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Music and Faith: Conversations in a post-secular age, by Jonathan Arnold

22 November 2019

Does belief grow out of doctrine or through emotion, wonders Christopher Smith

THIS is a musician’s book, and a musicians’ book by a former professional singer, now an Oxford chaplain. The bulk of it revolves around interviews with a dozen people for whom “music and faith are bound up with each other and with their own lives.” It has been, for me, a frustrating read, because, as a musician and a priest, I love music and I love the Christian faith. I love the Christian faith in all its revealed glory, rich in the theology of scripture and the Fathers.

What I fear that this book seeks to do is to prise faith away from doctrine, and declare faith to be all about trust, relationship, experience, and encounter. Doctrine, it suggests, is dry and unappealing, because there has come about an “emphasis on the predominantly literary [and] verbal, where the revelation of God through the Word (logos) of Christ as revealed in the scriptures domin­ate[s] over medieval, devotional, aesthetic religious expressions”.

Relationship and feeling, good; rational cognition, bad. Endorphin release when listening to music, good; creeds and councils, bad. “Verbal dogma” is old hat, and people now want the warm, fuzzy feeling that— aha! — music gives them, in church or out of it.

But church music arises out of a love of Christ and his Body. Dismissing scripture as “trans-rational, imaginative storytelling” is all very well, but it may take you outside the Christian faith and into a religion of your own making — or a religion made for you by the secularised world that we now inhabit.

The book is dismissive of what it calls “personal doctrinal religious certainty”; but that certainty is the act of faith on the part of the individual Christian who assents to the doctrine even when it seems difficult to understand. Because we are Christians, we assent to what the Church believes about God as Trinity, and we assent to what the Church believes about who Jesus is, even if we cannot personally comprehend every part of the Chalcedonian definition.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t apply our own intellect to what we are hearing, or indeed respond in an emotional way, moved not only by the love of God for us but also (for instance) by the music.

But if we are to test the doctrine to our own satisfaction, we need to know when and why we are dissenting from the Church Catholic, and to be able to articulate that, while allowing that we are dissenting, and that the Church guards the deposit of faith, even if we have a wobble about it.

Still, Dr Arnold gives us plenty of food for thought, and his book is erudite and comprehensively footnoted. Often he deploys just the right quotation at just the right point. Set against Richard Dawkins is this nugget from Roger Scruton: “The rearranging of the world as an object of appetite obscures its meaning as gift.”

“Plain Chant, Choral Evensong” , a watercolour and collage (2017), is taken from the book under review left. The artist is Janet Boulton.; it is in the Chapel of Magdalen College, Oxford

I enjoyed the interview with Nick Baines (“If you sing rubbish, you believe rubbish. Language matters”); and was moved by the experience of the persecuted Church brought out in interviews with Michael Bourdeaux and Balázs Déri (“It was difficult, but difficulty is good for the Church”). I was disappointed to discover that Brian Mountford, having been Vicar of the University Church in Oxford for a generation, doesn’t seem to have believed much at all. He does, perhaps, provide the guiding sentiment of the book: “Belief in God and assent to creeds is not the motivating force for Christian allegiance.” Tell that to the persecuted Church. Tell that to the grocer from Brondesbury.

The Revd Christopher Smith is the Vicar of St Alban’s, Holborn, in London.


Music and Faith: Conversations in a post-secular age
Jonathan Arnold
Boydell Press £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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