Sunday, February 19, 2017

Divine music

Recently I have been going to Sunday services with the local congregation of the Anglican Church of Canada. This may surprise some of my readers; let me add that the motive force behind this is my wife, who wanted to add one more singer to the ranks of the congregation. So my connection with the Anglican church is primarily through hymns and the liturgy of the Eucharist.

Since I am a historian whose teaching career has involved A LOT of ecclesiastical history, it's very interesting to return to this material (see? I told you I was a historian). Thanks to my training and my own scholarship I can't help but look at the liturgy and the readings as a collection of voices originating in far-flung times and places, and try to understand both the individual texts and their connections to each other. For example, the letters of Paul and... just about anything else in the Bible.

Throw in the hymns (the Anglicans have a huge collection) and it becomes quite a challenge to visualize for instance Regency-era country gentlemen retreating to their studies, having just returned from some gambling hell, and trying to turn King David or Wesley or both into a coherent representation of what is essential in Christianity.

About a month ago there was a hymn that depicted the universal chorus of God's creatures and how even pathetic human beings could add their little bit. That struck me as an entirely mistaken understanding of the divine, of music, and of humanity. You can say a lot of bad but true things about humanity, but our ability to turn any collection of noises produced by sticks and stones or our own voices into astonishing structures of sound is truly amazing. Faithful readers know how much I have been impressed by the innovative rock music of the 1960s and 70s (Jefferson Airplane, Yes). But pick your own faves. How about the Irish traditional band The Bothy Band?

Well over a decade ago I was driving to work listening to the Bothy Band and I was suddenly struck by the divine nature of their enterprise. I had a flash of anger against such divinities, that they could not spare some of their evident power to deal with the many problems afflicting humanity. But quickly I realized my mistake. Practical problems are for humans, as humans, to deal with. The divine nature of music is the proper concern of those seemingly human, but actually divine musicians. And that's my theology.

If you find this lacking in sophistication or rigor, I suggest you look into the "procession of the Holy Spirit," which has divided Christian churches for a thousand years, and then explain to me why this schism makes sense.

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