Music as Parable Part 3 | Repetition & Remembrance

Music as Parable Part 3 | Repetition & Remembrance

I recently released a book called Tempo of Discipleship: The Rudiments and Rhythms of Developing Followers of Christ. In it, one of the things I consider is how music shapes and forms memory through repetition, much in the same manner that Jesus forms discipleship. Let me first explain by giving a brief analysis of how our brain works:

Though the brain is one unit, it operates in two different halves—the left and the right. The left half of the brain is very logical and processes items in an item-by-item and step-by-step fashion. Marcel Kinsbourne admits this narrow logical style is able to best attend to “a few members in any one category” and notices “detail in small differences.” This part of the brain is very systematic, is always “on alert,” and is able to isolate the smallest of details in order to accomplish specific purposes.

On the flip-side, the right half of the brain functions all-at-once and stretches in imagination with leaps and bounds. This part of the brain is able to take a wide variety of similar subjects and concepts together without paying much attention to detail or difference.  The right brain is like the internet in that it creates a web of connection that can detect similar ideas and can grey differences together that appear black and white. In short, the left-brain is rational and prescriptive (narrow), whereas the right brain is experiential and descriptive (diverse).

Spiritually, the two spheres of the brain collide to accomplish what is spoken of in Scripture as anamnesis—the art of remembering. Jesus spoke of remembrance at the Lord’s Supper. Through the bread and wine Jesus prompted the disciples to repeat the ritual of the table over and over until his return in order that the repetition might sustain memory and empowerment. Jesus attached functions and ritual to a set of left-brain and hard line theologies in the meal. Through the bread and the wine, the abstract ideas explode in tangible creative elements (bread and wine) with meaning in imaginative story and art that tantalizes the right-brain cortex.

The power of music’s voice in this discussion is that its, “influence upon the brain demonstrates that there is some way in which music unites the two spheres and causes our brain to unite. In a sense, music helps take very detailed and narrow theologies of proclamation (precise truths) and blends them together with the theology of manifestation (expression), thus causing both sides of the brain to collide. Once again, it can imagine the plans (expression), and it can also order the plans (precise truths). This is what enables the content of lyrics and of poetry to remain stuck inside a person’s head in an annoying hook. It plays over and over again, far deeper, longer, and more imaginatively than any information that comes simply out of a book.”

Maybe this is what leads Jeremy Begbie to conclude that theology can be done through music and is best done by considering how music affects the transformation of the brain. It not only deploys content, but it calls for full expression of that content.

Meditation and Jewish Farming

This idea likewise plays into the idea of Jewish meditation. In the Jewish tradition, meditation is not emptying one’s mind, but filling it with the truth of the Torah. Big concepts in Scripture become like big dirt clods in an open field. To understand God’s oneness, holiness, grace, or abounding love is too complicated to fathom. However, like a tiller mows over a field to break down the dirt clods over and over again until they are ground fine enough to be ready to receive seed, the Jewish approach tills through the big ideas of God’s Word until one’s heart is supple and grainy and ready to produce growth. Music’s ability to take complex truths in the abstract, and till them through into the concrete “everyday” things of life is the exact rhythm of repetition and remembrance that God had in mind when thinking of how a Christian grows in their maturity through meditating over and over again upon and through the Lord’s Supper.

Thinking like this is what drove men like Martin Luther to compose as many hymns as he did sermons. A sermon is hard to remember, though it is necessary in the abstract. However, through music, a person can take the truths of the sermon and sing them over and over again while walking out the door, down the street and into such concrete locations as people’s homes and out into the marketplace. This is where the true growth and tilling happen. Thinking through, and theologizing through not only music’s gift, but also music’s instructive nature helps us plot better ways forward in our own learning, and in how we teach others.

Join me in my next post in the Music as Parable series as we consider music’s form and improvisational elements and how thinking through these things can help us grow in Christian worship and spiritual formation.

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