Jeremy Begbie on music and materiality

Alternative Title: “Jeremy Begbie takes on P.T. Forsyth (and the Christian West)”

In his recent essay in Books & Culture, Jeremy Begbie discusses the physicality of music, its “embeddedness in material reality.” Begbie begins with a theological point about creation—viz. that material reality is itself good. The physical creation comes from the ordo amoris, the creative love of God. “God,” he writes, “has pledged himself to the world in its physicality—a pledge confirmed in the coming of Jesus, the Word made material flesh.”

Following this theological point, Begbie goes on to discuss Christianity’s traditional discomfort with the physical and material. He notes two important tendencies: (1) “a proneness to doubt the full goodness, and with it sometimes the full reality, of the physical,” and (2) a corresponding desire to elevate music insofar as it is the least material of all the arts. Music became close to the Christian tradition for its lack of materiality. Throughout the centuries, music has been seen as the most “spiritual” of the arts—“spiritual” used in opposition to the “physical.” Begbie traces this view back to the ancient Greeks and the neo-Platonism that shaped a lot of early Christian literature.

When he arrives in the modern period, Begbie spends a good deal of time looking at the views of the famous modernist painter, Wassily Kandinsky, who was a major defender of a highly spiritualized conception of art. Begbie notes that what drives the modern resistance to physicality is not Platonism but rather the focus “on the inner life of the individual, especially the emotional life.” The rampant individualism and psychologism of modernity is what propels the modern aversion to materiality in art.

Along the way, Begbie discusses the work of P. T. Forsyth*, whom he locates within this trajectory of thinkers who view music as an intangible and non-physical art form. Begbie writes:
Interestingly, a not dissimilar view [from Kandinsky] emerges from one of the few Christian theologians of modern times to write about music (apart from those we have looked at already), the Congregationalist theologian P. T. Forsyth (1848-1921). Forsyth's basic belief is that music is concerned essentially with releasing us from the bonds and limits of the finite and material order. Music is the least material of the arts (with the sole exception of poetry). Forsyth is struck by its impermanence and insubstantiality (it does not end up as a concrete object), its inwardness (it primarily arises from and is directed toward our emotional life), and its indefiniteness (it cannot refer with any precision to things beyond itself).
Begbie’s point is made clear mid-way through the essay: “A biblically informed Christian response refuses to apologize for music's embeddedness in material reality and actually may want to recover a fuller sense of it.”

What do you think?

Is music substantially different from the other art forms? Or are they equally embedded in the material world?
What makes music so central to the Christian faith?
How might Christianity recover a more “biblically informed” view of music?
What might change if churches sought to adopt a more materially focused conception of music?
What is the proper place for the “spiritual” in art?
How ought we to understand the notion of the “spiritual”?
How do we define the “spiritual” and the “material”? How do we relate them to each other?
What is the proper role of art in churches?

*For more on P. T. Forsyth’s views on art and theology, see this article by Jason Goroncy in the Princeton Theological Review.


Steve Wright said…
There is definitely a tendency for people to treat music as transcendent because it is a rapturous experience, not an embodied experience. We often forget that the type of transcendence which is found in music is invariably accompanied by a somatic response (foot tapping, swaying, humming, dancing).

Begbie is fond of the musicology of Nicholas Cook who strongly argues for music to be seen as an embodied interaction. A this-worldly art, rather than a disembodied, impersonal individual experience. I think that it is hard to imagine music existing apart from interpersonal relationships. Even a long person composing in a field is interacting with a range of cultural and musical conventions. Hence I think that we need to look for the transcendence (i.e. God) in music as it interacts with these relationships and draws us into embodied living, rather than pulling us away from those around us in some kind of internal, individualistic experience.

Thanks for the comment. Transcendence in embodied immanence: this is a nice way of putting it, and it has a strong christological background, since we confess the very same thing about Christ. God's transcendence is not abandoned by Christ in the incarnation. Rather, the incarnation is the fullest and truest expression of God's transcendence (as well as of God's omnipotence, righteousness, grace, etc.)
Fred said…
Great questions! Reflecting on my experience, I would say that singing is a richly personal performance art, which is to say that it is both individual and communital. I remember changing from a first soprano to a second bass one summer - evidence of the dependence of voice upon the body. I never felt so vulnerable and exposed as when I sang as a cantor - my voice carried my person, hiding nothing.

Singing in a choir is another demanding work. Standing for long periods, using one's diaphragm, listening to others to blend. Doing Holy Week in a Catholic (or other high church) choir is the vocal equivalent of running a marathon. We always loaded up on pasta, water, and ricola to fortify ourselves for the work.

And most recently, I've been learning from my involvement with the lay group, Communion and Liberation. At every meeting, careful instruction on singing the psalms is given. Sing softly to listen to those around you because our singing is an expression of our unity in Christ. And the song leaders lead without calling especial attention to their own personality, but so that the meaning of the words will predominate in their totality.

We also say that 'we sing with a reason.' Singing is logos: speech and reason. This is not a cramped, reduced reason of rationalism, but a deeply personal and affective reason that lives in response to Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.