Music as parable, part II
This is part two of a series by David Yauk. Read part 1 here.
We’ve all attended a musical performance where the artist on stage sang in a manner that was what artists call “pitchy.” Even the novice who watches American Idol knows when someone just sounds terrible—and they sound terrible because their pitch is off! Pitch is actually an acoustical term referring to the frequency of the vibration of sound waves. As a voice or instrument sounds, it resonates in a number of pulses per second. A pitch must resonate correctly to be considered in tune or “intonated.” Intonation can be likened to hitting the bull’s eye on a target. If a pitch misses the center, the pitch will sound dissonant, off and irritating to the ear.
As we further consider Jeremy Begbie’s challenge—to theologize through music—we come to the idea of pitch. When we look along music we discover some transpositional keys that can help us in thinking about theology.
You see, I have met some very “pitchy” theologians, teachers, and false prophets in my day. We can recognize when one’s thinking, teaching, speech or actions are not resonating with the intended meaning of the Bible. This is what is called sin—missing the mark. Unfortunately, often times when we read the Scripture we bring our own dissonance to God’s word, and in so doing we skew the intended meaning of God’s word to fit into our way of doing things rather than allowing God’s word to order us into unity.
One can use two approaches when interpreting Scripture: overstanding or understanding. One who understands the Bible is one who lays down their presuppositions about what they think Scripture means, and steps under its authority, within its context, and sees through the eyes of its audience to gain God’s intended meaning. This approach leads to a life lived under the authority of Scripture, for one who applies Scripture correctly.
Sadly, most of us are overstanders. We bring our preconceptions of truth to Scripture and we stand over it. We judge what fits and what doesn’t. We surgically remove parts of God’s word that do not fit our fancy, and add in parts that fit to our worldview. Pitchy theology—off center—leads to bad application.
You might find some humorous irony in an example I use to demonstrate this while teaching the art of Biblical interpretation to some of my students. “When I teach about this in Bible study method and teaching/preaching classes, I speak a lot about how words, if they are read wrong, can be applied wrongly. If we misunderstand the intent and meaning of Scripture, we can misapply it. I love to watch arena football, and as one watches, they will notice that, unlike regular football, the field is surrounded by a ‘fence’ or border. If a player goes out of bounds, they will inevitably run into the fence if they do not make the decision to jump over it. So, for a head coach to say to a player, ‘When you see those guys coming after you, jump over the railing,’ is good advice in this context. However, say a person walking on a bridge high above a canyon stream applies this ‘good advice’, but out of the intended context and instead, in his/her own context. The person then might jump over the railing and plummet to their death.”
All too often, this careless, poor application of contextual meaning happens in Bible study and daily life. We take God’s words out of context, skew them a bit off pitch to fit our need for the day, and when applied we sometimes find the results are completely benign; other times, however, they can be horrendously tragic. We need to consider that when God breathed the symphony that we call the Bible, he considered every word, story and meaning like a conductor considers a musical note in a score. He intends a correct note to be struck in the lives of his readers, and to ignore this reality will make us lazy in our Bible interpretation, and wreak havoc on what actually happens to our lives as a result of our faith.
This is where music can help theological thinking. Music cares about pitch, but through performance. I devoted a number of previous posts to language, and how sharing of the Bible was done primarily through oral transmission and performance, and secondarily through written text. The way that performance shapes us is different than dry reading—and why? Performance considers pitch, and as a result the meaning becomes far clearer. Typically, in an oral culture, the presenter memorizes the presentation not only word for word, but tone for tone. In fact, it has been shown that in situations that are even slightly ambiguous, intonation trumps literal meaning. The experience of translating, memorizing, and performing these works places the messenger into an entirely different relationship with these texts in comparison with the silent reader, and even quite distinct from the experience of hearers in an audience. In performing the Scripture, they attend to every detail and communicate it both emotively and kinesthetically.
I wonder how sermons, study, songs, praxis, parenting, teaching, character, and a variety of other things would change if we not only considered the text of Scripture but its tone; the words themselves, but also their inflection? How would this change the emotional formation of our homes, churches, and work places?
Ponder these questions, and I hope you will look forward to my next post in my series Music as Parable, in how music can aid us in discipleship by helping us think through repetition and memory.