A Conversation with Jeremy Begbie
Jeremy Begbie is the inaugural holder of the Thomas A. Langford Research Professorship in Theology at Duke Divinity School and founding director of Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts. He teaches systematic theology and specializes in the interface between theology and the arts. With his PhD from the University of Aberdeen, Begbie has taught at St. Andrews and Cambridge. He is the author of a number of books, including Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge, 2000), Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Baker, 2007), and Music, Modernity, and God(Oxford, 2013). He is also coeditor, with Steven R. Guthrie, of the anthologyResonant Witness: Conversations between Music and Theology(Eerdmans, 2011). A professionally trained and active musician and an ordained minister in the Church of England, Begbie has taught widely in the UK and North America and delivers multimedia performance-lectures around the world. He was interviewed by Kathleen L. Housley.
Image: Tell me about your musical background, which I understand includes playing piano, oboe, even conducting.
Jeremy Begbie: My earliest musical memories are of my mother playing the piano. I was captivated by the sound this large brown box made, and eagerly pressed at the white keys as soon as I could sit on the piano bench. At the age of seven, I was given a fine teacher and made quick progress. The oboe came along much later, in my teens, and gave me my first experience of making music with others. My childhood and adolescence were dominated by music: nothing mattered more. It provided what I thought any self-respecting religion should provide: a social life, intellectual interest, and—not least—huge emotional satisfaction. What else could I possibly need?
Image: You initially planned to pursue a career in music, but then you sensed a call to ordination. However, at that time many people urged you not to let your interest in music wane. How were you able to sustain both callings?
JB: To be honest, it has not always been easy. When I came to faith around the age of nineteen, there wasn’t much material to inspire me to integrate faith and the arts. (This was long before Image.) Not surprisingly, the first place I saw faith and music coming together was in worship, in a sky-high Episcopal church I joined in Edinburgh. Nostalgic Roman Catholics used to go there to remind themselves what it was like before Vatican II. The choral music was spectacular, and amid all the bells and smells the sense of mystery was palpable. Of course, on hearing about my conversion, friends expected me to write hymns and anthems. And I have written various pieces for churches over the years.
I’ve also tried to promote an approach to music in worship which reflects the breadth and social impact of the Gospel. Sadly, it’s all too easy today to think the best plan is to have a service for each cultural group (“something for them and something for them….”) But is this the kind of social and cultural arrangement that Christ died to make possible? Has Christianity anything more to offer than a replication of our culture’s consumerism? Today we need more churches that get musical traditions talking to each other, because when that happens, people have to talk to each other and take each other seriously, people who would normally have nothing to do with each other.
The second way I’ve tried to bring the double calling together is through what I call “theology for music.” For the last thirty years my call to ordination has taken the form of teaching theology, and part of what theology does is show the difference Christian wisdom makes to every dimension of human life, including music. That’s what I try to demonstrate in my book Resounding Truth. The Gospel, after all, tells of a seismic disturbance affecting every atom of creation. The world is and will be a different place because of what has happened in Jesus. How can we not think about how music can bear witness to that?
The third area of convergence I call “music for theology,” and this has been much more recent for me. Here we ask: how can the world of music enrich Christian thinking? How can it help us explore, discover, and understand more deeply the great drama of the Christian faith? This is what I write about in Theology, Music and Time. In even the simplest song, there are extraordinary resources for enriching and expanding our grasp of the wonders of the Gospel—music often operates in ways that resonate with Christian truth. If you’re prepared to spend some time with music, you begin to hear a “music in the music”—or, in Seamus Heaney’s words, “a music you would never have known to listen for.” The corridors of academic theology have been very slow to see this—or hear it!
I should add that I’ve tried to keep music and faith together on a practical level as well. Even though I’m a theologian by profession, I devour books on music, I still perform quite a bit, and I have many friends and associates in the music business.
Image: You have written about your love for the music of Bach, going back to your childhood. You see his music both as honoring creation’s rich order as well as being a thoroughly arduous human activity of construction. How has your perception of Bach expanded over the years?
JB: As a child, I was very excited to find I shared the same initials as J.S. Bach. But I found him very hard to play; infuriating, in fact. Just when you think you’ve got the idea of what he’s up to, he springs a surprise on you and takes you in directions you never could have predicted. However, once you’ve got over this, and go with him, you find that what he gets you playing makes wonderful sense.
And that’s one of the secrets of his greatness. His music is rarely predictable but at the same time it’s wonderfully coherent; full of surprise and yet full of consistency. The Christian faith is shot through with this interplay. Just think of the resurrection of Jesus: unforeseeable, startling, and yet, once it had happened, the first Christians began to see it was congruent with the deepest levels of Jewish hope.
Or think of the Christians we admire most: they will likely be marked by flexibility, not stuck in ruts, not running in straight and predictable lines. Yet they will not be capricious or arbitrary; they will have a reliability and dependability about them, because their lives revolve around a central melody, the cantus firmus of Jesus Christ. Bach plays out this combination in a particularly intense and beguiling way, to an extent that has perhaps never been equaled. Even the most hardened atheist musicologists have recognized this, and have commented on how fitting it is for a composer who perceived reality in a Christian way.
And yes, as you suggest, there’s a sense of naturalness in Bach: part of what he is doing (and saw himself doing) was exploring the given properties of physical sound (especially the overtone series) to a degree unparalleled in the history of music; but he does so in a stupendously inventive and resourceful way. He shows that discovery and creativity can go together, and he does this at a time when European culture was increasingly seeing these as mutually exclusive options.
Image: Can you give me an example of how Bach helps listeners to perceive what you’ve described as “rich complexity in the apparently simple,” and how that resonates with the work of God?
JB: The pieces that come to mind are those where Bach takes a meager and very simple theme or chord progression and explores it in such a way that you hear more and more in that unit of music. A classic example would be the famous Goldberg Variations, where Bach gives us thirty variations on a gentle, unpretentious little sarabande (a stately dance). At the very end—after about an hour and a quarter—he asks for the aria to be played again, a note-for-note repetition of what we heard at the beginning. But now we can’t hear it apart from the memory of the extraordinary things Bach has shown us through it. In other words, now we hear this aria not simply as a replication of what we heard before; we hear it as varied, replete with diversity. It has gathered to itself a richness, a huge variety of moods and colors. Bach makes us hear more in what we hear, so to speak. And that’s what he does best. The modern physicist, we are often told, seeks economical, elegant explanations and theories of the physical world, but she knows that whatever simplicity she discovers carries within it a marvelous complexity. This very naturally resonates with a Christian perception of the world as the creation of a God whose own unity is not reducible to a bland simplicity, but is a three-fold life of infinite generativity.
Image: Besides classical music, you like jazz. What is there in improvisational jazz that you find theologically compelling?
JB: I am not really a jazz musician, though I have dabbled a little in that world. But let’s remember that improvisation is something all performing musicians do, whether they play jazz or not. The poet Peter Riley speaks of improvisation as “the exploration of occasion.” Every performer adapts to the hall, the audience, the time of day, and so on. You never play the same piece in the same way. You play in a way that hooks up with this time and this place, these people. Even where composers give you detailed instructions in a score, they can’t cover everything—there’s always room to explore the occasion.
Improvisation is compelling theologically because it embodies a basic dynamic at the heart of God’s ways with the world: the Holy Spirit takes the “givenness” of what has happened in Christ, and brings it alive in ever fresh ways in ever new contexts. Moreover, God can take our most catastrophic mistakes and re-create them, make them serve his drama. That’s the wonder of what Christians call salvation; it is not simply a matter of being acquitted, let off a penalty, but of being re-created, remade for a new future.
Just because of this, improvisation also embodies the dynamic of discipleship, as writers like Kevin Vanhoozer and Sam Wells have shown us. God does not give us instructions in Scripture for every eventuality (though perhaps we wish he had done that). When you ask me a question in this interview, I don’t run to the Bible to get my answer. But through the work of the Holy Spirit, and with other Christians past and present, the Bible does train me in Christ-like habits of mind and heart which, I hope, will give me the wisdom to say what is needed at this particular time and place for you and your readers. And in turn, I hope that these feeble words will be improvised fruitfully into the lives of your readers, doubtless in ways I cannot predict.
Image: In one of your books, you mention a revered teacher who told you that if there is a central malaise of modernity, it concerns the integrity of creation and our relation to it. What was there about that teacher that influenced you?
JB: He had many qualities and skills I admired. But, not least, he could identify what really mattered, and express it clearly. And he believed that the crucial pathology in the growth of what we call modernity was the way humans have become alienated from the physical world at large (“disembedded,” as Charles Taylor puts it), regarding themselves as mere souls waiting for escape, or intellects hampered by physical bodies. And, as a matter of fact, I think he’s right.
I think this kind of skill lies at the heart of all great scholarship and teaching—and preaching, for that matter—the ability to find the centers around which the wheels turn. My teacher had an uncanny knack of pinpointing the key themes and melodies that held the symphony of the Gospel together.
Image: In your book Sounding the Depths, written several years ago, you wrote that the arts have an immense integrative power, reuniting the intellect with the physical and emotional. What is the significance of this reunification?
JB: I’m not sure I would put it like that today. This could suggest there are three bits of us—the intellectual, the physical, and the emotional—which need to be joined up somehow. And it might suggest the arts have some kind of super-status, with the power to solve all our problems.
However, I do believe there are serious imbalances in our culture which are, at root, about the way humans have come to think of themselves. And I do believe the arts have a crucial role in restoring balance by reminding us that there is a way of perceiving the world and speaking about it that needs to be reintegrated into our lives.
To my mind, the best way of coming at this is along the lines suggested by the psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist in his important book The Master and His Emissary. Among other things, he draws a careful contrast between literal, or “naming” language, which he believes evolves because of humans’ need to identify and control objects in the world, and metaphorical speech, which is multiply allusive, going beyond what is functionally required, reminding us that we are embedded in a world that is always beyond our grasp and control. (There is far more to his book than this, but this is one strand in the argument.) He links the arts to the second category, and his ideas have been carried forward by Rowan Williams in his Gifford lectures. Both of these writers seem to believe—as I do—that metaphor lies somewhere near the heart of what we call art. Metaphors are all directly rooted in bodily action and experience (it’s hard to think of a good metaphor that doesn’t draw on bodily experience), and they have a distinctively powerful emotional charge, so to speak. Also, they are intrinsically irreducible. Although they may have a central focus (the best ones are not vague), you can’t tie the meaning of a metaphor down to one fixed unit. Much the same can be said of the arts.
We should be careful not to jump from this to say that the metaphorical is superior to the literal, that the arts deliver more truth than anything else, or that the sciences are inherently dangerous. (Some artists love to hear this kind of talk, but it is overblown and unhelpful.) Rather, the arts give expression to a metaphorical way of perceiving the world—a bodily, emotionally charged outlook which reminds us there is always more to the world than we can name, control, and grasp. And McGilchrist is saying that we badly need to recover this today, because our culture has too easily assumed that truth is accessed solely and supremely through a particular kind of naming language which tries to pin things down.
Image: However, you also make the point in one of your books that music’s emotionally charged outlook can be controversial, and that music can be misused to manipulate. How so?
JB: A big question needing a big answer. Let me make a few comments. Some fear music’s emotional power because they fear any emotional experience. Many Christians are wary of music in worship for this reason. But what we should be wary of is not emotion, but emotion that is inappropriate. My terror of a harmless woodlouse on the other side of the room is inappropriate; my fear of a cobra about to spit in my eyes is very appropriate. The key question is: “is the emotion we are experiencing through this music appropriate in this context?” Very often, that’s a tough question to answer—but it’s the most important one, I think.
Others fear manipulation. It’s been shown that at a restaurant, classical music will encourage people to buy the more expensive items on a menu. The Nazis used music extensively to whip crowds into mass responses. The examples multiply. A couple of things need to be said here. First, music always comes with other media; it is never experienced on its own. What you see when you hear a piece of music, for example, massively affects the way you hear it. Manipulation usually arises when someone tries to grab you on all fronts at the same time. The Nazi rallies are a case in point: every sense was engaged, and music was only one part of the mix. So let’s be careful not to blame everything on the music. Second, things get dangerous when you use kinds of music with a very small emotional bandwidth. For example, if the only kind of song you ever sing in church uses only three major chords, always has a steady tempo of about eighty beats a minute, and has melodies which include virtually no dissonant intervals, then you will be working with music of a very restricted emotional range. In some contexts, that can be manipulative, because you’re narrowing the emotional possibilities dramatically.
Image: Science often comes to the fore in your thinking about the resonance of music and theology, particularly in the idea of interpenetrating space, God’s “triune space.” You have also written about evolution and the misunderstanding that arises from what you call overactive imaginations on both sides of the issue. Could you explain?
JB: I was making the point that extreme “evolutionary naturalists”—those who believe that evolution can explain all, and who thus deny the possibility that any kind of god exists—are not in fact being scientific; they are taking some valid discoveries from science and letting their imagination inflate them into an entire worldview. The picture of the world as a giant closed machine, entirely explicable without recourse to any kind of god, is an imaginative vision, not the result of science—nothing in evolutionary theory demands any such outlook, as Darwin saw clearly. The imagination has got carried away.
In the same way, those who insist that evolutionary science demands belief in a creator god are, paradoxically, falling into the same trap. Their imagination produces another picture out of pieces of scientific evidence, this time with a god in view. But it is typically a very dubious picture—far too much like a “god of the gaps,” a god who is pulled in to explain events in the world we can’t (yet) explain by science. Again, the imagination has got carried away.
The Christian imagination, I suggest, needs to be disciplined first of all not by scientific method (valid as that is within limits), but by the Scriptures, which means listening to the heart of what these texts actually tell us about the world we live in: that the entire universe, with space and time, depends on God at every point for its existence—for its origin, purpose, and goal. This means that a theological account of creation is not a rival to a scientific account. Science is not qualified to adjudicate on the existence or otherwise of a creator.
And then, I think, we need to see that the artist has a crucial role to play in helping us perceive and believe this grand vision. The artist can help us to see the world as the creation of the God of Jesus Christ. There are all sorts of possibilities here. The arts can help us see (and feel) that the world can never be captured by one level of explanation (by, say, the physical sciences). As Rowan Williams has recently argued, the artist reminds us that there’s always more to what we perceive. Because the arts are so multiply suggestive and allusive, they can remind us that the world is always more than we make of it. And that very naturally pushes in a theological direction.
What’s more, the artist can help us imagine the ultimate future of the world—its re-creation by God—something the natural sciences are not equipped to demonstrate. Christian art, I believe, whatever else it evokes, will surely have a dimension of promise about it, a flavor of hope.
Image: Given that you spend half of your academic year at Duke Divinity School and the other half at Cambridge University, somehow finding time to write books, to say nothing of attending lovingly to the needs of your family and friends, how do you find time to practice piano? In fact, how does practice fit into your theology of music? How does the making of music differ from the listening to music?
JB: I’ve always made an effort to keep up a practical involvement in music-making. It is important to me. To begin with, it’s hugely enjoyable and fulfilling. To produce sounds, and in a way that might enrich someone else’s life—well, that is an astonishing privilege. I suppose, to speak on the grandest level, it’s part of that cultural calling that makes us human: to take the things of the earth and fashion them into patterns that bring delight.
Making music also orders your thinking in unique ways; when you are playing, you’re not thinking in words or concepts, but you’re still thinking. I find that exercising my mind through making music means I can think more clearly about other things. Many studies have shown that learning an instrument often improves one’s ability to solve problems in other areas of life. In addition to all this, playing music with others (or to others) teaches you a lot about communication—about listening, waiting, keeping silent, responding, making the best of something given to you, coordinating your movements with others. Not least, it teaches you a lot about emotional empathy—how to read the emotional state of another person. All this makes musical education crucial for school kids, by the way.
Image: Do you compose?
JB: Yes. I compose when music is needed for a particular occasion. I don’t compose because I need to compose. And in any case, there are fantastic composers out there who make a much better job of it than I ever could.
Composing convincing music is incredibly hard; it takes me ages. And for me, a piece builds up slowly. I have just finished a series of pieces to be interwoven with the poetry of Micheal O’Siadhail for a music festival at King’s College, Cambridge. The music gradually came together over several weeks, most of all just by reading and rereading the poetry.
Image: You often lecture while sitting at the piano, playing music to illustrate a theological point, such as the relationship between a three-note chord and the Trinity. What kind of responses do you get from your audiences, and do those responses surprise you?
JB: I generally find people listen much more carefully to what I say when I play the piano. I don’t play in order to get people to escape from words, but in order to help them hear more in and through words, in order that words can come alive in fresh ways.
Any psychologist would tell you that communication involves much more than one medium, and that media interact with each other in complex ways. When someone speaks to you, you hear words, but you also see facial expressions and bodily movement which make a difference to what you understand by those words, sometimes a huge difference.
I think that music makes you experience in sound things that can change the way you think. To take the example you cite: the three-note chord and the Trinity. To experience a three-note chord is to experience a kind of space in which three things (heard notes) can occupy the same space (the space you hear) while being perceived as different. That is not possible with the eye. We can’t see three different colors in the same space as different. They will hide each other, or merge into something else. Hearing a chord can change our mental categories, and in ways that allow the Bible’s witness to the Trinity to be heard far more clearly. I have used this example in hundreds of places: schools, colleges, universities, churches; with believers, agnostics, and atheists.
Image: Beginning in 1997, you headed a unique project titled Theology through the Arts, based at Cambridge, in which artists and Christian thinkers collaborated. You personally were involved in the collaboration between composer Paul Spicer and theologian Tom Wright that resulted in their Easter Oratorio. Tell us about that experience.
JB: Tom Wright wrote an incredible text on the Easter story, based on the last chapters of John’s Gospel. Paul set them to music, and the piece—a huge work for a vast choir and orchestra—was eventually recorded. What did I learn? I learned about the power of sustained conversation in the context of deep trust. Tom is very musical, and Paul is a deeply thoughtful Christian. Even so, I guess I played the role of interpreting one to the other. The best moments were the moments of disagreement. Once Tom really thought Paul had misunderstood one of his texts, and they respected each other enough to be very blunt with each other. I think Paul made some changes, but Tom was made to think about dimensions of his own texts he had never intended.
Image: Now you are leading a similar effort at Duke University. What types of projects are underway, and where do you hope this initiative leads?
JB: At Duke Divinity School we have started a series of activities, Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts, which sets out to demonstrate a vibrant interplay between theology and the arts. We have set up courses and put on a range of artistic events. But the core of it is research: I am trying to stimulate and encourage the best Christian minds I know to take the arts seriously.
The major research project we are just getting underway is called Theology, Modernity, and the Arts; it is a collaborative venture between Duke and Cambridge. The story of our culture’s wrestling with God—and wrestling against God—has been told in many ways, but the arts are often left to one side. This project seeks to show the role the arts have played in this story, and how they might help us address some of the dilemmas and dead-ends which modernity has left us.
Centering on the biblical theme of new creation, the project began during Holy Week 2015 with a week of meetings and public events at King’s College, Cambridge. The events included an exhibition of paintings by Mako Fujimura and Bruce Herman, two lectures by Rowan Williams, a performance of Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen, a reading of new poems by Micheal O’Siadhail, and a performance by the King’s College Choir of James MacMillan’s Duke-commissioned St. Luke Passion, conducted by the composer.
A number of convictions guide Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts as a whole. I’ll mention two of them. First, when it comes to the interplay between faith and the arts, we need dynamic and imaginative leaders. I am delighted to say we have a cohort of brilliant research students at Duke. I see them as key pioneers of the future.
Second, I am convinced that we need to draw far more fully on what Richard Hays, my colleague at Duke, calls a “scriptural imagination.” I am puzzled by the way that many at work in the faith-and-arts arena will gravitate for inspiration towards certain venerable traditions—such as Thomism, Catholic reflection on beauty, nineteenth-century accounts of the imagination, modern notions of aesthetics or creativity, and so forth—but will give the Christian Bible only a passing glance. Of course, I believe much can be learned from the well-worn traditions (carefully sifted), but there is a wealth of scholarship becoming available now which is designed to show how utterly unusual and world-changing the New Testament documents are, what a strange “imaginary” (as Charles Taylor would put it) emerges from them, one of infinite generativity and fruitfulness. Artists and theologians need to be reaping the benefits of this writing—and indeed to be contributing to it—so that together we can discover dimensions of the Gospel we have long forgotten or never properly grasped.
Image: If the arts flower best in a community where dialogue is encouraged, what is the role of the church?
JB: The church’s role is to foster fruitful communication—an intensity of listening and speaking that only the Holy Spirit can bring about. If the arts are to flourish as part of the church’s witness and worship, then church leaders need to get inside the skin of artists, to understand who they are, what they do, and why they do it. Congregations need to be educated (yes, educated) in how to access and enter into what is sometimes a strange and unsettling world: how to “read” visual art, to hear “in between the notes” of music, and so on. By the same token, artists need to love the congregation and the pastor, which means keeping off high horses, and helping those who struggle with the arts to develop eyes to see and ears to hear.