Pneumatological Assist of Music in Theological Writing

By: Nimi Wariboko
Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

musicIntellectuals often talk about various kinds of envy. Radical scholars accuse neoclassical economists of physics envy. Freudians accuse young girls of penis envy. I accuse myself of music-envy. It is my ambition to write theology as a great classical music or jazz. It is to find the music in the theological. For instance, I hope that one day my theology will sound as good as Schubert’s Ave Maria, Verdi’s Nabucco—Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, or Monk’s Blue Monk. This hope exists not only because good theology is a sublime music to the divine and beautiful to read, but also because all good theologians are slaves to dead or obscure musicians. In an adaptation of the rhetorical flourish of John Maynard Keynes, let me say this: The ideas of theologians, both when they are right and when they wrong are derived from music, exquisite sensibility to beautiful, harmonious movements of sound and silence than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world of theology is ruled by little else. Non-music envy theologians, who believe their thoughts to be above any musical influences, are usually slaves to some obscure musician.  

Fortunately, I know of many great theologians who readily accept the profound influences of music in their lives and theological reflections. Bach’s St Matthew Passion drove James Luther Adams back to faith. “One night after singing with the club [Harvard Glee Club] in Mass in B minor under Serge Koussevitzky at Symphony Hall in Boston, a renewed conviction came over me that here in the mass, beginning with the Kyrie and proceeding through the Crucifixus to the Agnus Dei and Done nobis pacem, all that was essential in the human and divine expressed. My love of the music awakened in me a profound sense of gratitude to Bach for having displayed as through a prism and in a way that in irresistible for me, the essence of Christianity.”

Paul Tillich wrote his most pneumatological theology, the third volume of his systematic theology, with the pneumatological assist of Duke Ellington’s ecstatic “Mood Indigo.” Mark Lewis Taylor also draws strength and inspiration from music in his theological reflections. Taylor deploys music as an artful rendering of fantasy, drama and aesthetics in his protean struggles to translate thoughts and ideas into radical theologies that he wields against imperial and dominating forces of late capitalism.

Dale Coulter in this blog in October 2013 spoke about “Jazz, Holiness, and a Pentecostal Aesthetic.” For him, ordinary folks in the pentecostal churches write out their everyday theologies with their musical bodies, the movements of their bodies, and their artful moans and cries. In these churches, theology is somatically created and represented, sweated out, aesthetically tasted, and dramatically acted out in ways that are profoundly musical. Commenting on Charles Mingus’s “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting,” a jazz derived from the Holiness Pentecostal tradition, Coulter states that: “Mingus captures the call and response of the holiness worship dynamic, complete with moans and cries, shouts and call outs. It’s all there in the voices and the instruments. It is the ebb and flow of testimony in the form of improvisational bursts that ring out and then return to the fundamental order. It is a Dionysian procession and return, a fundamental dynamic of creation in which all things come forth from God and return to God. The instrument bursts into life through the gift of the musician and then returns.” What Coulter describes here is an ideal musical framework for pentecostal theology. Can my theology do this?

This is my vexing ambition and also the source of my music envy. I have made all this known in the prefaces of some of my books. In my Principle of Excellence (2009), I wrote: “Theology is a score through which we seek to deepen our understanding of our world and our relationship with God, and to express our present self-understanding and hope. Music is ecstatic architecture of sound. Theology is an expressive architecture of Unconditional sound. My friend, it is the theologian’s work: sounds to divine, to interpret, and to reveal. Believe me, this is the theologian’s true hope: his (her) writing to be converted to classical music, producing a form and energy of that original multiple Oneness as music and as fillip to human flourishing.”

In my 2010, Ethics and Time, I continued and stated that: “Writing is music. It is harmony of thought conveyed by the tone and rhythm of ideas. It is not sufficient that a theologian should create a symphony of ideas, and s/he should occupy his/her mind and soul with the music of theology, but s/he also develop intuition that s/he may see the universe’s symphony keenly. In this work I furnished a profile of that grand symphony as instantiated in an African locale.”

By the time I came to writing Nigerian Pentecostalism (University of Rochester Press, in press) in 2011, I have taken to listening to the music of birds as part of the creative writing process: “Writing and reading is a scented existence. Writing is like sojourning in a paradisiacal garden, blooming with thousands of fragrant flowers, and selecting and bonding some of them into a synthesis with a time-release mechanism. The goal of this art of perfumery is to ensure that when the reader picks up the text in which multiple fragrances are embodied, she will be transported into the store of the legendary Arabian perfume merchant for a voluptuous jouissance. Each stimulation of her olfactory nerves will bring her closer and closer to rapture, to a place where only the spring birds of Westwood sing all day. This is the place where I write, in the background of the Blue Hill of Massachusetts, where nature, thinking, and divine ecstasy of learning are in voluptuous embrace. This is an enchanted existence—and I invite you to experience it if you are willing.” I confess I have a music-envy and I believe it is not bad!

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Nimi Wariboko
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