Music and Theology, Part 1

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Music has always been a window for theology for me. When words are put to music, it can make you dance, jump up and down, sway back and forth, lift your hands towards the ceiling... in short music moves us, both figuratively and literally. Music speaks to the heart, it pulls us into the song in a way that words alone simply cannot. 

This has to do with how a song combines words (which speaks to the head, to our cognitive understanding) with music (which speaks to the heart, to our emotions). Connecting head and heart is vital. Of course feelings without content are pretty shallow, but on the other hand, theology that is all head is dry and lifeless. There is much that is good about academic study, but when it is only academic, when it does not connect to the heart, it pretty much misses the point, like a tree uprooted from the ground. That's why it's a shame that seminary has so little connection with the things of the heart like music, and is so focused on the head. 

If theology is the study of meaning, music (along with other art forms) acts as the medium to connect us to that meaning. Music allows us to live in the space of a song, to step into it. We all have songs that can take us back to an important time in our lives, songs that held particular meaning for us. Couples often say a particular song was "their song" (for my wife and me, that song is "Something in the Way" by Nirvana, especially the line "it's okay to eat fish," but that's a story for another day).

A song can thus take on a meaning that is particular to our own lives, meanings the writer of the song never imagined. One song that did this for me was "Learning to Breathe" by Switchfoot. My son was born premature. He weighed a meager 2.5lbs, and his lungs were underdeveloped. So in the ICU he would often stop breathing, and a nurse would rush over to touch him gently so he would start to breathe again. This was of course nerve-wrecking for us as his parents, the alarms on his monitors screaming, and our hearts screaming even louder. The words of the song took on a meaning for us that I'm sure Switchfoot never imagined when they wrote the song,

I'm learning to breathe
I'm learning to crawl
I'm finding that You and You alone can break my fall
I'm living again, awake and alive
I'm dying to breathe in these abundant skies
So this is the way I say I need You
This is the way that I say I love You
This is the way that I say I'm Yours
This is the way, this is the way

That was the part that I imagined my little boy singing, both to us and to God. Then there was my part of the song to sing,

Hello, good morning, how you been?
Yesterday left my head kicked in
I never, never thought that I would fall like that
Never knew that I could hurt this bad

So as to not be too sad, let me say that my son is now a healthy little ten-year-old, happily playing Minecraft with two friends in the next room. Nevertheless, that song still takes me back to that time, and it undoes me every time I hear it. I'll let you have a listen too,

That song means something to me that, I think it's safe to say, its authors never conceived of. Songs are like children in that way. You create them, but then they grow in ways that you never imagined, and you as the artist just watch and see what they have become, like a proud parent.

We read the Bible in that same way. We read an epistle like Galatians as if it were speaking to us, as if God were speaking through the text to us, speaking into our lives--even though we are perfectly aware that it was written to people in a city we've probably never been to, in a time long before ours.

It is perfectly legitimate to read the Bible like this, letting it speak into our lives. That's not a misreading. It's reading the text in the same way we hear a song. It is reading it so as to connect us with meaning. That's kind of the whole point.


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At 6:40 PM, Blogger Joel Kessler said...

Yeah! I'm 27 years old and I play Minecraft on my phone. Lot's of fun. Great song Derek. Hey I was wondering again if you would reconsider getting studied up on the topic of Islam. I asked you a few months back, and you said to leave it to the Islamists to reform their own faith. You said you liked Malala and Reza Aslan. I just though you might wanna know that at least Reza Aslan isn't what such a great scholar as he may seem (I love Malala Yousafzai. Whenever women put their finishing touches on religion, good things happen :). Here is a youtube video I think you might need to watch as a fellow scholar - . . The world of Islam/and the world of people who support democratic values needs your brain. Please start researching like yesterday. Thank you.

At 8:53 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Did you see the exchange I had on Twitter today with Qasim Rashid?

At 1:46 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I trust Reza Aslan more than David Pakman. IMO it takes courage to speak out against Islam in Islamic countries but not so much courage to do so in the USA.

At 3:46 AM, Anonymous Ferg Breen said...

Great post Derek. I too have these moments. It would take a blog post in itself to describe what a couple of those songs mean to me (Long Road by Pearl Jam and Cold Desert by Kings of Leon) but suffice to say your post resonated deeply. Thanks.

At 11:17 AM, Blogger Joel Kessler said...

No I didn't follow Twitter. I guess now I will. Sorry for my previous comment.


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