To play and to pray

A review of Jeremy Begbie’s Resounding Truth

This article originally appeared in PRISM Magazine, September–October 2008, p. 41.

For several years Baker Books has been releasing titles in its “Engaging Culture” series. These in-depth explorations of particular aspects of culture—film, popular music, business, environmentalism, and more—are almost always worth reading. But the latest volume in the series, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, by the masterful English musician and theologian Jeremy Begbie, is a tour de force.

Begbie is not as well known in the United States as he should be—though that may be about to change,  now that he has joined the faculty of Duke Divinity School to inaugurate a program in theology in the arts. His 2000 book Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge University Press), which juxtaposes music theory with some of the knottiest problems in Christian philosophy, established him as an unusually creative theological voice.

Ultimately, though, Begbie is best experienced as a performer. His lectures, to use an unsuitably boring word, are unlike anything you’d expect from a Cambridge theologian: filled with visual art, accompanied by sound clips from many different musical cultures (jazz to Prokofiev to South African township songs), and punctuated by impromptu performances at the piano, all woven together with concise and memorable explorations of Christian Scripture and theology.

No book can do justice to Begbie’s stage presence, but Resounding Truth is a good introduction to the ways he is rethinking Christian ideas about music. Begbie takes us on a whirlwind tour of “the Great Tradition,” the grand synthesis of theology and musical theory that animated Western thought from Augustine through the Middle Ages. For centuries, European Christians saw music as participating directly in a “cosmic order,” the mathematical and moral structure of the universe. This consensus was dismantled during the Reformation—with Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli embodying very different postures toward music in worship—and roundly rejected after the Enlightenment,  when music came to be seen as merely a human form of expression rather than participation in cosmic harmony.

Begbie aims to revive some aspects of this Great Tradition, while recognizing that it was too ambitious in its original form. He draws our attention to three “musical theologians”—Schleiermacher,  Barth, and Bonhoeffer—and two modern “theological musicians”—Olivier Messian and James MacMillan. At the center of the book is an examination of the incomparable Johann Sebastian Bach. And after all this historical work is done, Begbie still has a third of a book left to draw some remarkable connections between music and fundamental themes of Christian faith,  like time and eternity, freedom and constraint, and the Trinity.

For better and for worse, this book sits squarely within the Western tradition of “serious” music.  So, while Begbie frequently cites female scholars, female composers and performers are no better represented here than they have been in that tradition. The exploration of non-Western music and Western popular music is similarly thin. These omissions probably say less about Begbie’s knowledge and interests, which are close to encyclopedic, than his desire to prevent this already sprawling book from bursting its seams.

But whatever its limits, this book is indispensable—not just for musicians or theologians but for anyone who wants to participate seriously in “engaging culture.”  More vividly than almost any other aspect of culture, music responds to and shapes the natural world, emerges from a long history of both performance and theory, and requires the investment of heart, soul,  mind, and strength. And so Begbie reminds us that culture is a human response to God’s creation, is always steeped in history, and is ultimately rooted in our beautiful and broken human bodies and in our hope for their redemption and recreation. There is much more to be said about nearly every page of Begbie’s book, and he will no doubt say more himself in future work. But the real measure of Resounding Truth’s value is how much it makes you want to listen, to play, to sing—and to pray.