God has authored and blessed and pronounced “good” without qualification but rather because music’s mathematics enables the mind to grasp a timeless eternity of pure intelligibility.

Begbie’s emendation is swift and sure. (i) Music demonstrates the possibility of ordered change (i.e., change need not imply chaos); music shows us that subjection to time doesn’t imply a warped creation, a deficient good. (ii) Music shows us that “taking time” — in the several senses of this expression (we need think only of the time Jesus spent “doing nothing” in the wilderness, without which the time he spent elsewhere would have been fruitless) — is inherently good and humanly enriching. (iii) Since a crucial aspect of music is the resolution of tension, the protraction of such tension deepens our capacity for waiting. Begbie notes the place of “waiting” in scripture, and of course never confuses waiting with waiting around or loitering. Waiting, both musically and scripturally, heightens anticipation. Waiting reminds us that we are not the lords of time. (iv) Music reminds us of different time-structures: things happen at different times, in different times, at different rates. (v) Music reminds us of the temporal limits of our finitude. Here Begbie repudiates the Hellenistic identification of finitude with fallenness, temporality and goodness (on this understanding) being mutually exclusive.

Since life is finite or limited, transience is inescapable. The transitions inherent in music (music is always the succession of sounds, never the “piled up” coagulation of sound) are ordered, glorious and enriching, and direct us to the manner in which life’s transience can be fruitful. Furthermore, since Jesus Christ is God’s gracious engagement with time, our temporal limitation and inescapable transience remind us that we live by grace — and die by the selfsame grace. (As a pastor who has stood at deathbeds for over thirty years the reviewer has come to grasp what the writer of Ecclesiastes meant when he wrote, without any hint of bitterness or futility, that in God’s good ordering there is indeed a time to die.)

Exploring yet more deeply the theme of transition in terms of tension and resolution, Begbie notes the theological significance of delay and patience, together with the relation of patience to steadfastness amidst suffering and the refinement of character amidst hardships. Sensitively he unfolds the way in which delays, in music and in the spiritual life, are fraught with provisional gratifications. (Music eschews instant gratification; the spiritual life ought to eschew them.) Each provisional gratification magnifies expectation of final gratification. Each closure in music (e.g., the end of a phrase) is related intrinsically through time to every other closure (the end of a movement) and ultimately to final closure (the end of the piece.) The Christian life, set between Christ’s Resurrection and his Parousia, similarly advances by means of provisional fulfilments, all of which are gathered up in its eschatological crowning, the ultimate “hyperbar” in Christian understanding and living. Music’s temporality, Begbie notes judiciously, not only gives us resources for theological reflection on God-given temporality but even becomes itself an event in the salvific process through the worship and witness of Christians.

Music, everyone is aware, is highly repetitive; good music, never cloyingly so but always “sameness with a difference”. Begbie illustrates this truth from the first movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony where the repetition is unusually protracted. Even as key and instrumentation change, the sound pattern is repeated tirelessly. In the hands of a skilful composer repetition — needed to preserve a musical piece’s identity whenever tonal modifications threaten to obscure that identity — both heightens tension and concurrently effects resolution, only to use the matrix of tension/resolution as the tension feature in the next hyperbar.

As with music, the repetition of the eucharist stabilizes, for through it God recalls the Christian community to the cross and the cross’s transformation. Yet since the eucharist rebinds Christians to the cross of the One who comes only to seek and save the lost, it destabilises by sending Christians back into a world of turbulence, turpitude and treachery, yet always with renewed hope for the world. And just as the proper deployment of variation essential to the profoundest repetition doesn’t deny the integrity of the initial appearance of the theme, so the eucharist’s repetition, modified by liturgical variation that forestalls dreariness, doesn’t deny either the singularity of “crucified under Pontius Pilate” or the sufficiency of Christ’s finished work.

Repetition in music never means that what has been repeated then falls back into vacuity. Musical repetition, then, parallels the biblical understanding of remembrance. Biblically to remember is to have a completed event in the past become the operative actuality in the present. Eucharistic repetition lies within the orbit both of musical repetition and biblical remembrance: what is past becomes the operative actuality of the present in the event of the repetition. Once again Begbie shows the reader how theology can be done through music.

The third section of the book, “Time to Improvise”, begins by discussing the relation of constraint and freedom, proceeds to articulate the place of constraint and freedom inherent in jazz improvisation, and gathers all of this up in a brilliantly argued reinvestigation of the gift-giving and gift-receiving, akin to that found in jazz, which Paul deems to characterize the mutual fruitfulness of Jews and Gentiles within the church.

Begbie introduces this final section by probing the work of two modern composers, Pierre Boulez (French) and John Cage (American). While they represent two contrasting approaches (Boulez is preoccupied with musical organisation, Cage with “just let it happen”), their music sounds similar just because both have shed the constraints of tradition, eagerly cancelling musical memory. Yet just as the amnesic person lacks an identity and is therein wholly determined by occurrences within and without, so Boulez and Cage have forfeited musical identity for the sake of a “freedom” that finds them courting determinations of which they seem to be unaware. To be relieved of constraints is to be in bondage to necessity of some sort, even that of chaos.

While improvisation might appear to the musically naïve to be no more than liberation from constraint, the improvisation characteristic of jazz presupposes uncommon constraint. In fact just because jazz maximizes improvisation it is the musical idiom most subject to the constraint of metre. (The pace of jazz metre is virtually unvarying.) Probing more profoundly the nature of jazz improvisation and its reliance on constraint, Begbie notes that constraint fosters contingency, and contingency is never without risk of mistake, even risk of failure. Yet the contingency that improvisation is by definition is also a contingency that allows musicians to take up “mistake” and weave it into the texture of the work. Plainly, then, jazz’s contingency-improvisation shows us how we are allowed to fail and yet not fail irretrievably. What matters is how “mistake” and “failure” area incorporated finally in the music as performed, heard and cherished. Space to fail ever remains essential to superlative jazz performance.

The foregoing, rich in itself, appears to be propaedeutic to the final chapter, “Giving and Giving Back”. Here Begbie luminously relates the exchange of “gifts” between actors (where one actor’s “gift” to another actor in the course of a performance may be either “blocked” or “returned”) as well as the gift exchange between jazz musicians; Begbie relates these to the mutual gift-giving and receiving of Jewish and Gentile Christians described in Romans 9-11.

In Romans 9-11 Paul agonises over the Jewish rejection of the Messiah. Begbie maintains that a legitimate way of reading these chapters is to understand them as Paul’s attempt at introducing the Roman Church to the improvising strategies of God. Jew gives to Gentile. (Gentiles, wild olive branches, have only lately been grafted into cultivated tree trunk that Israel is.) Yet it is Jewish rejection on a larger scale that has spelled Gentile acceptance. And it is Gentile acceptance that will issue ultimately in unparalleled blessing for Jews.

The ground of the improvised Jewish/Gentile exchange, of course, is the grand exchange enacted by God in Christ on behalf of us all. While this exchanged isn’t mentioned in Romans 9-11, it is presupposed throughout the passage because articulated in detail in Romans 1-8. God’s gift of the gospel presupposes God’s rejection of the refusal rooted in Adam’s sin and the ensuing hostility that issued in the death of God’s Son. Christ is the “return” of the wholly obedient covenant partner. Christians are those whom the Spirit brings to share in the exchange and continue to share in its dynamic.

Begbie then extends all that he has said concerning Romans 9-11 to the pastoral issue between Jew and Gentile in the Roman Church over the consumption of meat previously sacrificed to idols. Each has a gift to give and a gift to receive, the “improvisation” of it all necessary in that nothing could be pre-planned even as the welcome/acceptance/reception both have already received from Christ is the “metre” that alone makes any spiritual giving/receiving possible.

Begbie’s sharpest criticism concerns John Taverner. Transparently sincere in his recognition of Taverner’s genius, Begbie nonetheless takes issue with the theology that Taverner attempts to embed in his music. Taverner regards music as an Ikon (sic), “a real presence…lifting our minds and hearts above this earth (where we are exiled for a time) into Heaven, our true ‘Homeland'”. Begbie advances the following theological cautions. Has Taverner undervalued the Incarnation in which God confirms creaturely reality and its goodness? Has he understood that in Jesus Christ God has embraced all the features of our fallen humanity (deprivation, pain, loss) and made them the material of salvation? Has he grasped the manner in which God’s eternity has been opened up to us not through Ikonic beauty but through an ugly death? Does his understanding of the eschaton deny the restoration of the creation and suggest instead its cancellation?

The philosopher Martin Heidegger maintained that language is the “house of being”. To say the same thing differently, being is a function of language. To be sure, Heidegger would never deny the converse: language is a function of being, albeit in the relatively small sphere wherein words denote or describe objects. Vastly greater, however, is the sphere wherein being is a function of language. Here the force of language isn’t that we have more words in our vocabulary and can thereby bamboozle; expanded language, rather, creates a world and admits us to a world that is vastly richer than the world inhabited by someone with meagre language. Here language doesn’t describe an already-existing world but rather gives rise to a universe imperceptible to those for whom language remains only a function of being.

In the spirit of Heidegger, Begbie’s book acquaints us with yet another house, for metre and rhythm are similarly a “house of being”. For our awareness of the fact, nature and ubiquity of the “rhythm over metre” that is exemplified in music and riddles life everywhere facilitates an ever-expanding universe we should otherwise never know and enjoy.

Dr Victor Shepherd, Professor of Historical Theology

Tyndale Seminary, Toronto.