God in Sound and Silence

Music as Theology

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Danielle Anne Lynch
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , June
     2018.
     232 pages.
     $28.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781532641497.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

 In In God in Sound and Silence, Danielle Anne Lynch advances a Schleiermachian understanding of revelation through examination of three successive periods of classical music history as reflective of different modes of knowing the divine. Because Friedrich Schleiermacher defines revelation as an original and new intuition of the universe (7), he offers an approach that both is grounded in spirituality and demands attention to historical difference. Lynch’s thorough grounding in Schleiermacher’s understanding of revelation allows her to hold together disparate musical styles and contrary theological positions in a coherent whole. She precedes her discussion of specific musical styles with a thorough examination of various positions theologians of music have already taken.

Lynch covers an admirable range of voices, including, but not limited to, Rudolf Otto, Paul Tillich, Timothy Gorringe, Ferdia Stone-Davis, Michael Iafrate, and Gina Messina-Dysert. She groups them into (1) voices that follow Schleiermacher’s insight that music itself can be an occasion for new intuitions, (2) voices that consider music as expressive of previously established theological truths, and (3) theologians of popular culture. She treats theological engagement with popular music as a segue into an extensive discussion of the relation of music and embodiment.

Again, Schleiermacher holds the argument together, because embodied people experience revelation in relation to the physical world. Lynch is careful to note the virtues of theologians who pursue music as an expression of previously articulated theological doctrines – Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Barth, and Jeremy Begbie – while clearly articulating her preference for approaches that allow music to speak independently of new modes of intuiting the universe.

Lynch explores the stylistic features of the Classical, Romantic, and Modern periods as epistemological modes of new revelation. Respectively, each period’s mode is form, expression, and silence. While the author refuses to distinguish between sacred and secular music as a limiting factor on music’s ability to provide new intuitions of the universe, she does include discussions of requiems, masses for the dead, as potent reflections on the finitude inherent to embodiment.

In the chapter focusing on Classical music, Lynch sets up an analogy between von Balathasar’s emphasis on form and the importance of formal aspects of music in late 18th-century music. She gives readings of Haydn’s The Creation, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and his requiem. Lynch then examines the turn toward expressiveness in Romantic era music. Here, Schleiermacher does double duty, providing both the overarching theological framework for the entire book and a specific historical counterpart in theology to the music of the Romantic era. Her musical examples are Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, his Eroica symphony, and Brahms’ A German Requiem.

In the modern era, Lynch turns to the theologian Rachel Muers to probe meanings of silence. In this chapter, the wall between classical music and popular music falls, as she discusses classical works by Alphonse Allais, Erwin Schulhoff, John Cage, Olivier Messiaen, and Toru Takumitsu, as well as popular music examples by John Denver and John Lennon.

The title God in Sound and Silence could easily refer to different layers of the book. On the explicit level, it refers to the narrative Lynch constructs of exploring theological meaning in successive music historical periods, in which revelatory possibilities move from form through expression to silence as key epistemological centers over the course of the 18th through the 20th centuries.

However, the title also evokes the interplay of an argument with classical music as its key object and the series of epigraphs using song lyrics from alternative rock bands active in the late nineties and early aughts that reflect Lynch’s adolescent musical passions (xiii), but about which she remains silent. Yet, it is the untold story that illustrates her interest in music as an embodied phenomenon far more clearly that the one she actually tells. The book pulls, almost strains, between a constant desire to move into embodied experience and a framework of the stylistic choices of composers, rather than performers or listeners, as the center of musical meaning. She notes that “scope did not allow for qualitative research into embodied experiences of musical forms,” (192), and yet this is clearly the central question she wants to pursue.

The overall procedure of dividing classical music and popular music into a firm binary also forecloses many opportunities for Lynch to delve deeper into her main thesis. For Lynch, it is popular music that allows one to theorize music as an embodied practice, but letting popular music do all of this cultural work means that she has missed a great deal of research on classical music that pursues musical meaning from an embodied perspective.

In particular, I am thinking of Elisabeth LeGuin’s Boccherini’s Body: An Essay in Carnal Musicology (University of California Press, 2005) as a text that would have bridged Lynch’s concerns in her chapter on the Classical style. Attention to queer musicology and phenomenological scholarship on music could also have relieved some of the tension between the desire to write from an embodied perspective and a sense that academic propriety still does not quite allow it.

These and some other quibbles aside, Lynch has made a major contribution to theologies of music, and one of the few with which I am in substantive agreement in its basic approach. Her synthesis brings liberal theology into the center of the theology of music in a way that has rarely been achieved. Lynch joins Heidi Epstein (Melting the Venusburg: A Feminist Theology of Music, Continuum, 2004) and Philip Stoltzfus (Theology as Performance: Music, Aesthetics, and God in Western Culture, T & T Clark, 2006) as among the most important advocates of theological liberalism in contemporary reflection on music.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dirk von der Horst is Instructor of Religious Studies at Mount St. Mary’s University, Los Angeles.

Date of Review: 
September 21, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Danielle Anne Lynch is Director of Mission at St Augustine’s College, Cairns, and a member of the Australian Catholic Theological Association. Her doctorate on a theology of music was awarded by the University of Leeds in 2015.

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