Spring 2012 Agape Meal
Lecture 2 – History and Harmony
by Ken Myers
With this lecture I want to begin to sketch out a theology of music and liturgy.
Last week, I talked about one of the obstacles in our cultural setting that prevents clear thinking about our musical life: the assumption that musical meaning is entirely subjective.
Tonight, I want to begin by looking at Romans 12:1,2, and take just a few minutes to point out some things about this text, which forms the pivot point of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.
In light of all that God has done for you in Jesus Christ, St. Paul is saying, your lives should be lived out in his service. The first eleven chapters of this letter spell out how we ought to understand what Christ has done, and St. Paul relies heavily throughout those chapters on the Old Testament setting within which the work of Christ must be understood. And in the latter chapters of the letter, introduced by these verses, St. Paul describes what the lives of disciples of Jesus ought to look like.
There are in this text a couple of verbal surprises that we need to pay attention to. First, given the way in which the apostle has warned about the danger of what he calls “the flesh” earlier in the letter, as well as in his letter to the Galatians, it’s a bit surprising that he talks about our bodies as holy and acceptable offerings to God. Right in the very first verse of his description of what Christian life should look like, he uses a metaphor, comparing all believers to Old Testament priests who are coming into the presence of God to make an offering. But instead of a dead animal, believers are to offer up their living bodies as a sacrifice. Holiness is not to be pursued by ignoring the body, or by denigrating the body. Rather, all aspects of our embodied existence are to be consecrated to God. In what we eat and drink, in how we live in space and time, in the use of our voice in conversation and our hands in our work, in the use of our eyes and ears to relate to other people and to the rest of God’s Creation: in countless ways of bodily activity, we have an opportunity to offer up our lives before God.
So our first verbal surprise is St. Paul’s positive assessment of the possibilities of bodily service offered to God. The second verbal surprise requires that we know the Greek word that is translated in modern translations as “spiritual”: spiritual worship or spiritual service. But the word isn’t the usual one that St. Paul uses to mean “spiritual.” The Greek word here is logikos, related to our word “logic,” so some translations (including the King James) render this phrase “reasonable service.” This is the only time St. Paul uses this Greek word in all of his letters, and while it can mean spiritual, the fact that in the next verse he goes on to talk about the necessity of having our minds transformed makes me lean toward the translation “reasonable.” The New English Bible translates this phrase “worship offered by mind and heart.” New Testament scholar John Murray believes Paul used this word to emphasize that our devoted service to God must be conscious and intelligent, not mechanical and automatic. Our service to God must be deliberate, not mindless or careless. And in that next verse, St. Paul explains why such a deliberate ordering of our lives is necessary: because it’s very tempting for us, as it was for the Israelites, to be influenced by assumptions about reality embedded in dominant social and cultural institutions in which God has been reduced or redefined.
It’s helpful to remember that when St. Paul talks about the renewal of our minds, he is not writing in the spirit of a modern rationalist; the mind was not simply the organ for processing data. The older view of mind and of rationality encompassed much more than the modern connotation of the word suggests, and it included the imagination. So I think that this is not simply a call to have our ideas transformed, but to have everything that involves our minds transformed, which, I would submit, includes our intuitions and imaginations, our deep assumptions about reality conveyed in artistic expression and in what philosopher Jacques Maritain calls “creative intuition.”
So summing up, St. Paul is saying that, because of what Christ has done for us, we ought to seek to live every aspect of our embodied lives in ways that honor God’s rule over all things, and we are to pursue that discipleship sustained by a consciousness that is radically attuned to God’s ways in all things. And we begin to learn to live that way by the the experiences of the forms we use in worship. For me, this is one reason why worship can’t be just a pep rally followed by a lecture. Our worship involves our bodies and our intellect, our emotions and our reason. And so beauty as well as truth and goodness must be honored in our worship, not as merely a pleasing ornamentation, like a spoonful of sugar for medicine, but because attentiveness and participation in beauty is way of becoming attentive to the character and work of God. We worship by the power of the Spirit, who in-forms us through the forms of worship. The Holy Spirit is the Lord and giver of life, who was present at Creation and at the Baptism of Christ and at Pentecost and now, in our worship. The Spirit is, as Jonathan Edwards put it, the beautifier; the Spirit is, in the words of one of our neighbors, David Bentley Hart, “the one who bestows radiance, shape, clarity, and enticing splendor upon what God creates and embraces in the superabundance of his love.”
Beauty in worship is thus not a marketing gimmick (although some people might reduce it to that). It is a case in point of who God is and what he desires for the world and for his people.
In worship we are constituted as a community in communion with God. Music is a remarkably fitting way of exemplifying the shape of that communion. Throughout the Christian tradition, two musical metaphors have been used to describe the communion in communion: unison singing (which was most powerfully expressed in chant, especially Gregorian chant) and harmony (which is present in its simplest forms in hymns) and in more elaborate form in the anthems choirs present. In singing hymns the whole congregation participates in the harmony by singing. In listening to the choir, the congregation participates by listening, which can be an active and demanding task. Listening to carefully constructed and (we hope) well presented music can involve a great deal of attention and activity, just as listening to a carefully constructed and well-presented sermon is a form of participation in the Word of God. In the Bible, listening is never pictured as passive consumption, but as active and responsible reception.
Romans 15:5,6 suggests the idea of both unity and harmony characterizing our life together and our worship.
Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus: That ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
St. Paul also refers to the harmony we should display in a text that explicitly mentions music, from the third chapter of the letter to the Colossians:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
In an essay on liturgical music, William T. Flynn summarizes how various patristic theologians developed this idea of the harmony of the Church.
For Clement [of Alexandria], the Church is in complete symphonia (agreement or harmony) because it is led by Jesus: “The union of many, which the divine harmony has called forth out of a medley of sounds and division, becomes one symphony, following the one leader of the choir and teacher, the Word, resting in tat same truth and crying out: ‘Abba, Father.’” Origen linked the idea of concord in Matthew 18:19-20 with the promise of Christ’s presence to those so assembled in his name, contending that the harmony of those so assembled “makes room for the Son of God to be present.” Ambrose combined the insights of these interpretations in his commentary on the parable of the prodigal son: in Luke 15:25, the word symphonia (music) is used to describe the celebration ordered by the father upon the son’s return. According to Ambrose, this “merry-making” fittingly included music, which points to the harmony restored between the father and the son. Furthermore, Ambrose gave an example of what this harmony is like by referring to the music in his own church: “For this is a symphony, when there resounds in the church a united concord of differing ages and abilities as if of diverse strings; the psalm is responded to, the Amen is said.” The unison singing by the whole congregation at these points in the service was, for Ambrose, an image of the unity between God and humanity established through Christ. Johannes Quasten, in his book Music and Worship in pagan and Christian Antiquity, makes an important point concerning the nature of the unity described by patristic authors: the community represented by sining was not only an image of earthly community, but was also a participation of the earthly community in heavenly worship, and therefore in the life of God. Quasten notes that patristic commentators would often prove this by referring to the preface to the Eucharistic Prayer where the congregation is invited to join in the singing of the Sanctus with all the angels, archangels, cherubim, and seraphim. [William T. Flynn, “Liturgical Music as Liturgy,” in Liturgy and Music: Lifetime Learning, edited by Robin A. Leaver and Joyce Ann Zimmerman (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1998)]
I would add to this that when we sing, we are joining in worship with the entire Church, past, present, and future, in a united chorus across time and space. This unity suggests that we should be concerned for continuity in our musical expression.
There are those who suggest that all aesthetic judgments of quality are merely conventional. Even if this is true (which I do not believe and hope that the last lecture laid the foundation for repudiating that aesthetic relativism), it is the sense of sharing conventions that binds communities. And since being bound to a community is an essential way in which one recognizes moral accountability to the body of which you are a member, then preserving the conventions within a community over time is an important way of communicating a sense of belonging.
If a group of people is to survive more than a single generation, or even a fraction of a generation, it will acquire an identity in and through its memory, which is to say it will establish a tradition. Just as a man with amnesia is clueless about identity, severed from an experienced past and so severed from space and time, from the trajectory of his embodied existence, so a group of people with no memory can have no sense of the meaning of the matrix of its members. Such a group can be a crowd; it cannot be a body.
The Greeks believed that Memory was the mother of the muses, and in that belief is an insight into the relationship between the arts, especially music, and the task of mindfulness in a society. When we have memorized a text or a song, we say that we know it “by heart,” which suggests a level of possession and knowledge that is rooted at the core of our being. George Steiner says that “What we know by heart becomes an agency in our consciousness, a ‘pace-maker’ in the growth and vital complication of our identity.” What we know by heart dwells in us richly.
Communities can know things “by heart” as well, and in the community of the Church, prayers and music and poetry (all of which are included in the Psalms) are the things that have been known by heart.
The Church, if it is to be faithful, must be faithful to its nature as well as to the Lord who called it into being. And its nature is that of a body in time. We are members of one another, and we share that membership with those who are no longer with us. We are simply the tail-end of a long procession of faith, described in the eleventh chapter of the letter to the Hebrews, the most recent addition to a cloud of witnesses. We are saved as individuals, but not individualistically.
And so when we gather, when we assemble as the ekklesia, the assembly of God, we are commanded to engage in body-building: we are not to build up one another individualistically, but to nourish the body by nourishing its members. And Paul informs us that music is one of the processes whereby that edifying occurs.
The edifying that occurs in the Church through its music is not simply a matter of stoking sheer enthusiasm. We need to be zealous about our faith and its consequences, but sheer zeal will not issue in obedience. And so the work of edification must do more than excite.
You may remember years back seeing those commercials for body-building devices that consist of electrodes you attach to certain muscles in order to stimulate them. The muscles twitch spasmodically, and apparently this is good for you. Those muscles certainly look enthusiastic, but I’m not sure that this is a way of building up the body that fits the nature of the human body as God made it, although I won’t deny that something is happening, something mysterious and awful in some sense.
Now we could embark on a program of encouraging people to twitch for Jesus—and in fact there seems to be a lot of that on TV, too. But the health of the members of the body consists in more than cycles of stimulated spasm. If the music that we employ merely excites, rather than shapes, enriches, admonishes, and connects, we are not honoring the body that is the body of Christ. The connection that we require forms the joints and ligaments of the body, the forces that work against our dismemberment, and they include the active love and service of one another and the honoring of those over us in the Lord, those teachers and prophets and apostles and martyrs who have been the conduit of faithfulness. The building up of the body includes the building of its memory of itself, so that what it knows by heart will shape it into something lovely and strong.
This is one reason why we need to build an understanding of our folk music, the music of our folk, which includes Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, Lutheran chorales, Baroque cantatas, Anglican Psalm chants, Wesleyan hymns, 19th century part-songs and anthems, and settings of the Mass still being written today. It’s a remarkable tradition, with a great deal of variety and forms of creativity. Unfortunately, many church musicians are not at home in the tradition of their own people. They are more at home with the expressions of various secular entertainers and advertisers, whose musical idioms were not developed for the sake of promoting prayer, humility, the cultivation of patience and wisdom, and the appreciation of silence.
Let me close with a quotation from Josef Pieper that describes briefly how in music sound can lift us beyond the world of sound.
“ . . . to the extent that it is more than mere entertainment of intoxicating rhythmic noise, music is alone in creating a particular kind of silence, though by no means soundlessly. . . . It makes a listening silence possible, but a silence that listens to more than simply sound and melody. . . . Far beyond this, music opens up a great, perfectly dimensioned space of silence within which, when things come about happily, a reality can dawn which ranks higher than music.”
—Josef Pieper, “Music and Silence” in Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990)