Sketching Out Thoughts
Before I begin, let me just say that I feel about my writing much the way young Pink must feel when his teacher finds his poetic scribblings. “The laddie reckons himself a poet!” Well, I don’t reckon myself a poet. What I do consider – “Absolute rubbish, laddie!” – is not only that what I’m doing is well-covered territory, and that others have done so far better than I ever could. That is often why I reach some point where I think, “Today I’m going to sit down and start,” and then I realize, (a) there really aren’t any new ideas; (b) repeating, badly, what others have done well will leave me like young Pink. Absolute rubbish.
All the same, I trundle on.
After backing up yesterday, I thought today I’d back up even further. In much the way most theses and dissertations begin with what is called “a literature review”, if for no other reason than to demonstrate the student has actually done some work, I thought I’d do a quick review not so much of what I’ve read, but of what I’ve learned – or at least tried to learn – from what I’ve read, and what direction that might mean for where I go from here, if anywhere.
It has been my position, in all the various iterations of my blogging life, that the things about which I write aren’t all that big a deal. I don’t believe there is or should be any special benefit attached to being able to read something then regurgitate it; that’s a “skill” we all learned in school. I have encountered some along the way who agree, and therefore take the position there is no need to continue to read and learn throughout life. On the other hand, I’ve encountered those along the way who disagree strongly, insisting there is something special about being able to read and regurgitate. I guess that whole Methodist via media thing is such a part of my makeup that I sit right in the middle of these positions.
Encountering particular specialized academic vocabularies can be a pain in the butt. I’m not speaking for the moment of the mathematics of the sciences, although they certainly count. The humanities, in an effort to create an aura of importance and specialization, while also emulating some of the big names from the past who were horrible writers, have decided that the best way to make something sound important is (a) write poorly; (b) create a specialized vocabulary so that only the initiated can really get what everyone’s talking about. While philosophy and theology aren’t the worst offenders (I’d leave that to literary criticism and semiotics), they are certainly guilty of making what was once clear opaque in an effort to do nothing more than look intelligent.
Musicology, too, is not immune to this. Furthermore, the analytical attention to musical detail, while certainly important, cannot be separated from the human beings who created the sounds in the first place. Music is not a “thing”, like a rock for geologists to examine, or some new species of frog or bird to be dissected. Music is a wholly human, artificial creation. The person who created it had will, intentionality, intellect, a past, lived within a particular historical period that made the sounds that person either within a particular creative stream, in opposition to it, or outside the then-reigning categories of understanding (although never wholly outside them; that would only produce unintelligible noise). Attention to the sounds themselves, as musicologist Allan F. Moore has said, is necessary to understanding how music functions. At the same time, it is necessary to understand that all music – even that previously understood as “absolute” – is functional. It serves a musical purpose; it serves an aesthetic purpose; it serves a social purpose. All of these need to be understood, both individually and together, if any sense is to be made of how particular pieces of music function both for the composer and the intended audience.
Yet academic musicology has been chained to the idea that art is, at its core, meaningless as to function. To inquire as to the function of The Birth of Venus is like asking about the social implications of cat bathing, so this point of view would insist. To which I can only respond, if that is the case, then why waste any intellectual effort understanding it if it has no purpose other than to exist? The usual response, of course, is that aesthetic pleasure is a uniquely human characteristic; understanding particular instances of what humans consider beautiful – painting, sculpture, architecture, music – is a way of understanding what it is to be human. Which is why it is called “the humanities”.
Academic theology, no less than musicology, is wed to an idea of theological discourse that, for all the protestations to the contrary, combines abstruse terminology with the reality that the history of the faith is contained in multiple languages from multiple periods in history. Is it a sign of honesty or intellectual integrity that some theologians often transcribe quotes in their original language (since all translations are, in a sense, interpretations)? Or is it a sign of showing off? How does it further the church’s mission of understanding when so much of what passes for theology, either deliberately or by some attempt to mimic other academic disciplines, becomes indecipherable and unintelligible?
If learning, whatever it may be, serves no function other than to have academics chat among themselves, then we aren’t actually learning. The best academics connect even the strangest, most esoteric things to our everyday lives. Consider physicists who, when questioned about the “relevance” of quantum experimentation, point to everything from our current computers to the future with possible quantum computing, quantum communications – all that “spooky action at a distance” might actually revolutionize human life and civilization. The humanities, however, seem to prefer esotericism to a connection with human life.
For over a year now, I’ve been thinking about what it would be like, what it might mean, to expand the repertoire of church and liturgical music to include so-called “secular” music. I’ve had to read through a whole lot of texts on music, music theory, music and theology, liturgy, the philosophy of music, and consider what music is, qua music. I’ve also had to consider what our corporate worship is, not only as a human social reality but a theological concept lived out in all the varieties it continues to have around the world. I have listened to complaints about everything from blasphemy to pastors with too much to do already, and now I’m asking them to try and educate their congregations about music? I’ve had to wonder about the relative importance of what it is I’m doing. After all, in the scheme of things, particularly the Christian life, what songs we sing in worship isn’t quite up there with our primary mission (at least in The United Methodist Church) to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
I’ve come to some preliminary conclusions that moving forward is important. I’ve come to some preliminary conclusions about why it is important. I’ve come to some preliminary conclusions about the challenges and opportunities such a change would create. I’ve come to some preliminary conclusions as to the narrow view of the secular/sacred divide, the principle of acceptability, and how our theology and our worship life is impoverished by this narrow view, particularly when we are to live out a call to be open to all.
I’ve also concluded that all of it is neither new, interesting, nor would excite most people. Yet, as I wrote the other day, in the words of Rev. Diana Facemeyer, what we do is the most important thing in the world. If we aren’t convinced of this, then what the hell are we doing in church? There are better things we could do on Sunday mornings, not least of them sleeping in. As St. Paul wrote to Timothy, we have been given a Spirit of courage. So even if what I have to think and say is repetitious, boring, and irrelevant to most people, I don’t think it is. In fact, nothing is more important than this: creating worship times and events that are expansive, inclusive, and erase all the barriers, including the secular/sacred barrier, that we human beings have erected that are stumbling blocks for far too many people. It may be rubbish. But, it’s my rubbish, goddammit, and I’m not ashamed of it.