Music and theology

My spirit is moved by the frenzy of a good Mumford and Sons song.  Though their lyrics are quirky and literary, it's not the words that necessarily that move me (frankly, Mumford's mixed metaphors and topic switching in the middle of the song irritate me just a bit).  In Winter Winds, the song announces itself with trumpets, banjos and other instruments.  It quiets during the first verse, accompanied at first by just a voice and a guitar.  Then, it builds to a swaying chorus, both with various voices and musical instruments.  It seems rather like a worship service.  And in fact, the Mumford of the group grew up as a minister's kid in the Vineyard church. A recent article on NPR pointed on just this, that the sound of Mumford and Sons comes from years of cutting their teeth on religious music. The music of  Mumford and other bands like it, the writer says, have "unmistakably churchy overtones... Many pop fans are or have been churchgoers, and the comfortable feeling of singing along, nurtured in many during childhoods spent in the pews, allows for a form of release that's edifying without proving too scary."

It's certainly possible although the writer's claim that rock music and and a search for goodness have nothing in common seems really cynical to me: "How can anyone who's dedicated to loud, raucous music — the stuff that's supposed to rip through life's dull normality — employ it in the service of such commonplace, even orthodox, hopes and dreams?"

I'm not making any assumptions about the group's religious affiliation (as they've said publicly that they aren't making religious statements with their music).  But what I do find interesting is the feeling that music itself, apart from the lyrics, can be moving in theological and even worshipful ways.

My childhood church tradition tends to be wary of heavily emotive Praise music.  Such music is sometimes viewed as emotionally manipulative rather than spiritually rich.  The words, the words, the words, we say.

And while I do agree that the lyrics to a song are very important, a well-written piece of music can give us something apart from the words. And sometimes the emotion we feel from a piece of music is part of the worship.

Take Bach, for instance.  His purely musical pieces were all written for the glory of God.

In his book "Theology Music and Time," Jeremy Begbie, both a fine musician and a theologian, writes that "Hearing music can mean the 're-ordering of our sympathies...The great triumphs of music...involve this synthesis, whereby a musical structure, moving according to its own logic, compels our feelings to move along with it, and so leads us rehearse a feeling at which we would not otherwise arrive.' Music can therefore not only reflect an emotional disposition already experienced...but can also enrich, nuance and even re-shape our emotion, affecting subsequent emotional experience."

Begbie goes on to say that this emotional response allows us to enjoy the same piece of music repeatedly.  This kind of reaction to music actually allows us to be "emotionally exercised and educated."

I think this idea is fascinating, that music (and Begbie's book focuses mostly on the structure of instrumental music) educates our emotions, that it helps us experience and reshape feelings by its structure.  No wonder music is such an integral part of worship.  But it's more than just the lyrics that teach us and move us.  A really good musician has the power to guide us into new experiences of eschatology, the eucharist, temporality and much much more.*

*see Begbie's book for discussions of these topics