Music is everywhere. It has infiltrated almost every culture, especially modern Western culture, from all sides. One scarcely enters a coffee shop, mall, airport, or arena where music isn’t belted from a sound system. Music is present to help manage our moods for whatever everyday task with which we find ourselves engaged. It so surrounds us that we often forget its presence. This may leave us wondering: “How is music shaping us? Does it possess intrinsic value? Do our Christian convictions effect how we approach music?”
In Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Baker Academic, 2007), Jeremy Begbie aims to “help the reader develop a Christian wisdom that can engage with the extraordinary business of making and hearing music today.” This book offers meditations on the nature, value, and influence of music, not only on the world, but also on how we might understand and communicate the Gospel.
About the Author
Begbie is the Thomas A. Langford Research Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity School. He specializes in the intersection of theology and the arts. Having studied philosophy and music at Edinburgh University, and theology at Aberdeen and Cambridge, Begbie is well-positioned to author such a book.
Begbie is himself an accomplished musician who has performed as a pianist, an oboist, and a conductor. He has widely lectured in the United States, United Kingdom, and South Africa. He has written several books and divides the year lecturing at both Duke and Cambridge.
In the introduction, Begbie provides the rationale for writing such a book. He especially highlights the challenges of discussing such a vast subject, hoping to steer readers clear of some of the extremes in Christian musical thought. The book then unfolds in three parts.
a. Part One: Music in Action
After offering some definitions, chapter one defines and explains “music making” and “music hearing,” and how both are informed by our social and cultural settings. He defines music making as “the intentional production of temporally organized patterns of pitched sounds”; and music hearing, which includes both intentional and unintentional listening, as “the perception of temporally organized patterns of pitched sounds as ‘music’.” Begbie also addresses the questionable modern view of music as simply something made, pointing out that “music seems to be a matter of both nature and nurture, and in gaining a Christian perspective on music, much depends on holding both of these perspectives together.”
Chapter two surveys Scripture and draws out what it says about music. In so doing, it places them in an historical context, whether ancient Israel or the early church. Because of this, Begbie deals succinctly with music in worship during the periods of the Old Testament Temple worship, synagogues, and early church. While we aren’t certain on every aspect of music during the early church period, Begbie reasons from the available sources to bring clarity to this often-confusing time in church history. He also explains that the synagogues may have served as a logical context for New Testament worship due to its more simplistic nature in comparison to the extravagance of Temple worship.
b. Part Two: Encounters
Begbie introduces several key figures and ideas that comprise the last two thousand years of Christian musical thought. He begins chapter three by describing the contributions to musical thought found in the Great Tradition, which for him includes early figures such as Pythagoras and Plato. These figures also shape early Christian engagement with music as well. Begbie shows that much of the Great tradition emphasized the cosmological and mathematical nature of music, which increasingly is lost in modernity. Many of the figures during this period focused on the theoretical to the exclusion of the practical, though there are notable exceptions.
Chapter four brings readers to the sixteenth century trio of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, showing how “the convulsions that came to be known as the European Reformation of the sixteenth century coincided with this rethinking of music.” Begbie excels when detailing Luther’s open-armed embrace of music; Calvin’s cautious, half-acceptance; and Zwingli’s utter rejection of music in worship. Begbie spends chapter five entirely on the brilliance of Bach, concentrating on the theological overtures present in his music. He explains that Bach is as close as one can get to “Theology in Sound.”
Chapter six continues with the thoughts of three “musical theologians,” or theologians who were musically gifted: Friedrich Schleiermacher, Karl Barth, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While all three were limited in their contributions to a Christian understanding of music, each offer at least some insight into the book’s discussion on music: a romantic understanding of music (Schleiermacher), music as Creation’s offering of praise (Barth), and life as polyphonic in nature (Bonhoeffer).
Chapter seven then examines two theological musicians, or musicians who provide theologically-embedded music: Olivier Messiaen and James MacMillan. Both men allowed theological wisdom to influence their work as composers. Messiaen provides insight through his mediations on timelessness, and MacMillan did so in his refusal to abandon the place of conflict in music.
c. Part Three: Music in a Christian Ecology
Begbie proceeds in part three to develop a practical approach to music shaped by Christian wisdom. Chapter eight outlines what he calls a Christian ecology: “the web of faith commitments through which Christians make sense of and live in the world they inhabit.” He also explains the role of imagination in theology, which he believes is necessary to develop a comprehensive theology that links all the themes and counter-themes of Scripture.
Chapter nine places music within the ecology developed in the previous chapter, and shows that the very possibility of music should lead us to gratitude. As Begbie points out, “None of it [music] had to come into being. But it has, for the glory of God and for our flourishing.” Chapter ten then explains the final aspect of a Christian ecology, which is the human calling or our privilege to join in with the rest of creation to “extend and elaborate the praise that creation already offers to the Creator.”
The book is concluded concludes by focusing on the distinctive powers of music. Begbie develops the prevalence of tension and resolution, especially in Western music, and how it opens up three possible embodiments of the Gospel. First, like the Gospel, music cannot be rushed. It must acknowledge equilibrium-tension-resolution; or, in the case of the Gospel, creation-fall-redemption. Second, music often exists on more than one level of tension and resolution, which correlates to how often God’s promises have more than one level of fulfillment. Lastly, music encourages us to wait, generating within it a sense of fulfillment. The Scriptures also encourage us to wait and to anticipate the fulfillment of all God has promised, which is the hope we find in the Gospel.
Strengths and Weaknesses
As I moved through the book, I was increasingly surprised by how much Begbie was able to address in little more than three hundred pages. The book is unmistakably the by-product of a significant amount of time studying and thinking about the implications of the ideas presented. His development of music making and music hearing has helped me to better understand what music is and is not. Begbie’s survey of ancient Israel and the early church’s involvement with music was worth the price of the book and clarified some questions.
Begbie explanation of the reformers’ views on music is also wonderful, albeit more discussion of Calvin’s views would have been helpful. His “Christian ecology of music” is at first unclear, though ultimately quite helpful. It is encouraging to see a work like this not lose sight of practical application, even if it is introductory in nature.
Strengths aside, this book has at least two weaknesses. First, several of Begbie’s illustrations require some discussion of music theory. These sections become challenging for readers unfamiliar with this discipline. It is a weakness he concedes early in the book, but reading descriptions of technical aspects of music can sometimes be like watching paint dry. Second, chapter six is quite interesting, especially given the recent popularity of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but I do not think it was necessary. Its absence wouldn’t have hurt the book at all.
This book has implications for the church’s worship, though it is by no means the primary subject of the book. Part of the book’s appeal is its discussion of music itself–made and created in the God-given world. Although this book doesn’t spend a significant amount of time on worship, it would aid anyone in their research and reflection on worship in the modern church.
This book will best serve those whose vocation is the making and/or hearing of music. Music’s value reaches beyond the church’s walls, and is prevalent in most parts of Western society. Rightly seeing music as a small part of human calling can open people to the Gospel who would otherwise be highly skeptical. I would highly recommend Resounding Truth to anyone, whether musicians, music ministers, senior pastors, or anyone seeking to better understand how Christian wisdom applies to the varied and complicated world of music.
 Jeremy Begbie, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 25.
 Ibid., 40.
 Ibid., 49.
 Calvin Stapert’s A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church (2006)
 Idid., 97.
 Ibid., 185.
 Ibid., 213.
 Ibid., 237.
 Think along the lines of God’s promise to Abraham that through him He would bless all the nations of the world wasn’t fulfilled in his lifetime, but through the ministry of Jesus Christ and his church.
About the Author: M. Grady Calhoun is pastor of Bright Light Free Will Baptist Church in College Station, Texas. Originally from Southwest Georgia, he graduated from Welch College in 2012 with Bachelor of Science in Pastoral Ministry. His theological interests revolve around the Church, Worship, and Music. Much of his free time is spent on Doctor Who, parody musicals, soul music, and film.