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A Theology of Church Music

by F. Thomas Trotter

A graduate of Occidental College (AB) and Boston University (STB, Ph.D), Trotter was Dean and Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology. Later he was General Secretary of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church and President of Alaska Pacific University. His special interests are in religion and the arts and religion in higher education. This essay appeared in Loving God With One’s Mind, by F. Thomas Trotter, copyright 1987 by the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church. Used by permission. This document was prepared for Religion Online by William E. Chapman.


It is commonly assumed that music in the church is embellishment of worship, somewhat in the same category as architecture or stained glass windows. Church musicians, while deploring this lower estate, do not often make the case for the theological function of their vocation. Reflection upon the nature of religious experience and the art of music reveals the possibility that music is, in fact, the complete mode of bearing the structure of worship.

How to say the unsayable? That is the dilemma of religion. The ways of speaking about unspeakable events intrude upon the appreciation of those events. So religion is always thrust into two modes: creating symbols and studiously avoiding any expression. The former takes the forms as diverse as literal representations (idols) and scientific "explanation" (systematic theology). The latter takes forms such as iconoclasm (smashing idols) and quietism (inner experience).

The history of the Christian movement can be described as the alternation between these various modes. The early church centered its life around the memory of great events and the reenactment of those events in living expression. This was followed by the rationalizing of the events into dogma which became "science" or systematized knowledge. As such, it almost always took discursive shapes. Thus idolized, dogma was broken by iconoclastic movements that returned to expressive modes in the periods of reformation. One may suggest that the power of events always dominates and cracks the theological frameworks that seek to "explain" or to "capture" events. Marianne Moore once suggested that "expanded explanation tends to spoil the lion_s leap." And in periods of despair about "explanation" of the events of God, anxious spirits yearn for new language. "God is the no longer sayable," said the German poet Rilke, "and his attributes fly back into creation."

Music alone survives this dilemma. Of all the ways of speaking in religion, music exists in time and not space. It exists at the intersections of profoundly empirical, physical, and intellectual ways of dealing with events. Its forms are expressive and not didactic. Its capacity for the creative occasion of celebration is modulated by the entire range of human emotion. Its most contemporary forms are coherent with its entire history. It is amenable to the private as well as the public expression of response to events. In its choral forms, it is capable of the disciplined authority of a community speaking together. In short, music is the context of the widest possible theological expression.

Neo-Platonic philosophy (vastly influential in early Christian thought) often resorted to the metaphors of music to describe the world itself. The phrase "the music of the spheres" in the popular hymn by Babcock is a vestigial expression of the early belief that the world itself "made music" as it moved in its ordained rounds. Mimesis is possible in music. The power of natural events is recreated in the expressions of music. So the great supernatural events of religious faith are best "described" by music whereas they may appear problematic in discursive speech. Note that the mighty events recorded in the New Testament are often given musical settings, as in the Christmas stories and in the apocalyptic visions of the Revelation of John.

Music, existing in time, is the art most congenial to the imagination. It participates in the "environment" of a person_s space without taking up space. As such, it does not "crowd" belief by the risks of location or space or thing-ness. Therefore, it is most congenial to the Judeo-Christian sense for the non-spatial character of God. But because it is formed by natural organs, such as voices, brass, wood, and animal skins, it also participates in the natural, spatial world as well.

This coincidence of time and space, nature and supernature, makes possible the metaphor of the creative event itself. Since religion assumes the meeting of the transcendent and the immanent, the event of music permits the ever new event, powerful in its newness yet linked in time and memory with faith. That is why Alex Robertson could say, "To sing the chorales of Bach is for the disbeliever to experience the suspension of disbelief."

Church musicians are engaged in serious theological work. This may not seriously be admitted by the clergy but it is true. In its lower forms of misunderstanding, church music may be seen as mere embellishment of an event that is more adequately carried by discursive speech. The sermon is a kind of theology and in its more powerful shapes it does have the same authority as music. But that authority probably will be due to the rhythmic and tonal structure of the sermon as much as anything else. In black preaching, we come close to preaching as solo and choral music. But preaching cannot command the full range of possibilities inherent in music as expressive form. Thus it is that the theology of a period strangely survives in its religious music and not in its discursive speech. We still sing hymns from the third century, but who but scholars read the sermons of that period? Plainchant survives but the medieval homilies have not. The Reformation lives in its hymns as does the evangelical revival of the 18th century in Wesley and Watts. The irony is that the medium most dependent upon time is in fact the most timeless medium.

These observations are not intended to radicalize church musicians in their continuing struggle with clerical Philistines. But they are intended to give a preliminary suggestion of the profoundly theological structure of church music and to encourage understanding and even appropriation of the role of "theologian" as proper for the church musician.


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