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Book reviews >

Unless soul clap its hands, and sing

These links between music and theology are inspiring, declares Helen Burrows

Resounding Truth: Christian wisdom in the world of music
Jeremy Begbie

SPCK £12.99 (978-0-281-05984-3)
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

IN Resounding Truth, Jeremy Begbie makes connections between music and theology in his attempt to develop a Christian wisdom about music. Although music is ubiquitous in our modern lives, and capable of affecting behaviour and the emotions at the most profound levels, very little recent Christian study has been devoted to it.

Fortunately, Begbie is ideally qualified to undertake such work, being both a theologian and a highly accomplished practical musician.

This book is full of insight; it is engaging, anecdotal, and historically accurate. It is also draws under one cover a wonderful series of short essays on the ways in which individuals — thinkers, composers, and theologians — from Augustine to James MacMillan have contributed to a Christian wisdom in the world of music.

Having explored some of the key encounters between the world of music and the world of theology, Begbie sets out to think about music within what he calls a “Christian ecology”. He dwells at length on the dichotomy between acceptance of the marvels of God’s created world, and the pursuit of the creative impulses that God has given us, concluding that “on behalf of creation, humans may gather and focus on creation’s worship, offering it back to God, voicing creation’s praise.”

Ambiguous references to music in scripture do not necessarily help, but Begbie’s conclusions in favour of engaging with music to sound and resound God’s truth are well argued. He finds many affirmations of the musician’s calling to make new things, and to use their vocation to extend and elaborate the praise that creation already offers to the Creator.

Music undeniably has much power over human emotion, but Begbie counsels against escapism, naïve optimism, and domination. Music should never be party to false hope, though there is nothing wrong in providing a vision of a better future. Music is an ideal vehicle for this: it cannot be rushed; it makes us wait.

This book is certainly inspiring. It abounds with scriptural and musical references. It draws on references as disparate as Pythagorean ratios and the use of the tritone in the theme music to The Simpsons. The author’s conclusions are all supported by sound reason and argument, and are backed up with a profusion of references.

The only irritation in this otherwise superb thesis is that the notes are all contained at the back. This prompts constant page-turning, since the references are as absorbing as the rest of the content.

Dr Burrows is Examinations Secretary of the Guild of Church Musicians, and also Director of Music at St George’s RAF Chapel, Biggin Hill, and at Combe Bank School.

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