Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.
Friday, April 2, 2010
Theology between speech and song
(This post is in part a reflection on some points made by John Burnett at his blog here).
I've mentioned before that I'm a musician. Not a great one; I play keyboard well enough to comp my way through some jazz standards and to have played in a few rock bands (you wouldn't have heard of us); and I can sing. My vocal music has been mostly choral (I had too little stamina and too many inhibitions to be a lead singer, though I liked to chime in in the background), and now that I'm not in a band anymore, I sing mainly in the car, and in choir of my Episcopal parish. This, as you might imagine, is a little bit of a shift in style (the style of my Anglo-Catholic parish is more Thomas Tallis than "praise songs"). (I still get my rock'n'roll in the car.)
On Good Friday, I had been asked to sing in my parish's passion narrative. Specifically, I was asked to sing the part of Jesus, which turns out to be a somewhat important role. Happily, I did not choke up (thanks to good coaching and timely advice by the woman who has hitherto sung the part--"just remember," she told me, "it's all a conversation between you and Pilate, or you and Caiaphas, you you and whoever"), and my somewhat softer voice turned out to be an asset (you don't really want a strident Jesus).
This experience, and that of singing regularly in a liturgical setting generally, has helped to crystallize a few reflections (still quite tentaive) I've had for a while about music and theology.
Once upon a time, as our contemporary demythology would have it, it was possible for a Christian believer to declare their faith in a more or less unproblematic way. "Ascending into Heaven," for instance, or for that matter, "rising again on the third day" were not especially challenging notions in a culture that imagined heaven as a place to which one could ascend, and which took miracles for granted.
Hmmm. Well, I have my doubts about this scenario. The idea that the Resurrection was somehow easy to swallow by the credulous age of Cicero, Virgil, and Seneca, of Hillel, Gamaliel, and Akiva, to say nothing of that reluctant enthusiast St. Paul, strikes me as, shall we say, a bit of an over-simplicifation. I didn't really need N.T. Wright to convince me of this, but it's nice to have his solid, sane and magisterial scholarship to remind us that death has always been seen as the great irreversible, no less to the first century A.D. world than to today's. Likewise, whatever undoubtedly separates ancient cosmology from our own, and notwithstanding both the verb "ascended" and various artistic depictions of the Ascension, I am unconvinced that the faith of the ancient church included a heaven that could be reached if one traveled perpendicularly to the earth's surface far enough--at least, if we are talking about the saints whose experience informed the creedal definitions.
Still, one has to admit that those stories and declarations exist-- "On the third day he rose again...He ascended into Heaven..." "the communion of saints, the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting..." And of course, it's not unlikely that many people did believe in a Heaven spatially located "up there;" not just because it's intuitively "obvious" to our embodied minds, but because it seems that a number of people still do.
I'm not going to turn this blog into a pulpit. But I want to make a suggestion about how Christian doctrine, or indeed religious doctrine in general, can be apprehended in a way that offers a high road around certain easy (too easy) objections that are often made against it. My approach may raise as many difficulties as it solves, but I think these new difficulties are more interesting and more profitable.
I start with the hypotheses, first, that the best guide to the meaning of a religious tradition is not the overt statement of belief, but the patterns of worship--the liturgies--that shape the life of individual and community; and secondly that those liturgies which are most conservative will best manifest the formative intuitions of the traditions in question.
The liturgical traditions that best preserve their antique practices--Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and Orthodox Judaism--are also, and not coincidentally, the most sung liturgies. To this day the one Jewish rite of passage that every gentile knows the name of, the occasion that marks the entry of the young Jew into the adult community, requires the careful learning and recitation of scripture not as a memorized text alone but as enshrined in a melody that may be more than two millennia old.
This could simply mean that religious traditions, inherently conservative, tend to keep their forms; if it was sung back in the olden days, and no Zwingli or Henry VIII has come along in the meantime, it's likely to still be sung today. This is true so far as it goes, but more is involved than resistance to change. In fact it is well known that liturgical forms do change. But until the Reformation, the sung or chanted character of all scriptural texts was a given. And when one actually pays attention to the character of this recitation, one notes something.
Given any text at all to read, one is immediately faced choices, choices about speed, volume, emphasis, tone, emotion; choices that multiply with every word. To speak aloud even a single written sentence is not an innocent act; with every syllable, one construes the silent text into a heard experience. And this transformation always imbues the written word with something not on the page. A reading can be "dramatic" or wooden, seamless or awkward, inspiring or confusing; but it is never "just the text." This is not, n.b., a function of bad readers. There are plenty of bad readers--readers whose voice rises and falls in pitch, crescendos and dies to a whisper; readers whose emotions spill over; readers who can't resist the extra pause before what they see as the poignant moment or the punchline; who can't, in short, avoid telling you what text "means" in their manner of reading it. The great irony is that those readers who are the most "boring"--the most monotone, the least "inspiring"--are the closest to the ancient practice of chant--minus, of course, most of the beauty of the form. What a chanted text gives you is--ideally--the text minus the interpreting ego of the reader; for the multitude of possibilities of tone of voice, chant gives a single, clear tone. ("Ideally," I said; of course the more the cantor concentrates on technique or "effect," the more the ego intrudes. A chanted scriptural text is not an operatic recitative.)
The Bible (as it currently stands) is meant to be sung. A look at the Hebrew text confirms this-- the Masoretic text includes both vowel points and te'amim or cantillation marks (though a kosher Torah scroll for synagogue use omits these [thanks to John Burnett for setting me straight on this matter]). In the case of the New Testament the case is more complex; there is no single canonical text, no similarly universal tradition of cantillation, and no single set of melodies; but the ancient liturgical practice in both east and west, and continuous to this day in many traditions, is certainly the chanting of all texts with the exception of the homily (and for all I know, even this sometimes).
Having now spent a good while in the choir singing a lot of liturgical material, especially the psalms, I have noticed something about how music impacts the reception of texts. Bypassing the ego of the singer, the chanted text also largely bypasses those of the listeners. When I am singing a text about, say, the resurrection of the dead, I am never concerned to ask "what is the resurrection supposed to be like?" The questions of the "literal" ramifications of a sung text do not arise. This is very different from reading a text, listening to it be read. Unless one is simply swept along in a narrative, the questions "did that actually happen?", or "what did that really look like?" inevitably arise. But this is not the case when one sings or hears music. One can ask if a story is true, but no one asks if this is a true song.
The sung text is addressed, as it were, to a different faculty of the soul than is the spoken text. The Bible was not intended by the peoples that produced it to be evaluated in terms of historical or scientific veracity; and far less in terms of "futural" accuracy or indeed of rules for living. (There are some elements of all of these in the original textual strata of the Bible, the so-called J, E, D, and P texts and their hypothetical cousins; but even in those cases--and I must emphasize how speculative all reconstructions of the "original text" are--I am convinced that the ancients never meant just what a modern literalist would mean by the questions "is that how it really happened?" or "when will this happen?" or indeed "is that, then, how I must live?") The Bible as chanted--which is to say, the Bible read as the text we have asks to be read--is not primarily aimed at the parts of the human person that makes those evaluations. This doesn't mean that music is a sneaky way for Biblical fundamentalism to get past the mind's bullshit detectors. Rather, it means that those who shaped the Biblical text in its current form were not fundamentalists.
Well, then, what is the Bible? For a long time I took pleasure and relief (after being raised in a more or less biblical literalist household) in realizing that the Bible was a sort of "library," i.e., not a single book but a collection of disparate material from many eras. In this I am pretty much a died-in-the-wool subscriber to the "Documentary Hypothesis" in its loosest form. I think there is little real question that the Bible as we have it was "edited together" as a process, the very last phase of which happened probably as a response to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. Although I remain cheerfully agnostic about any particular accounts of this process and especially about attempts to reconstruct the "sources," the basic notion that something like these sources existed once and were used to make the text we now have cannot, I think, withstand serious question.
With that caveat, however, I have to say that the Bible is meant by its final editors as a whole, as one story. And that is really what the Bible is: a story. A story, moreover, that has been extremely carefully shaped, down to the level of the letter sometimes and certainly to the words. What makes the Biblical story different--and to its detractors, pernicious--is that it's a story that invites you inside, that asks you to see yourself as living within it in some sense.
But in what sense? Did I not just say, or imply, that the Bible is neither a book of cosmology, nor of history, nor of foretellings, nor or rules of conduct? And if it's not these, then how exactly am I supposed to "live" it?
One "enters", consciously participates, in the Biblical story, in the sort of manner I have already tried to indicate with regard to poetry: by metalepsis. But lest this sound like some esoteric and/or question-begging answer, let me rephrase it. As I have mentioned earlier, metalepsis (which just means "participation") happens in liturgy. The liturgical setting and enactment is what makes possible the present-tense living in the story; the cyclical nature of the liturgy is how one gets a sense of the story as being a whole, and not a set of discrete parts labeled "the message for us today." In short, you don't get liturgy on a one-time basis, you have to swim there; but outside of the liturgy, the sung liturgy, you don't get Christian scripture "as it understands itself" at all.
I do not know enough about the Vedas, the Sutras, the Qur'an, or other scriptures, though I would not be astonished to learn that something like this is true of them as well; i.e., that they too are not primarily, and certainly not solely, intended for the mental faculty that asks, "is that what the camera would have recorded?" My suspicion is that they too must be "entered into" in a way that is very different from simply coming at them with questions.
Questions of historical truth and falsity are not irrelevant; the human faculties which ask after this are, after all, part of the human being, and the Biblical message is about the whole person. "How is the resurrection of the dead supposed to be possible?" has a meaning, but only within the story. And I'm rather strongly suggesting that one can't tell the story from the outside at all, and that one can't tell it from within, in any way but song.
This rather hyperbolic claim is not one for which I am sure I want to go all the way to the wall, but I am putting it in this admittedly provocative form, precisely to highlight the potential problems. I'm willing to face up to the difficult questions that follow--hopefully in dialogue--but I don't think anything is served by hiding how difficult they are. In short, am I really suggesting that the critique made by the intellectual faculties (those that do ask "did it really happen that way?") simply can't touch the Biblical story because-- well, because that sort of discourse doesn't sing? No. In fact I'd say that the discursive intellect does "sing," albeit in a different register; the texts of the creeds for instance are sculpted by and for the intellect as well; but then they were made also to be sung. Theology is a dialogue of singing and speech.
Even this blog post, one will note, is read, and not sung; it is thinking reflection upon experience of a different order. One steps in and out of music. But the intuition of wisdom is that this stepping in and out happens according to a deeper music.