Theology, Music, and Modernity
Struggles for Freedom
- ISBN: 9780198846550
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: March 2021
Edited by Jeremy Begbie, Daniel K L Chua, and Markus Rathey, Theology, Music, and Modernity: Struggles for Freedom brings a musical perspective to a “theological reading of modernity” (2), focusing on the theme of freedom in particular. The essays from the contributors are grouped into four sections covering revolutionary freedom, the implications of the transition of music from the church to the concert hall, a look at the life of freedman Richard Allen, and the relationship between music and language. The different specializations of contributors in theology, musicology, and/or music theory provide well balanced look at each topic.
Daniel Chua’s essay opens the main body of the book by situating the composer Ludwig van Beethoven against the backdrop of Jacques-Louis David’s heroic paintings and Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. For Chua, Beethoven captures “the spirit of modern freedom” (36) and in doing so reveals the danger of heroic self-determinism. His essay is the most discussed by fellow contributors in what follows, but the format of the book is such that he is allowed no rejoinder. This is unfortunate because John Hare’s essay, which immediately follows Chua’s, presents a more sympathetic reading of Immanuel Kant and Beethoven, arguing, contra Chua, that Kantian autonomy is in fact compatible with freedom as presented in the Christian Scriptures. In the next essay, Chris Tilling comes from the perspective of biblical theology, using a recent study of freedom in the letters of the Apostle Paul and setting it against modernity. Imogen Adkins, in the fourth and final essay in part 1, comes from the perspective of systematic theology, viewing the Christological and Trinitarian themes of self-dispossession through musical analogies. She pushes back on Rowan Williams’ concerns about the modern idea of self-possession by arguing that Christ’s self-possession is inseparable from his self-dispossession.
The transition of sacred music from the church to the concert hall, the subject of part 2, is seen through the historical lens of Felix Mendelssohn’s recovery of the work of J. S. Bach. Larry Todd provides the historical background to this event and Bettina Varwig shows how the Lutheran idea of adiaphora (that is, matters of religious indifference) made it possible. Markus Rathey examines Mendelssohn’s cuts to Bach’s St. Matthews Passion. These cuts downplay Bach’s original emphasis on the love of Christ and the response of the individual and highlight the response of the community, which, in Mendelssohn’s time, was political as well as religious. Jeremy Begbie picks up where Rathey leaves off, using Hegel and Schleiermacher to illustrate the move from the particular—especially the historical particularity of Jesus Christ—to the universal. In his conclusion he argues that the particularity of music best resonates with a theology where God works in concrete, historical events. Contrasted with the first section, this section contains less sparring. It reads less like independent essays and more like a sustained development of a particular theme.
The choice to focus on Richard Allen in part 3 looks like an effort to balance out the Eurocentric nature of the rest of the book. As the founder of the African Methodist Church, Allen’s story is certainly fascinating, but musically speaking, the absence of extant musical scores or recordings puts the essayists at a disadvantage vis-à-vis their counterparts who interact with European composers in the other sections. The musical context of Allen’s life must be reconstructed from hymn lyrics and the written descriptions of witnesses. Given the need to designate a certain time frame for the modern era, focusing on lyrics rather than music may have been inevitable, but it is also unfortunate, especially in view of the wealth of well-documented African American music following the advent of recording. Within these constraints, the essays by Patrick McCreless and Michael O’Connor center on biographical information and attempt to reconstruct reasons behind the changes made in four editions of Allen’s hymn books. Charrise Barron’s contribution shows Allen’s concern with “a social, economic, political, and ecclesial freedom” (257) for black Americans in America prior to the abolition of slavery. Awet Andemicael concludes this section by exposing the limitations of the power of corporate singing, arguing that only in obedience to God can the church achieve meaningful unity.
The essays return once more to European composers and philosophers in the fourth section to explore the relationship between language and music. Julian Johnson points out the connection between modernity and dominion, including the slave trade, but unfortunately does not refer back to the section on Allen. For Johnson, music provides freedom from “the perennial deformations of our linguistic determination of the world” (314). Stephen Rumph references the section on revolutionary freedom and brings to light the work of Johann Gottfied Herder—Kant’s student—on musical transcendence. The remaining two essays by Norman Wirzba and Jeremy Begbie are written from a more theological perspective. The volume ends on a high note, as both essays pull together important threads from earlier in the book. Begbie concludes by pointing out how music joined to words creates “an energy of overflow” which words or music independently of one another “would struggle to articulate” (373).
This book goes beyond many other edited volumes by having contributors interact (to differing degrees) with one another. However, it lacks the same level of integration as volumes where contributors are allowed rejoinders. The section on Allen in particular, while worthwhile in its own right, is not well-integrated into the whole. A brief conclusion tying the different sections together to complement the excellent introduction would have made the whole feel more cohesive. That being said, the goal of looking at freedom and modernity through the lens of music from a variety of perspectives is certainly achieved.
Bradley K. Broadhead is the pastor of Oyen Evangelical Missionary Church.Bradley K. BroadheadDate Of Review:May 18, 2022