Jeremy Begbie: Why Think Theologically about Music?

  1. Theologically, the most general and basic reason is simply the lordship of Jesus Christ. For the follower of Christ, there is no ‘exclusion zone,’ no ‘secular’ territory outside the scope of his saving work, no value-free or neutral area of human life. This applies as much to music as to any other cultural activity.
  2. Music is pervasive in our culture. We do not have to find it; it finds us. Even if we never go near a concert hall, or switch on a radio or TV, or go to films, music will seek us out in airports and train stations, in doctors’ clinics and dentists’ chairs, at the hairdresser’s, and in shopping malls, pubs, and clubs. ‘Music is the ocean we swim in.’ It would be odd if Christians were never to think in depth about something so omnipresent.
  3. Music seems to be universal. We know of no culture without something akin to music. ‘There have been cultures without counting, cultures without painting, cultures bereft of the wheel or the written word, but never a culture without music. Music spans the full range of wealth and privilege. Even the most poverty-stricken peoples will sing. Music may not be necessary for biological survival–on a desert island we could subsist without it–but it does seem vital to human flourishing. Would it not be strange, to say the least, if there were no distinctively Christian comment to make on so prevalent a feature of the human race?
  4. Music also cries out for attention simply because of the immense power it can have in many people’s lives–something memorably celebrated in movies such as The Pianist, Sister Act, Music of the Heart, and Les Choristes. Few doubt that music can call forth the deepest things of the human spirit and affect behavior at the most profound levels. Study after study has shown that music often plays a pivotal part in the formation of young people’s identity, self-image, and patterns of behavior. Any Christian who cares about the good of human society ought to be concerned with what kind of power music might possess and how such power might be used responsibly.
  5. The importance that many are prepared to grant music into their lives. George Steiner recounts that for the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘the slow movement of Brahm’s third Quartet pulled him back from the brink of suicide.’ The singer Sting has said: ‘I think music is the one spiritual force in our lives that we have access to, really. There are so many other spiritual avenues that are closed off to us, and music still has that, is still important, is important to me. It saved my life. It saved my sanity.’
  6. There are very close links between music and–for want of a better term–religious impulses. An ethnomusicologist comments: ‘I seriously doubt, in fact, that one could find any religion, large or small, that does not concern itself with the ways ‘music’ is…vital to conveying the word of God….Music,’ he continues, is ‘a preferred medium for expressing religious meaning.’

From Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music.

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