God establishes a creation which is itself a ‘return’ to him, brought into being to praise its Creator. And God establishes creatures who very existence is to voice creation’s praise, to focus the song of creation on creation’s Maker, to be ‘secretaries’ of praise (Herbert). Hu,mankind finds its tru being in improvising on the givennness of the created worldd with the others who are given to us, never treating givens as something to be owned or enclosed in finality, but ‘over-accepting’ them in such a way that they are regarded as intrinsically interesting, and rendered more fully felicitous for a potentially enormous number of fresh melodies, harmonies, and metres. – Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music, and Time, p.252
The keystone for understanding what we call Christianity is the passion event of Jesus of Nazareth. In the suffering, crucifixion, death, and resurrection from the dead, we have enacted both the whole internal relationship of the Trinitarian interrelationship of eternal generation, eternal return, and the love that flows between this eternal act. We call this eternal act Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and rightly, because these are persons in the technical sense – fully realized in and of themselves, yet never for themselves. It is precisely in the Christ-event that Divine gratuity becomes revealed in all its clarity; that the Divine “for-otherness” of the Trinity is revealed in its fullness.
It is from this central revelation that we can then look back to the story of Creation and understand the central point – existence itself is grace. There is no necessity to what is. The creation was the prodigal love of the Trinity overflowing in the desire for an other, a not-God, to be so to praise the love and abundant joy of being-with that is the Trinitarian life.
We humans, more than any other creature, are the voice of creation’s praise to the Creator. In the discovery of our limited, constrained freedom, we also discover all sorts of possibilities for creating sounds, sounds that might yet be new, might yet be a thing never before heard. Whether in a cathedral, a club, a concert hall, or sitting around a living room – our musical creations are the grace-filled expression of human joy at the simple fact of existence. And it is precisely because all that is, including the Divine life itself, is sheer gratuity, those who create music need not be aware that is what they are doing. In fact, their intention might be quite the opposite! This does not diminish the power of the Holy Spirit to take our music – all of it, from chant and polyphony through hymnody, spirituals and the blues, jazz and hip-hope – and make of it praise from creation to Creator.
He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. -Ephesians 1:5-10
Thus, Jesus’ unity with God – and thus the truth of the incarnation – is also decided only retroactively from the perspective of Jesus’ resurrection for the whole of Jesus’ human exsitence on the one hand (as we have already seen) and thus also for God’s eternity, on the other. – Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus – God And Man, p. 321.
One of the most difficult concepts to grasp in relation to what the Christ-event means for us is “time”. That is why Jeremy Begbie’s book on music is so important, for me at least, as he is focused on how the revelation of the Father in the Son through the Spirit (and Begbie is nothing if not a thorough-going Trinitarian) demonstrates the fundamental reality and created goodness of our temporal existence.
And, yet, as the Scriptures tell us, the resurrection fundamentally changed Creation, including time. Paul speaks in a couple places of “the fullness of time”, as in the epigram above. God’s time is often misconstrued, whether through lack of thought or confusion or some confusion of the two, as coinciding with our temporal existence; thus we often read of those who, say, decry “the delay of the parousia”, or wonder why evil and injustice continue to exist, if God is loving, just, and powerful enough to alter reality.
Pannenberg used the idea of “the fullness of time” to explicate, first and foremost, the dogma of the Two Natures – that is, that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. This is a reality for God in God’s time, which we often call eternity, yet it is hidden there until its temporal revealing at the resurrection. Pannenberg goes so far as to declare this hiddenness included being hidden from Jesus the man. While I’m not sure I’ll go that far, Pannenberg’s singular move here presages a larger understanding of God’s time that, perhaps not ironically, can best be understood musically.
When we listen to music, we never hear the whole piece all at once. We listen as it unfolds in time, our expectations rising and falling, feeling tension rise then be released, and finally a conclusion – perhaps a revisit of the beginning understood in a new way; perhaps ending in a place we never would have expected – that brings the whole to a close. We cannot grasp the whole, as greater than the parts to which we’ve been listening, until it is over. In essence, music pulls us toward its end, at which point all that has gone before makes sense as parts of that whole.
In much the same way, God’s time, which is not “eternity” as generally understood as being “no time”, but the time both demonstrated and fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, not only make sense of all that has gone before. It also is God’s future toward which all creation is being moved by the power of the Event itself. Temporality itself is reshaped in this moment; what’s past is not dead and gone, but caught up in the New Life revealed in the risen Christ. The present is our momentary passage forward to the future that is God’s future, which we proclaim when we declare our faith if Jesus crucified, dead, and buried, and raised on the third day.
To speak of the fullness of time is to speak of God’s time, fulfilled once for all yet still unfolding here and now, in which we participate as faithful actors of God’s Divine future waiting for us. This is one of the deepest, most mysterious parts of faith: to trust that God’s time is enough to bring us through all the horrors and joys of existence, including death itself, to the end God has said awaits us all, as revealed in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.
It came as no surprise to find that ‘error’ took on a new significance. When mistakes slipped in, fruitful possibilities always lay ‘at hand’. Instead of stumbling around to correct the fault, the error could be incorporated, exploited. It could be drawn into the improvisation such that ‘a new practice was . . . added to the hand’s repertoire of ways . . . A hand was developing that was possessed of mobile ways with the topography, was permitting the attempt, at least, to make the best of things.’ – Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music, and Time, p. 229.
There are no wrong notes – Thelonius Monk
In a detailed discussion of classically trained pianist David Sudlow’s attempts to learn jazz, Begbie hints at something beautiful and profound, then moves on. As the theme of the work is the ways music helps us grasp matters of temporality in our working through of the Christian confession, it is understandable. All the same, I wanted to highlight it here precisely because it is important. No, it is central to the whole practice of Christian living, and is something that music, particularly improvised music, can teach us better than anything.
One of the worst things we Christians are told is that we have to be “good”. Not just morally upright, which is certainly important; not just exercising good judgment, which is true whether one is Christian or not. No, our “goodness” must extend to and through all our actions, our thoughts, our plans, each part must be as good as the whole. After all, it was Jesus who said that was are to be perfect, as our Father in Heaven is perfect. This leaves us, even at the best of times, neurotic as we struggle and bewail the multiple failures, big and small, in our lives.
As a student musician, one of the things we are told, usually in the final rehearsals in the run-up to a performance, is that if a mistake is made, don’t acknowledge it. Just keep going. While perfection is always the goal – why else practice for hours on end, going over each detail to get it just so? – the reality is that it is just that: a goal. As long as the performers do their best, a mistake here or there might not even be noticed by the audience; or if it is, it might not be noticed as a mistake. Play through, keep going, reach the end, accept the applause.
Would that we were taught so in life. Be good – be perfect! – but remember we live, as Luther taught, as those both justified and as sinners. Mistakes are inevitable. Even big, honking ones. Can those mistakes be fruitful, as Sudlow discovered “mistakes” became fruitful for new melodic ideas? Not always. Sometimes our errors are so big we need to stop, acknowledge them, and do our utmost to correct them. Most of the time, our errors are no larger than those of any other person. Keep living, and if we have faith that God is with us, those mistakes may well be fruitful for new life precisely because God is a God of grace.
One of my favorite musicians is the guitarist Eric Johnson. A perfectionist to the point that he will delay concerts for minutes as he tries to tune his guitar just so, he nevertheless produces music of astounding originality and power. Here he is in performance at Austin City Limits, playing “Zap”, which won the Grammy in 1987 for best Rock Instrumental Performance:
If you watched his performance closely, you would have noticed several times he grimaces and shakes his head. He has obviously played something he didn’t like, or even – gasp! – a wrong note. Driving himself to perfection, Johnson has not allowed for the possibility that a wrong note might well not be a wrong note at all.
It is important to strive, always, for perfection. It is also important, always, to grant the Spirit to be in the space in between our errors and the perfections toward which we strive. Should we get down on ourselves for our mistakes? Sometimes, sure. Should we just give it all up for lost because we made a mistake, whether something small or large? Never. If we are faithful, the gap between our errors and the perfection toward which we strive is filled with the Holy Spirit, granting life, assuring us in the voice of Monk, that there are no wrong notes. We can play on, using those mistakes – maybe even the big ones – as fruitful for new ideas, new life, and always always always hope.
[J]ust as improvisation encourages a sense of the inexhaustibility of both occasional and cultural constrains, and thus a confidence in the future musical possibilities, so the very fact that traditions have lived on in the Christian community and unlocked unforeseen initiatives in an enormous variety of occasional constraints can produce a confident expectation of the their potential fruitfulness in the Church’s future. Improvisation can instruct us in what J.B. Metz calls a ‘productive non-contemporaneity,’ an engagement of our past with our present for the sake of a future that is not strictly determined by either.-Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music, and Time, p.221
When Charlie Parker was still a very young sideman in a Kansas City orchestra led by Jay McShann, he discovered it was entirely possible to create not just “a solo”, but an entire melodic theme-and-variation over the chordal structure of any song. And not just the notes within the traditional chords; a student of music, Parker knew from modal harmonies. What might sound incongruous at first might well fit as long as one moved between and within the modal chords, not just the traditional notes. Accidentals were no longer accidentals, but “fit” in a way that opened up all sorts of possibilities for composition, for harmony, for melody, even for rhythm. He said of that moment, “I came alive that day. I could fly.”
One of the standards Parker worked and reworked was “Cherokee”. Here’s a recording of Cherokee from 1992, with Wynton Marsalis joining the Modern Jazz Quartet:
Now, here is Parker’s version of “Cherokee”, which he renamed “Koko”. As you listen, remember – the chords underneath are the same. It is, in a very real sense, the same song:
While some might argue whether this is, in fact, improvisation but rather composition, it was in fact a combination of both. Along with musical partner Dizzy Gillespie, who takes the first solo, Parker was well aware of the traditions of jazz that had, already by the mid-1940’s, codified and solidified what was and was not acceptable. Working within these traditions, he felt himself free precisely because those traditions and constraints gave him the freedom to make something new from something old, firmly within both the rules of music in general, and the particular idiom within which he moved.
So, too, we contemporary Christians are free, yet bounded by the constraints of Scripture, tradition, reason, and the experiences of the great cloud of witnesses to the faith who have passed before us and live among us. True freedom, then, is not “anything goes”, as our contemporary libertarians insist; nor it is either overcoming tradition (a la Martin Heidegger) in an attempt at primitivism. Rather, it is taking it all in, being cognizant of the contingent circumstances of our particular historical moment, and being able to fly free on the wings of the Spirit, who bears us up, granting us new life, bringing new life to others in ways never seen before.
It’s all there for us, to accept or reject as we will, as worthy of granting life or restricting freedom in turn. It is up to us to make it up as we go along, taking stock of what has gone before, yet willing to reformulate it in new ways, believing this is the birth of the New Creation in a new day.
The freedom we too often hear bandied about, freedom not only from communal, moral, and even legal constraints, isn’t freedom. It’s chaos, the primordial reality prior to the Creation ordered by God. We cannot escape the traditions, mores, practices, or examples of the past. What we can do is learn from them in order to make, for out moment, something alive. Something that gives us the power to fly, as on eagle’s wings.
Coming to terms with temporality as a fundamental condition of our lives – avoiding the illusion both of absolute indeterminacy and slavery to time – will thus be critical to enjoying genuine freedom. – Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music, and Time, p.203
The word “freedom” is a source of more trouble in human life than most others I can imagine. What constitutes true freedom? Are freedoms something we just “have” because we exist, a thing that must be acknowledged by others? What kinds of freedoms are part of human existence? How far do they extend? If freedoms are just part of being human, is there any proper restraint that can be placed on them that has any legitimacy?
And what of the freedom we Christians have, a freedom from the bondage of sin and the penalty of sin, death? How do we enact this particular freedom, given that the flip-side of this freedom from sin and death is a freedom for service to others? Doesn’t this just reinstitute bondage in a new guise? Isn’t the pretense of self-giving just slavery to those who demand this is what we are “supposed” to do?
This last argument was the radical response from the tail-end of the Romantic/Enlightenment era: To claim that we are “free” all the while subservient to an arbitrary authority – the Pope, the Bible, the clergy – substitutes one set of chains for another. True human freedom can only be achieved by realizing these shackles are not real. True human freedom comes in living and acting as one chooses, without thought for others. Our freedom is our own; our lives, our health, our well-being – that is the only real goal of true freedom.
In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky wrote a morality tale about true human freedom. Raskalnikov realized just a tad too late the lie embedded in the claim that true human freedom is freedom to do as one chooses without fear of consequence. We learn at the end that, in fact, Raskalnikov had lived a life serving others; he was a good neighbor, a good friend, someone willing to be and do for others. The “freedom” he enacted in the murder of the old woman wasn’t freedom at all.
So much of our talk about “freedom”, be it legal, political, religious, what have you, is stuck in an insistence on absolutes: Either freedom is the complete removal of all constraints, or it isn’t real. The most extreme examples of this kind of thinking, at least here in the United States at our current moment, is the notion that we individuals, apart from any legal, constitutional, or other authority, are free not only in our persons but our property as well, from any interference by any authority, whether designated or proclaimed. This includes matters such as taxation, restraints on trade, regulation of commerce, speech, the possession of certain deadly items, and this list could go on.
The flaw at the heart of this position is summed up so well by the epigram from Jeremy Begbie. Any absolute claim to freedom fails precisely because we are bound by the inexorable, ineluctable, unforgiving reality of time.
We are bound in a most fundamental way, an inescapable way. We come from non-existence; we move through time which does not slow down, does not ask us if we are happy, does not hold others for our enjoyment. Then, at some point, perhaps minutes, perhaps decades later, time, for us, does the one thing we have wanted all along – it stops. It is only then we realize that our secret plea that time stop for us carries with it a cruel price.
True freedom, then, in no small part includes coming to terms with the boundaries that are set for us before we ever were, a boundary that sits, patiently, waiting for us to reach it, to plead for just one moment more, one more breath, one more smile with a loved one, one more glance at the tide rolling in or the leaves changing to autumn orange. True freedom begins with understanding our lives are already chained. If from navigating from the beginning to the end doesn’t involve awareness of the inherent limitation to existence, we are fooling ourselves, believing that time is ours, a thing among others to control, rather than the arbiter of all that happens.
With the rise of the rhetoric of individual freedom, usually couched in terms of relations with the state and its authority, humans began to believe it possible to insist that our lives were unbound by constraint. This has reached the absurdity, in our current moment in North America, that there are some who believe any authority not granted to be so by a particular individual is not in fact an authority at all.
When St. Paul wrote that we are freed for the sake of freedom, his first concern was to insist that we who are baptized in the blood and raised in the robes of the crucified and risen Christ now live free from the sin that bound humanity to the ultimate punishment, death as separation from God. Secondarily, he was also trying to make clear that issues such as circumcision no longer marked the beloved, called community. Precisely because of the passion and resurrection of Jesus, we bear a different mark as a community: the mark of the cross. Our freedom does not lie in adherence to one set of rules or laws. True freedom, freedom in the blood and glory of Christ, is freedom not only from sin and death. It is also freedom to bring this news to the world, through acts of piety and service, to witness in word and deed to the saving act of the Father through the Son in the Spirit, bringing to birth a new Creation, the Creation God intended. Our freedom, then, is freedom for God.
We cannot be free in this way unless we embrace the reality that our existence is bound to time. Being bound to time, that means we are mortal, limited on either side of our brief sojourn by non-existence. What we have through the sacrificial death and victorious resurrection of Christ is the opportunity to make our time God’s. Ours is the God of true freedom, including freedom from the fear that time dictates the limits of what we can do and who we can be.
The human fear of time shows itself in our denial of death; our constant struggle against aging and the toll it takes on our bodies; the many ways we hide the ill, the dying, and the dead from our lives so we do not have to face the truth that, no matter how long we live, no matter how well we love, no matter how much we accumulate, time wins in the end. If we can face that reality, and negotiate the hazards with a modicum of success, which would include embracing that reality and refusing to allow it to define us and our actions, that is the first step to real freedom, even the bound and limited freedom that we have.
I’m a bit more than half-way through Jeremy Begbie’s Theology, Music, and Time, a book that has opened all sorts of possibilities for thinking and theologizing in new ways about music, worship, liturgy, and reflection on the Christian confession. At one point, however, Begbie points beyond the central concern of time and offers the intriguing possibility of considering “space” as another category through which to consider how we can reflect on how music informs our faith. Specifically, he mentions “orchestration”, by which I assume he means the types and arrangements of instruments, and timbre, or the sounds of the instruments being used.
Now most folks, even those not particularly wed to a faith tradition, think of music in church, they consider the organ.
And, let’s face it, the organ’s sound, especially in a larger space such as a cathedral, does have a quality about it which, through association, we relate to “church”. When combined with a choir, we are even more aware of the religious nature of the sounds we are hearing.
Of course, the going thing today isn’t the organ/choir, but the “praise band”.
A combination of conventional contemporary instruments, played more often than not with enthusiasm rather than ability, the song choices for such groups tend to be limited by the commercial Contemporary Christian Music scene. Chris Tomlin, in particular, is a favorite “composer”. The sound of such bands tends to make up in the joy of performance what it lacks in timbral diversity or, more important for our purposes, volume. While the use of acoustic and electric guitars, electronic keyboards, and drums certainly change the spiritual sense of many conditioned to prefer an organ either with or without a choir, the overall effect is similar: the instruments and vocalists are present to facilitate the congregation’s participation in singing praise to God (often using words that border on narcissism rather than faithfulness, but that’s a story for another day).
What if, however, a congregation were to take a bold step, using modern technology utilizing both volume and timbre to create a sense of space that brings the congregation not only to praise, but to a proleptic sense of singing before the throne of God? In Revelation, we read of John’s vision of the angels and beasts and witnesses singing such that all creation shakes with its power. While opening up all the stops on an organ certainly can shake a church building, there are other, more contemporary ways to do the same thing.
Too often, we fear letting our music create this kind of space, because of the oft-voiced complaint that to do so would slip from helping worship to performance. Yet, my personal experience at many concerts is there is little qualitative distinction between the performance of the musicians and the audience, who often sing along and act in other ways that make the entire concert experience a single event, a performance both of musicians and audience. The sheer volume of a concert helps create this co-performance space by enveloping all present in sound that forces both musician and audience to focus on the music as a means toward the end, not perhaps of entertainment, but of co-participation.
Part of the power of the vision in Revelation of the songs sung before the throne is the reality that our hymns before God, sung in worship, are lifted up, participating in this same never-ending song. Whether a small group with an out-of-tune piano, a cathedral with an enormous pipe organ, or a band willing to challenge a congregation to be in a space created by a combination of sheer volume and a combination of timbres that bring them to their feet while casting them forward to stand before the throne.