Music has undergone serious theological neglect according to Jeremy Begbie, a professionally trained musician and theologian at Duke Divinity School. In his introduction to Theology, Music and Time, he writes:
In the twentieth century, the corridors of theology were not generally alive with the sound of music. Music has received virtually no sustained treatment in contemporary systematic theology. Much has been written about the bearing of literature upon theological disciplines (especially biblical hermeneutics), and the same goes for the visual arts. There have been some courageous forays into theology by musicologists, but apart from a few notable exceptions, twentieth-century theologians paid scant attention to the potential of music to explore theological themes.
In some respects this is puzzling, given not only the supposedly limitless interests of theology, but also the universality of music in all cultures, and the unprecedented availability and ubiquity of music in so-called “post-modern” culture, the persistence of music in the worship of the Church, the strong traditions of theological engagement with music in past centuries, the intense interest shown in music by many philosophers past and present, the growing literature on the politics, sociology, and psychology of music, the recent emergence of ethnomusicology, and the intriguing deployment of musical metaphors by natural scientists. In the chapters which follow, we shall be touching upon some reasons for this theological neglect. Undoubtedly, one of them is the difficulty of speaking about music in ways which do justice to its appeal and which genuinely shed new light upon it. As George Steiner observes: “In the face of music, the wonders of language are also its frustrations.” Another reason is the opacity of the process of musical communication: it is clear that music is one of the most powerful communicative media we have, but how it communicates and what it communicates are anything but clear.
Begbie’s Theology, Music and Time and Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music ought to be consulted, but for this blog post I am turning outside the theological guild to Michael Eric Dyson, a sociologist at Georgetown University and radio host.
In “The Great Next: Jazz Origins and the Anatomy of Improvisation,” an interview that belongs to Open Mike: Reflections on Philosophy, Race, Sex, Culture and Religion, Dyson brings clarity to what Begbie calls “the opacity of the process of musical communication.” Reflecting on an interesting feature of African-American music (spirituals, blues, jazz), he observes how the double entendre allowed blacks to communicate with each other:
A crucial feature of double entendres was the articulation of culturally coded messages and styles that signified on white dominant cultural structures while promoting black self-definition. Even though the dominant culture may have viewed blacks as barbarians and savages, as dumb animals incapable of abstract reasoning or “high” culture, they nevertheless reveled in the robustly playful elements of black cultural creativity. At their best, black folk refused to get struck in narrow Victorian modes of identity where they repressed consciousness of their sexual selves while exclusively engaging their spiritual nature. They didn’t buy into that bifucation between mind and body. As critic Michael Ventura argued, African cultures overcame the Cartesian dualism of the West because they contended that there was no such as being mental and spiritual over here and being physically embodied other there.
The double entendre was about black folk having their cake and eating it too, so to speak: it was about healing the rift between body and soul; it was about playfulness while contesting white power in signifying fashion; and it was about enjoying and celebrating their culture even as vicious stereotypes abounded. That was terribly liberating to black folk who had been indoctrinated with the belief that they were inferior, that they were, in the words of Margaret Walker, “black and poor and small.”
If there is an application for us, then I propose that Christian theologians, pastors, musicians, and laypersons consider how worship (or liturgy) communicates and what it communicates. Does church music promote the double entendre of Christian self-definition as this-worldly and other-worldly, embodied and ensouled, above beast and below angel, dust of the ground and breath of life? Does church music invite playfulness while contesting the powers that be?