Brief Book Review: Theology, Music, & Modernity

Theology, Music, & Modernity: Struggles for Freedom
Edited by Jeremy Begbie, Daniel K. L. Chua, and Markus Rathey

What’s the main point? In the editors’ and authors’ words, music “can provide a distinctive ‘theological performance’ of some of modernity’s most characteristic impulses and orientations,” particularly the way it shapes our “imagination of freedom” (2). In doing so, it “can supply us with an alternative metaphorical system for thinking about the freedom displayed in and offered by Jesus Christ” (87).

Who should read this? The book requires some background in music theory or musicology to clearly understand some of the articles, but it creatively engages liturgical and non-liturgical music from socio-cultural, philosophical, aesthetic, and theological perspectives. That said, I recommend it to anyone interested in the connections between music and theology and how those connections shape our theological imagination.

Why is this book significant? The book represents a deep engagement by theologians and musicologists with each other and, together, with “matters of religion and theology.” By focusing on a specific time period (1740-1850) and representative musical repertoire from that period, the authors develop an imaginative conversation between music and theology and the shaping of modernity.

 Why is this book useful? Some will find most useful the extensive and current bibliographies provided at the conclusion of each chapter; they point the way for readers to explore more deeply the questions addressed in the chapter. However, what also makes the book useful is the way each of the four major sections makes a single musical work or corpus of music (Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 Eroica; Bach’s St. Matthew Passion; Richard Allen’s hymnals, Haydn’s The Creation) the focus of conversation between theologians and musicologists.

What will get you (the reader) thinking? At the very least, this book will help you consider some old and new questions: What claims can we make about the meaning of music—especially music which does not accompany or is not accompanied by text? Separated from language, what and how does music signify? What does music present? In what ways does music both express and construct the ways in which we imagine freedom in a particular age? And, in what ways does music open “a unique avenue to the infinite or divine” (293)?

Kudos. Some edited collections lack coherence as well as conversation between the articles in the collection—they are simply “collections”. That is not true here—the articles in each of the four major parts of the book reflect extended conversations among the authors over several years, clear engagement with each other’s work and, as a result, make for more engaging reading as we immerse ourselves in their conversation. Kudos also for publishing the book as part of Oxford Scholarship Online, making individual articles or sections of the book more widely available as well as more useful to graduate seminars. For example, the focus in Pt. III on the hymnals of Richard Allen (founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church) makes it a valuable resource in a course in hymnology.

Suggestions. Given the strength of the introduction to the book, which describes the context out of which the book emerged and sets out the central questions for the project, as well as the strength of the brief introductions to each of the four sections, I would have appreciated something more of a conclusion to the whole. We are left on our own to draw such conclusions—though that may be the point.

Applications. Pervading all the articles is the idea, only formally articulated by Norman Wirzba in his chapter “The Witness of Praise—The Hope of Dwelling,” that listening and what we listen to is important to the shaping of human life. Wirzba writes: “Listening is the crucial posture, since listening presupposes one’s openness to another in all its uniqueness, and a commitment to take seriously another as worthy of attention and respect” (351). This is true whether we are listening to God or to a human other, whether we are listening to a symphony, oratorio, or congregational song.

Next steps. What kind of conversation would develop and what conclusions might be reached about music’s distinct “avenue to the infinite and divine” were we to consider a more recent time period? How is music shaping a post-modern imagination?

Begbie, Jeremy, Daniel K. L. Chua, and Markus Rathey, eds. Theology, Music, & Modernity: Struggles for Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021. 400 pages. $115.00. ISBN: 9780198846550.

REVIEWER: Ron Anderson
Byron (Ron) Anderson is Styberg Professor of Worship at
Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, IL,
and currently president of Societas Liturgica.


One response to “Brief Book Review: Theology, Music, & Modernity

  1. Francine Micklus Avatar
    Francine Micklus

    This appears to be a wonderfully thought-provoking read especially for a full-time church musician. I’d love to purchase this book, but I’m reeling from sticker shock!!!

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