Monday, October 01, 2012

The Music of My Mind: liturgical use of music as cultural and spiritual formation?

Likewise he [Paul] does not establish Christian practice upon the renewing of the conscience, but upon that of the mind. 

Adolf Schlatter
Romans: the Righteousness of God
page 62

Romans 12:2
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.

A great deal of Christian teaching emphasizes the importance of proper action.  Without attempting to cast any question on the significance of Christian ethical teaching Schlatter proposed that to frame Paul's instruction and theology in Romans on an assumption that the conscience is actually a guide is problematic.  The conscience may excuse rather than accuse the self before God even though no one is beyond God's judgment.  Instead Christians are urged to be transformed by the renewing of the mind.

A conscience may be a thing where we wish to feel differently and have different feelings about the things we want and do, but the renewal of the mind would seem to indicate a different way of thinking.  The renewal of the mind and the transformation of the mind sure don't sound like swift Keswickian moments of sanctification as best I understand things.  How is the mind transformed?

Very slowly, through a great deal of explanation and repetition, doing the same things over and over again until one thinks naturally about how to go about or think through a thing.  We took this path in learning to ride bicycles or to draw cats or to play the guitar or to drive a car or to close a sale.  How is this done?  For Protestants with some pietist sympathies, perhaps, this might be done through "quiet time" or reading the Bible a lot.  But simply reading the Bible a lot wouldn't necessarily accomplish anything, would it?  Meditating is called for but what do we even mean by that?  That's too long a topic to attempt to discuss.  I am suggesting that a common way in which the mind is transformed and trained by dint of habit is through music.

Worship wars can be cast as battles over the music that is sung but since in theory all these songs are about God and the Christian faith the debates may not be about the music as music.  You get the same sets of major and minor keys and chords and the same notes are essentially available to all humans whether they believe in any gods or not.  Music can be seen as an "expression" of the mind or heart but  the debates about music as a way to ENGINEER a particular mind or heart goes all the way back to, for instance, Plato's Republic.  We simply don't sing about things we don't love with all or nearly all of who we are.  There are satirical songs but these satires have their power becasue they take up what could be the sincere expression of affection, loyalty, and mental devotion in another and make fun of that.

A life of music that is entirely silly and satirical will not be a musical life that becomes more than a niche market.  There is probably not going to be a time when Frank Zappa's songs actually have more longevity than Mozart symphonies because Frank Zappa rarely seemed to take the mask off long enough to have written songs about things he was sincerely for.  His widow once said that Frank never wrote songs about love.  So unlike the Beatles or Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones or even Led Zeppelin the music of Frank Zappa doesn't appeal to a larger audience than the audience it has.  The music of Haydn and Mozart show that you can be possessed of a great deal of wit without that wit having to constitute an insuperable emotional distance between you and your intended audience.  If you use wry, sardonic humor to invite the audience into a shared experience then your music will resonate with them.  If you use wry, sardonic humor to establish a level of insulation between yourself and who you think your audience is they may still dig it.  Whether or not your fan base may be like those metalheads who watched Beavis & Butthead and didn't realize they themselves were the object of Mike Judge's satire is for some other day and other people to think about.

In a majority of cases music is discussed as though it comes from the heart and goes to the heart.  Sure ... but music begins in the mind and is worked out through the mind.  A great deal of debate about what the role of music ought to be and how it works has strolled along as though the cognitive processes of even recognizing music are somehow a given.  They aren't.  It seems obvious to me that debates about music are debates about how music should be employed to condition the mind as well as the heart.  Perceiving music and listening to music involves the brain at a level where more than just the "emotional" parts of the brain have to do a great deal of work for music to have its affect.  When music  "speaks" to us in a language we understand we may all be able to understand that music is a language but Stevie Wonder may have been too optimistic when he sang that music is a world unto itself with a langauge we ALL understand. I may love Duke Ellington almost as much as Wonder does but when I have sent links of "Les Bergers" by Messiaen I've gotten some respectfully bewildered reactions from some friends who just didn't understand what I found so engaging and fascinating about the music.

Since Internet Monk has kicked off a Christian Music Month I don't plan to write a book or anything about some of this stuff.  I'm a layman at every level whether in theology or music but I would suggest, having played quite a bit of music, that we may want to reconsider "where" music really exists.  Stevie Wonder's album title Music of My Mind is on target. The music that sticks around longest seems to be music in which the efforts of what we might call the "heart" are also balanced in some synergistic fashion with what we might call the "mind".


Jerry Nanson said...

Interesting. I have a question, maybe because I'm a little slow, but it seems to me that you're saying that renewing of the mind happens more through music than through the contemplative study of scripture. Am I completely misunderstanding you here? Blessings, Jerry

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Schlatter's observation on the renewal of the mind in contrast to emphasis on action was an opening segue-way, sort of like a fade-in for an 1970s pop album. Most posts here build incrementally on ideas developed elsewhere in the blog though I've only managed to start tagging posts this year.

Renewing of the mind happens in a variety of ways but music becomes a focal point for debate because people sing about things they care about and people care about music as a kind of emotional conditioning. As a composer and musicians I think most people don't realize that music has to be perceived by the mind first and that the mental process of perceiving music needs to be discussed. Plato prescribed a regime of certain kinds of music that he proposed would make boys into proper men so debates and music as a formative influence on the character of people is something that has happened inside and outside Christian philosophical and ethical traditions. Internet Monk is having a Christian Music Month so if you catch some of what's going on over therre that may help provide some context for some of this post. Scripture study would come first but, ideally, musical activity would come later. After all, music was prescribed in the scripture itself as an aid to memorization and a song was presented as a testimony to and against God's people.

Jerry Nanson said...

I understand that there may be a number of mediums (study, preaching, teaching, biblically sound music) God uses to communicate his word in such a fashion as to bring about the renewing of the mind, however they are all centered on His word through and by the ministry of the Spirit, so if by "variety of ways" you mean contemplation of His word using music as a "way", then I'm on board. While I would say that music is very important and even critical, I would have to still say that it is secondary to the contemplative study of scripture and that God uses music to reinforce that contemplative study.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

and for the deaf music is basically a non-entity as we understand it. :)