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April 29, 2009


Geoff Colmer

Hi Jim! Music as biblical exegesis is something that really interests me. I think it's full of pitfalls because of the 'sticky' nature of music and the associations that a person has with a piece of music, and because appreciation of music is so personal and therefore subjective. But this notwithstanding, it's something that fascinates me deeply.

I attempted to do this in the 'Music through the eyes of a musician' service that I led in Lent, and I hope to do it again in a session I've done before on 'The spirituality of the psalms through music', using Brueggemann's structure of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. In all of this, I explore music that resonates with the theme/text, that wasn't necessarilly written for it. It's listening to music through a theological lens. It would be good to explore this further! Maybe we need our own 'Theology through music' or 'Exegesis through music' symposium!!

Jim Gordon

Thanks for this response Geoff. Music is sticky, but also slippery. At the same time I think what fascinates me is the way music can evoke different responses from the text - not that the music exegetes the text, but that the music facilitates the text as it exegetes us so that in turn we respond differently to the text. To read the passion story, after listening to Christian Forshaw's My Song is Love Unknown, or to have it on while listening, does something to the music and the text and me. What precisely, does it do?


Hi Jim,
Music as exegesis interests me too. Music is sticky in that it often forms a commentary to a person's life, but you're right about its slippery nature too. Like all text, music opens itself to interpretation. I sometimes think of music as aural imagery.

Simply putting different images to a piece of music can completely change its meaning. How can anyone who saw the images of the 1985 Ethiopian famine ever forget those images when they hear the song "Drive" by the Cars which was used as a backing track for them? I know I can't!

The danger in musical exegesis is that music is very much a matter of personal taste. Not everyone is going to appreciate Metallica's "Creeping Death" - an Egyptian view of the exodus which goes some way to capturing the sheer horror and terror of events we so easily become comfortable with.

Music is a very powerful means of communication, which goes some way to explaining why it is so often at the centre of disputes in our churches. I believe Spurgeon referred to the music ministry in the Metropolitan Tabernacle as "The War Department." Not much has changed in the ensuing century.

Graeme Clark

I found Christian Scharen's "Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God" a suprisingly good theological reflection on U2's music but also in a wider capacity insightful and helpful on music as a form of biblical exegesis.

Jim Gordon

Thanks Tony. The effect of music on how we read a text, or think about it, is primarily a reflexive and responsive thing for me. In one sense the music interprets me by opening me to the truth, message, dimensions (or whatever term would be better)of the text. My question is, what difference does it make to my relationship to a text when it is read accompanied by music, or is set to music. The poignant benediction in Ruth which Cohen sings at the end of the concert is almost word for word biblical text - it has never moved me more than when it is sung at the end of a live concert which has had songs about human loss and love, hate and love, violence and peace. What does music DO to a text? Tony, Geoff, Graeme and others interested?

Geoff Colmer

I've been mulling over 'What does music DO to a text?'. And it's a hard one! 'What does music do to me?' I can answer more easily but even then, inconclusively. Among many things, it can open me, having an effect upon me physically, intellectually, emotionally. It can call forth the deepest things. It can help me make a connection with God (I love the idea that music is rife with rumours of God). More negatively it can be used to manipulate me and to manage my mood as in muzak; and I myself can use it as a mood enhancer. And in all of this, and much more, as you say, it is reflexive and responsive.

Great music, like all great art, is metaphorical, i.e. 'suggestion-rich and multiply evocative' (the phrase comes from Brand and Chaplin, Art & Soul - great book sadly out of print), so it has the potential to constantly reveal more. Brand & Chaplin also speak about 'elusive allusivity' (another brilliant phrase) as the quality that best defines a work of art and I wonder if this is where it begins to have an effect upon a text, opening me to fresh insight, but also to fresh encounter.

What does a text do to music? is maybe easier to grapple with because of the sticky nature of music which invites association. Your Also Sprach is 'landing on the moon' music, and Bach's Air on a G String is Hamlet Cigars, to use two well-known examples to some of us. A topical example is the Benedictus from Karl Jenkins, A Mass for Peace, which is played at the In Memorium at the Baptist Union Assembly. At the climax, the words, 'I am the Resurrection and the Life' appear. This works for us and against us. My associations with Also Sprach, take me to a different time and place and experience of life, which wouldn't resonate for me with John 1. The Armed Man, which I think is vastly overrated as a whole, works superbly for me in the context of Assembly. In all this my experience reinforces that what works for one person doesn't work for another.

This not withstanding, 'The intentional and imaginative juxtaposition of biblical text with music that is totally unrelated' is something which I'm keen to go on exploring. And in a way that both text and music are treated with respect so that one is not subordinate to the other.

Just to add that I've thoroughly enjoyed listening to Leonard Cohen on Spotify and will probably purchase the CD.

Jim Gordon

Another very helpful part of the conversation Geoff. You are completely right to point o0ut the ambivalent nature of music as a form of art that is manipulative - and not always to noble purposes. But also the revelatory power of music, as for example the Brahms Violin Concerto did for me as a young man.

All of this fascinating and some helpful nudges and shoves in new directions. Thanks.

Geoff Colmer

'Live in London' arrived while I was at the BUGB Assembly. But since returning I've been listening to it - as have the rest of the family - and we're captivated by it. I shouldn't be surprised, but the fact is that there is so much wonderful music that huge amounts of it simply bypass me, and Leonard Cohen, whose fairly mainstream, hasn't been part of it. However, when there is a new discovery, as in this instance, there is a particular joy that comes with it. Thanks again!

Jim Gordon

Hello again Geoff. I too was ambushed by Cohen first time I heard him - it's the poetry, the voice, the richly textured accompaniment, and the dangerous edginess of some lyrics in the same performance of music that can be heartbreakingly tender and humane. Och it's juist puir ded brillyant so it is! :))

huw williams

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