Minding the Gap

In last Sunday morning’s service, celebrating the Ascension of Christ, the visiting Bishop, who hails from England originally, built his sermon around the phrase “Mind the Gap.” He used this little Britishism designed to keep less than mindful travelers safe getting on and off London trains, to evoke a rather different sense of “gap,” the gap between Christ’s physical return to the Father and his sending of the Holy Spirit. During this time the disciples remained attentive by gathering together and devoting themselves to prayer. Looking at it from our point of view, the big events are what we focus on–first Ascension, then Pentecost; but that is not what it was for the disciples. The road to Pentecost, which was yet for them only a strange promise about which they undoubtedly had many questions, was duly paved by their attentiveness amid the gap.

It brought to mind this wonderful poem by Scott Cairns, who if you do not know, I’d heartily recommend to your attention. I’ll never forget the first poem of his I encountered in Poetry magazine. That poem and many others I’ve encountered since land on me with the weight of a fine piece of music, and linger in my mind like that too. You might check out his newest collection, a slim volume called Idiot Psalms, many treasures within. This poem comes from an older and larger collection called Compass of Affection, and it describes momentary awarenesses of the gap “dividing what is seen and what is here”, a gap which persists at least partly by how meagerly the Word is attended to.

As We See by Scott Cairns

The transfiguration of our Lord–that is, the radiance in which he was bathed at the pinnacle of Mount Tabor–did not manifest a change in Him, but a change in those who saw Him.                                           ~Isaac the Least

Suppose the Holy One Whose Face We Seek

is not so much invisible as we

are ill-equipped to apprehend His grave

proximity. Suppose our fixed attention

serves mostly to make evident the gap

dividing what is seen and what is here.

 

The Book there on the stand proves arduous

to open, entombed as it is in layers

of accretion, layers of gloss applied

to varied purposes, hardly any of them

laudable, so many, guarded ploys

to keep the terms quite still, predictable.

 

Which is why I’m drawn to–why I love–the way

the rabbis teach. I love the way they read–opening

The Book with reverence for what

they’ve found before, joy for what lies waiting.

I love the Word’s ability to rise again

from chronic homiletic burial.

 

Say the One is not so hidden as we

are kept by our own conjuncture blinking,

puzzled, leaning in without result. Let’s say

the meek, the poor, the merciful all

suspect His hand despite the evidence.

As for those rarest folk, the pure in heart?

Intent on what they touch, they see Him now.

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In the Beginning was the Word

My recent reading has produced a lot of focused thought about the stewardship of language and words. Historically, the cultivation of musical culture has at times been deeply entwined with this task of language stewardship, and at other times musicians have seemingly tried to distance themselves from language, or have even become complicit in burying language as the negligent steward did his talent in Christ’s parable. That’s a big subject and one I hope to explore in a great deal more detail over the summer. In this regard, I commend to you Luke Dahn’s recent post “Ted Cohen and The Talent for Metaphor.” Especially important I think is Cohen’s admission that we are not talking about “intelligence” per se, at least as defined by academic environments, which themselves have to greater and lesser degrees succumbed to the deadening of language. This critique invites large questions about education and my new least favorite word, “assessment.” For another post perhaps.

Throughout the history of church music, words and music have most often been combined, but the church has not always stewarded words themselves as rich repositories of culture and complex thought, both inspiring our awe and warranting our tending and care. I find myself asking whether the weakening of language awareness in the 20th century church has led to many other kinds of cultural neglect and impoverishment, including musical, or whether it is the other way around: that sustained inattentiveness to artistic nuance has deadened our ears to language. The causal distinction is perhaps not important, except perhaps to shed light on a path whereby we may be led out of the murky world we have chosen.

I wonder also what great giants of language past like Shakespeare would say about it? In a sense, he’s already weighed in: his 106th sonnet has been on my mind:

When in the chronicle of wasted time

I see descriptions of the fairest wights,

And beauty making beautiful old rhyme,

In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights,

Then, in the blazon of sweet beauty’s best,

Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,

I see their antique pen would have expressed

Even such a beauty as you master now.

So all their praises are but prophecies

Of this our time, all you prefiguring;

And for they looked but with divining eyes,

They had not skill enough your worth to sing:

For we, which now behold these present days,

Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.

The connectedness of all of life, including various facets of artistic expression, often intrigues me. I recall a Mars Hill Audio interview with visual artist, Makoto Fujimura, from a number of years ago, about how important he felt reading is for cultivating the kind of sustained attention necessary for people to engage with visual art. His point was that for all that communications experts may assert that we have an image-saturated culture or a visually-oriented culture, from his perspective as a visual artist, the decline in sustained attention to written words and complex thought that reading provides, has produced an erosion in the audience for engaging with fine art, diminished in both number and skill.

As a kind of experiment, I am putting together a summer class about stewarding the gift of words for my Cathedral parish. Besides looking at the literary richness of the scriptures we’ve been given, we’ll study some poems and read some stories and discuss grammar and word play and translation and prayer and conversation. It is growing out of advice I’ve encountered from various sources for how to steward the riches of language, some of the best of which unsurprisingly has come from an English professor, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, in her book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, a book whose rather bracing title does not adequately reflect its wealth of cogent observations and helpful thoughts about how to go about repairing cultural inattentiveness to language. Saying her ideas are helpful is not to say the process of recovering sensitivity to language is easy. Indeed, apart from divine help, I wonder if it is impossible. But her imagination for the wonders of which language is capable is beautifully and enticingly presented, based as it is on thirty years of teaching undergraduates and interacting with literature with them in a way that helps them to see its treasures more clearly. It’s inspired me to take a stab at it myself in a non-academic environment.

What do you think? What comes first, loss of language or loss of art? Or perhaps more importantly, if you were to set about to enrich the artistic receptivity of those with whom you live and worship, what seems the most effective place to begin?

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Ted Cohen and the Talent for Metaphor

I recently learned that philosopher Ted Cohen died on March 14. I do not know much about Cohen. He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago who wrote on a variety of topics, perhaps the most notable of which are metaphor and humor.

What I do know is that his delightful 2008 book Thinking of Others: On the Talent for Metaphor made a significant impression on me when I first read it a few years ago and impacted my thoughts on literary art and on liberal arts education. The short 86-page book combines a philosopher’s insightfulness and attention to detail with Cohen’s wit, and the result is wonderful: a philosophy book that is in no way dense or dry. With its primary focus on metaphor and the “talent” required to engage them, Thinking of Others is of immense benefit to readers of the Bible given the “egregious… inattentiveness to the metaphoric richness of the Scriptures” that Michelle has rightly suggested pervades today’s church.

Cohen begins by describing metaphor and unpacking the mechanics of how they work. He recognizes, however, the limitations of such description and ultimately places mystery at the very heart of metaphor.

“It seems obviously true that a metaphor ‘A is B’ induces one to think of A as B, and this leads to new thoughts about A. How this happens is a wonderful mystery, and the ability to do it, to ‘see’ A as B, is an indispensible human ability I am calling the talent for metaphor.” (3)

Cohen, himself a Jew, makes several explicit references to Scripture. In chapter three, Cohen moves from contemplating metaphor in general to contemplating metaphors of personal identification in particular, using the biblical story of prophet Nathan’s confronting of David in his sin (2 Samuel 12). Here’s a brief synopsis of the story: David has committed adultery with Bathsheba and has murdered her husband, a military leader, by sending him to certain death on the front lines of battle. The prophet Nathan confronts David in his sin by telling of a story of a rich man stealing a poor man’s only lamb. After the story enrages David, Nathan delivers a powerful blow by way of a metaphor of personal identification: “You are the [rich] man.”

Cohen’s brilliantly insightful reflection on this story alone makes the book well worth reading. Nathan has not told David anything he did not already know, and yet through the use of story and metaphor of personal identification has led David to have new feelings and think new thoughts about himself. “David’s anger and moral outrage at the rich man have been transferred to himself.” (21) In an attempt to elucidate how Nathan’s metaphor has done its work, Cohen turns to art criticism, drawing specifically on the ideas of Arnold Isenberg. A critic’s goal, according to Isenberg, is to achieve a ‘sameness of vision’ regarding a particular work, to attempt to get his audience to see in a work of art that which he sees, and this may potentially lead to a ‘community of feeling.’ Cohen notes that this “attempted community of feeling applies just as well in cases that have nothing to do with art. It applies when you attempt to get me to join you in delight at the colors of the setting sun, or in disgust at someone’s overly scanty clothing.” Nathan “achieves a community of feeling (between himself and David) by inducing David a sameness of vision. …First, David and Nathan now both feel the same about David’s treatment of Uriah, and second, David now feels about himself as he feels about the rich man. […] Nathan says, ’You are the rich man,’ and David’s implicit response is ’Yes, I loathe myself as I loathe the rich man.” (22-23) Cohen perceptively reminds us that David is not just a king and warrior, he is also an artist – a poet, musician and dancer – who has “the soul and imagination of an artist… and this may be why, in more than one instance, he is reached by the art of literary invention.” (23) Nathan’s use of story and metaphor were powerful, but their effectiveness depended upon the ability, the “talent,” on David’s part to engage them.

Later in the book, Cohen applies David’s engagement with Nathan’s use of story and metaphor to our engagement with literary art. He draws upon two long-standing ideas about art. The first is that “some works of narrative art are somehow both universal and absolutely, specifically particular. It is absolutely, specifically the story of Oedipus Rex or King Lear or King David or Roy Hobbs, and yet, somehow, it is not only about that.” The second is that “at least some works of art teach me something about myself, or allow me to discover something about myself.” Taken together, “the story of Roy Hobbs is a story about me… [M]y full appreciation of the work requires of me that I grasp the metaphorical identification in which I see myself to be Roy Hobbs.” (76) Summarizing this train of thought, Cohen says that

“I think this ability to tell stories that promise to secure human understanding is nothing more or less than one of the powers of art. And I think our ability to be reached by this power is itself nothing more or less than what we would call our moral imagination, and that , I think, is deployed in our comprehension of what I am calling metaphors of personal identification. (72)[T]here is a connection, as I see it, between the ability to fully appreciate narrative fiction and the ability to participate in the morality of life, precisely because the ability to imagine oneself to be someone else is a prerequisite for both.” (73)

The talent for engaging in metaphors of personal identification plays out not only in worlds of fiction but also in our real-life relationships with others. The ability to sympathize with, to understand, to appreciate, to have compassion for others, including others with different backgrounds and with conflicting views, is serviced by an ability to imagine oneself as other, and such an ability is, I believe, at the heart of the Christian liberal arts enterprise and at the heart of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. In essence, it constitutes the ability to recognize in others the Imago Dei.

And, as Cohen emphasizes, this talent has little to do with intelligence:

“Indeed there are forms of intelligence that seem to work against interpersonal understanding. There is a kind of intelligence especially likely to be found in universities, in my experience, very ready to assign stupidity or some other disability to those who are different. Both inside and outside the academy is to be found a kind of pseudo-intelligence in the form of one of those ideologies that includes, built in, an explanation for those one does not understand. This explanation, in fact, is either a pretense to understand or a refusal to admit that there is anything to be understood. In the possession of one of these ‘systems of thought,’ one says of one’s opponent, ‘He is repressing,’ ‘He is trapped in his ideology,’ ‘His class consciousness blinds him,’ ‘He is an infidel,’ ‘He is possessed,’ ‘He is hysterical,’ These ‘analyses’ or ‘diagnoses’ are, typically, nothing more than the speaker’s oblique confession of his own ignorance about the person he presumes to be explaining.” (83)

These metaphors of personal identification, these “entrées to human understanding” may not be measured or grasped by a formulaic method. “You can [grasp them] only by investing your self.” (86)

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Jacques Maritain: “Human Faces as if Pictures”

“[W]e also see that Oscar Wilde’s saying, Nature imitates art, is but an obvious truism, as far as our perception of the beauty of Nature is concerned. For man’s art and vision too are one of the ways through which mankind invades Nature, so as to be reflected and meant by her. Without the mirrors worked out by generations of painters and poets, what would our aesthetic penetration of Nature be? Only after Giotto had replaced by peaks and mountains the gold backgrounds of early medieval art did we become aware of the beauty of mountains. When you are walking in Rome, part of your joy depends on Piranesi; it depends also on the mirror of theater: yellow-ocher palazzi, stores, and workshops open as a grotto, people at homes in old streets, are there to offer you the charms of the stage. Let us look at human faces as if they were pictures, then the pleasures of our eyes will be multiplied. An epicurean of art traveling in New York subways enjoys a ceaselessly renewed exhibition of Cézanne’s, Hogarth’s, or Gauguin’s figures, offered free of charge by nature, or of Seurat’s when all the lights are on.”

-Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Ch.1, section 4.

I find this thought from Maritain to be intriguing. At once he has shown in a concrete way how engagement of art can directly impact our engagement of the world around us. It therefore addresses one of the challenges that proponents of the arts face in many sectors of the church — namely, convincing skeptics that artistic engagement is valuable, not a waste of time, and can result in perceiving the things of God with new and renewed vision.

At the same time, Maritain’s thought hinges upon a proper posture toward artistic engagement, something not elucidated here. (Perhaps elsewhere in the book?) To suggest that we view God’s creation as if human artistic creation seems risky and subject to danger, particularly for those of us who have developed habits of aesthetic reflection that are detrimental to such an enterprise (e.g. a hyper-critical posture in which one’s aesthetic-evaluative mechanism never stops), not to mention those of us that make it a habit of avoiding aesthetic reflection altogether.

What are the full implications of Maritain’s thought here?

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The Mystery of Belief

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the mystery of belief and its relationship to our human experience of integrating rational thought and emotional response as we engage with the world. The idea that belief is in some measure a mystery has been helpful to me to understand how the arts are poised to act as strengtheners of belief, not necessarily as agents of faith’s erosion and undermining. Starting with the first principle of humans being created by God with artistic capacity—necessity even, to fully realize our nature as imago Dei—it is instructive to locate the problem not in the arts themselves, as has often been done by well-meaning church leaders, but in the human heart. The denial of artistic ways of knowing and experiencing God in our church cultures seem to me as destructive to faith as the sentimental 19th century belief that salvation comes through artistic expression.

One of the best books I read last year was poet Christian Wiman’s memoir, My Bright Abyss, published by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. I highly recommend it. The opening of the memoir, appropriately, is a powerful little poem: (p. 3)

            My God my bright abyss

            into which all my longing will not go

            once more I come to the edge of all I know

            and believing nothing believe in this:

Wiman closes the memoir with this poem also, with one tiny but immense change: the end punctuation becomes a period. (p. 178) This choice, noticed only by careful stewards of the written word, denies none of the mystery of belief invoked by the initial colon left open, but invokes a kind of certainty that is not at all about human adequacy but rather about human trust in unknowable and inexhaustible divine abundance. In my experience it packed a huge punch.

There is much I could say about the rewards from a careful reading of Wiman’s book, but for the purpose of this post, I would draw your attention to my favorite chapter, entitled “Varieties of Quiet” where Wiman asks penetrating questions about the language of modern Christian culture. Two examples:

“What is the difference between a mystery in which, and by means of which, one’s whole spiritual and intellectual being is elated and completed, and a mystery that merely deflates one’s spirit and circumvents one’s intellect?” p. 117

“Does the decay of belief among educated people in the West precede the decay of language used to define and explore belief, or do we find the fire of belief fading in us only because the words are sodden with overuse and imprecision, and will not burn?” p. 124

Wiman, master wordsmith that he is, is exploring the connection between rationality and revelation, eloquently critiquing the unfortunate and baffling poverty of language that has been his experience of the Christian church, an experience with which I deeply resonate. The height of his criticism occurs on page 138 with an admission that on the one hand, “mystical experience needs some form of dogma in order not to dissipate into moments of spiritual intensity that are merely personal,” and on the other, “dogma needs regular infusions of unknowingness to keep from calcifying into the predictable, pontificating, and anti-intellectual services so common in mainstream American churches.” He concludes that all of us, wherever we may place ourselves on the conservative – liberal spectrum of Christian faith, need a revolution in the way we worship, and for Wiman, the crux of such a revolution is that “we must be conscious of language as language.”

I think Wiman is right. Not ultimately separable from, but in some sense preliminary to questions of musical style—which is where most of the worship wars have tended to focus—is the issue of a fundamental under-attentiveness to richness of language in Christian worship, particularly poetic language, most egregious our inattentiveness to the metaphorical richness of the Scriptures. Complete lack of consciousness of language is one of the greatest weaknesses I see in my college students. (I’m speaking here about verbal language, but the oblivion to musical language is strikingly similar in kind.) The fact that we do not even have a word that adequately unites rigorous thought with deep emotional engagement is evidence of the challenge we face in accomplishing the revolution Wiman suggests is necessary in Christian worship. We have learned not only to pretend that intellect and emotion are separable in our experience, but to value that false separation as an essential virtue. This means that we are vulnerable to accepting the scripted words and emotions of TV, film with its manipulative soundtrack, and the raw, feelings-privileged content of pop styles of musical expression, as more authentic and more to be trusted than the emotional content of language (and music) that requires the careful thought of the writer, the performer, and the audience. Trained musicians are able to experience a much less divisible intellectual and emotional engagement with faith in the music of Bach, for example, but feel fairly daunted to envision a church music of comparable integrity for the English-speaking church today.

Speaking of Bach, you’ll forgive one more inspiring citation from John Eliot Gardiner’s book, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, here speaking of Bach’s massive setting of the Ordinary of the Mass, finally completed late in his life and known to us as the Mass in B Minor: “Bach, in the breadth of his vision, grasped and then revealed to us his conception of the universe as a harmonious whole; yet he was composing at a time when the breakdown of social unity was well advanced and the old structures of religion were fast being eroded by Enlightenment thinkers.” That’s as encouraging a word to church musicians facing the challenges of today as I could imagine, lest we be tempted to self-pity, that we labor in more difficult times than Bach did. Gardiner wonderfully describes Bach’s resolve in his setting of the Mass as “not merely [miming] the gestures of belief, not [interpreting] doctrine via music of his own invention, but [extending] the very range of music’s possibilities and through such exploration [making] sense of the world in which he lived and whatever lay beyond it.” That phrase, “merely to mime the gestures of belief” as the negative counterpart to the more positive descriptor of Bach’s creative persona as “the inner poet hiding in the recesses of his counterpoint,” (all quotes found on p. 523), recalled to me Wiman’s call for revolution in worship.

I suspect we may be tempted to underestimate just how radical such a revolution might prove to be. In my view, at least two very large topics lie out of sight of the tip of this revolutionary iceberg: one, the nature of the relationship between a determinedly secular education system and liturgical practice; and two, what cultivating a more mature engagement with liturgy in all the facets of its expression might look like in a parish. I’d like to explore both of these topics in future posts, and hope that others will tackle them also.

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Heterophonic Bach

BachSignatureYesterday, on the occasion of Bach’s 329th birthday, I took the opportunity to listen to the soprano-bass duet that serves as movement two of Cantata 80, Ein feste Burg, one of his most well-known and beloved cantatas. In this particular duet, the second verse of Luther’s great hymn is assigned to the soprano while the bass provides running commentary that, along with a vibrant, driving string music that Alfred Dürr suggests evokes “an effective battle scene,” interweaves the hymn tune throughout.

What I perhaps find most glorious about this movement is the heterophony created between the soprano and the oboe. Heterophony is defined as the “simultaneous variation of a single melody” (Grove), and it is, at least in my mind, more associated with post-tonal composers who became increasingly fascinated with exploring textural and timbral manipulations (e.g. Klangfarbenmelodie) and with complexity more generally. Indeed, some entire pieces seem to be about heterophony, such as Luciano Berio’s “O King” movement from Sinfonia (1968) which is essentially comprised of one single, cyclical melodic strand. As a composer, I, too, have long been fascinated with heterophony and the way in which it can transform a mildly interesting straightforward melody into a far richer, almost three-dimensional weave.

But as we see in Cantata 80, Bach has been there and done that with regard to heterophony. Here, the oboe perpetually decorates the soprano’s melody (which is itself a decorated version of the hymn tune) with filigree and circuitous melodic variation that infuse the line with the brimming, pure joy that marks the believer for whom Christ, “der rechte Mann,” strives.  At moments, the oboe adheres more closely to Luther’s original tune (e.g. second half of phrases 2 & 4) while the soprano becomes the more decorative partner. Bach further draws our attention to the oboe-soprano heterophony by dropping the string’s pervasive background music at those moments most heterophonic. This could be stated alternatively that Bach eliminates heterophonic treatment at those times when the string cohort divides attention. At any rate, the result of this splendid heterophony is yet another one of those unity-in-diversity manifestations that music uniquely affords via its distinct spatiality.

Below is the score of the oboe and soprano part, a score which also includes the bass’s commentary text, indications of the entrances and exits of the string ensemble, and additional Scripture references for further reflection. Here is a link to a stellar performance by Philippe Herreweghe and company.

Cantata80DuetB1Cantata80DuetB2Parenthetical postscript – Apparently a new Bach portrait has now been authenticated. It’s not much more flattering than Haussmann portrait we’re used to seeing.

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Getting Beyond ‘To Sing or Not to Sing’

Recently I’ve been inspired once again by the music of J. S. Bach, greatly aided by eminent British conductor, John Eliot Gardiner’s book, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. The book itself, to say nothing of the lifetime of astute music making that has preceded it, I have found to be an inspiring model of a skilled performer engaging with musical performance with both integrity and imagination. The story Gardiner sets forth of Bach’s own unfolding vision for “a well-regulated or orderly church music to the Glory of God” and his efforts to that end throughout his life, has enabled me to clarify not only my own ambivalence toward music in church as I have often experienced it, but also my dissatisfaction with the terms in which it is often discussed by both pastors and musicians.

Allow me to preface my comments by saying that you will not find someone more interested in encouraging robust congregational singing, nor anyone who believes more strongly that the vast majority of people can sing and can actually learn to sing quite well. However, if this is as far as we go in understanding congregational musical engagement, it seems to me we are underestimating numerous other facets the gift of music potentially brings to our congregational lives. As important as singing is, and it is essential, ‘To sing or not to sing’ is an insufficient question to fully elucidate the role music can and I think should play in our lives as believers. Bach’s accomplishments in his cantatas and passions offer an impressively comprehensive vision of music in the church, a vision that I think the church today needs to embrace. He manages to balance, at least much better than it seems we do today—congregational involvement as singers, congregational involvement as attentive listeners to music, and writing as he did on that side of the Enlightenment, was not at all inhibited in an ambition to animate and enliven theological truth with the subtle capabilities of musical utterance. I’d like to focus for the rest of this post on the spiritual discipline of listening, about which the scriptures also have a thing or two to say.

Bach assumed people were listening for meaning, and that meaning is always larger than it seems on the surface, larger than the mere words. Real listening is never a passive exercise; it was not for Bach’s congregation nor should it be for us. He always gave them something familiar. For one thing, the words of the liturgy were familiar; for another, chorale tunes occupy a structural place of prominence in both cantatas and passions. But Bach embedded these familiar elements in a newly imagined musical context, and week in, week out, music of seemingly endless variety always animated these familiar elements by his very specific choices of meter, of instrumentation, of text painting, of musical style, of mood. We cannot be certain that Bach’s congregation “got” all the exquisite nuances of meaning that are there to discover, but whether they got it or not, Bach generously gave them (and us!) music rich in meaning, not trite and forgettable as so much music in churches is today.

Gardiner describes a believer’s listening experience beautifully:

“It is in this context [that of bridging the gap between this world and the next in music about death] that Keats’s famous formulation of negative capability has special pertinence—‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reach after fact and reason’. Keats’s rationalization of the subjective allows joy and uncertainties to coexist, and provides an unintended denotation of the effect on the listener of Bach’s consoling music. To penetrate to the great riches it offers requires both relaxation and effort, an absence of willful straining but the most lucid attentiveness. It needs the listener to both let go and to be supremely vigilant.” (p. 458)

When listening to music is not thought to require active engagement and attentiveness (attentive listening being reduced to taking notes during the sermon), we make no place in our worship for trained musicians—composers and performers—to be empowered to create imaginatively stimulating music for believers to engage with as listeners for deep meaning. Our broader culture is one where “listening” to music is having it on in the background while you attend to something else, i.e. not listened to actively at all; and listening to live music is too often about politely applauding performers, about merely being wowed by exhibitions of talent or about being overwhelmed and viscerally caught up in the beat, but deep meaning is nowhere in the picture. Unfortunately, church music has proven that it can be just as superficial and immature. However, my point is that it need not be. Bach’s music provides an excellent apology for a much more spacious paradigm of listening in church. This of course will require teaching, and intentionality in the execution and shaping of the worship service, but I’m convinced there is much to be gained both artistically and spiritually if we would involve trained musicians in this way in the church.

Finally, I strongly suspect that lackadaisical musical and artistic goals in church music have also impoverished the spoken parts of our worship services, even in churches where the sermon is given a central place. I am not arguing that the sermon should have anything but a central place, but I am suggesting that the way in which a pastor proclaims the Word, and teaches the congregation to engage with it, has much to learn from artistic listening. The Gospel reading this past Sunday reminded me that this is not a new problem, not even strictly a post-Enlightenment problem: Nicodemus, a rigorously trained theologian and liturgist, proved totally inept at engaging with Jesus’ word play. Sermons that proffer three alliterated points and a straightforward list of things people should do to apply the text to their lives fail to equip us for the paradoxes and mysteries we experience in the actual life of faith we are called to inhabit, a Keatsian one where joy and uncertainties coexist. A sermon can proclaim God’s Word in just such an engaging way, but it is more likely to do so if the pastor has learned to listen to the scriptures in an artistic way, and if the sermon is placed in a service that is full of attentive listening and thoughtful participation. Pastors are frankly as a rule still poorly schooled in the arts, and as a result can be afraid of artists of Bach’s ability and ambition and commitment, afraid at least partly because they feel out of their depth. If they are honest, they may even intuit that in terms of inspiring wonder in the presence of mystery, the arts do theology better than theology does. But no one in seminary taught them what to do with that! On the other hand, musicians in the church are hardly across the board aspiring to Bach’s vision. Those of us trained musicians compelled by Bach’s vision often feel quite excluded from the pragmatic, populist thinking that tends to dominate when it comes to church music. If both pastors and musicians are content to center their thoughts about church music strictly on congregational singing while ignoring deep and attentive musical listening, they will have no trouble finding numerous scriptural injunctions to sing. And no one is saying we shouldn’t sing. But take it from a singer: we must get beyond singing to understand God’s gift of music as a wondrous tutor to help us learn to listen deeply and engage with aspects of His glory that are beyond words.

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