Music as Theology
Jan. 19, 2014
Some of the Protestant churches, along with Charismatic groups, have had success with attracting young people through their use of music to animate services. This is much more than a superficial matter, as Maeve Louise Heaney has pointed out.
Heaney, a member of the Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity, has published a book titled: “Music as Theology: What Music Says about the Word,” (Princeton Theological Monograph Series.”)
“Born of my missionary call to evangelization, the book seeks to ask the question of why music seems to be such a helpful bridge for many people to faith, and to seek a theological response and indeed paradigm to help us ‘comprehend’ that fact,” Heaney said in comments made to ZENIT recently about her book.
The title of the book “Music as Theology” is no accident. It would be possible to say “music and theology,” but Heaney noted in the book’s introduction that this does not demand enough of an examination about the relationship of the two terms. Or it could be “music in theology,” but then this might suggest that music is a sort of added extra.
“If theology is ‘faith seeking understanding,’ could music not also be theological,” she asked.
The book covers a wide variety of themes, ranging from musicology, ethnomusicology and musical semiotics, as well as examining the area of theological epistemology.
One of Heaney’s aims, she explained to ZENIT, was to seek “to ground our apprehension of music and how it affects us in the overall picture of human openness to God and knowledge of God in Christ.”
The book, she continued, “presents the ancient yet under-explored doctrine of the Ascension, and Jesus’ continuing embodied presence in the Mystical Body of Christ as the appropriate framework in which to approach music’s power in the transmission of Christian faith.”
“In Christ, we live, move and have our being, and in a world and time in which people are not only alienated from God, but also often from their own embodied selves, music born of the experience of that faith presents itself as a powerful means of awakening to the presence of God in our midst,” she commented.
In her book she goes into much more detail on this theme. In a chapter on “Towards a Hermeneutical Understanding of Music,” she explained that she wasn’t concerned about particular styles or genres of music but was trying to understand music “as a means of mediating Christian faith.”
“Theologically speaking, it is consistent with the basic Christian doctrine and theology of all human beings made in the image and likeness of God, and therefore doted with the capacity to emulate and collaborate with the Creator in their activities, music making included.”
Therefore, Heaney noted, it is not just a question of appreciating and integrating music in living our faith, but Christians should create music that expresses what we believe in and transmits this experience.
Passing on our faith to others in a time of such rapid change means that communicating centuries of our heritage and traditions to others is more difficult in today’s society.
“The difficulty in contemporary western culture is not just that people don’t understand God, the Word of God; they don’t seem to understand themselves or the world either,” Heaney observed.
The body of Christ
Music is powerful, she commented, because our faith is embodied and not just a mental act. Therefore, music affects our embodied spirits. One of the book’s chapters is titled: “Theology of the Body of Christ and Contemporary Music.”
The second person of the Trinity became human and took on human flesh becoming one person with two natures, Heaney observed.
She also went on to reflect about the Ascension of Our Lord. The Ascension does not imply a withdrawal of the presence of Christ, but rather his being present in a different way. Thus, we have the doctrine of the mystical body of Christ and the role of Christ as a mediator between God and humanity.
How is this related to music? Not all music, Heaney added, creates a bridge with the presence of Christ. Yet, St Paul, she noted, urged the early Christian communities to sign psalms, hymns and inspired songs (Eph 5:15).
Encountering Christ transforms ourselves and our way of interacting with the world around us. “This book suggests that music can be an important means of entering into and nurturing this transformed embodied Christian life,” Heaney affirmed.
Theology, she urged, needs to make an effort to understand how music can aid this transformed awareness. “We are embodied creatures, and our relationship with God in Christ is in and through our bodies, and his,” Heaney stated in the book’s ending chapter. Music is one way in which we can seek to reach out to God and to come in contact with him, just as Thomas wanted to touch the body of the risen Christ, she concluded.
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