I Got Rhythm

Michael Metzger

If God cares, why does he often delay – or not show up at all? If the gospel is good news for everyone, why don’t we hear it everywhere, everyday? And how can a reasonable person believe in the Trinity – three persons in the Godhead? Christians routinely roll out replies that prove implausible in the wider world. Maybe we ought to play a tune on our iPod instead. Almost any rhythm reframes these three objections.

Take the Trinity, for example. Most Christians try to explain the Trinity using the illustration of water. Water, they say, can exist as a gas, solid, and liquid. The Trinitarian formulation says that God exists simultaneously as Father, Son, and Spirit. Water molecules therefore explain the Trinity. This however doesn’t follow, since one and the same molecule of water cannot occur simultaneously as a solid, gas, and liquid. Water cannot be a solid, gas, and liquid at the same time and in the same place. Oops.

The mistake is appealing to visual perception as the route to plausibility. But no one can see an object in two places at the same time. A painter knows that you cannot have red and yellow on a canvas in the same space and have them visible as red and yellow. Either one color hides the other or they merge into some variation of orange. The eye tells us that things cannot be in the same place at the same time – it’s implausible.

The ear tells us a different story according to Jeremy Begbie, a gifted musician and a lecturer in theology at the University of Cambridge. Begbie observes that if you play a note on a piano – say, a middle C – what you hear fills the whole of your heard space. Unlike the patch of red on a canvas, it is, in a sense, everywhere. This phenomenon is called aural perception. If you play a second note along with the middle C, that second note also fills the whole of your heard space, the same space as the C. Yet you hear the notes as distinct from each other. The notes occupy the same heard space, but you can hear them as two notes. The ear tells us that things can be in the same place at the same time – so the Trinity is plausible. It can be reasonable.

Playing your iPod might be a better way to change a person’s frame of reference. It comes at their objections indirectly and can make the implausible plausible. Music therefore enjoys two advantages cited by Augustine – the soul delights in what it learns indirectly and people only believe that which is plausible.

Playing your iPod can also reframe their second objection – that the gospel is rarely heard day in and day out. Not true. Any tune, even the silly 1976 hit “Play That Funky Music White Boy,” has a structure pointing to the gospel. “Funky” is part of the Western “tonal music” that emerged in the seventeenth century in Europe and has been the predominant in European culture and in societies shaped by modern Europe. “It is the tradition of Beethoven and Bach, Rachmaninoff and the Grateful Dead, Zoltán Kodály and Girls Aloud,” Begbie writes.1 This tradition has a structure pointing to the gospel.

In Western tonal music, there is a musical structure that goes like this: equilibrium-tension-resolution. It’s in hundreds of thousands of songs and consists of a melody in a home key, followed by a move away, and then a return to the melody in the home key. If you don’t believe it, sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and try stopping abruptly after “through the perilous night.” Just doesn’t work, does it? Western music parallels the most prominent pattern in scripture: promised land-exile-return, or “orientation-disorientation-reorientation” in the Psalms, Water Brueggerman writes.2

This musical homecoming however is not a simple “back to the beginning,” Begbie writes, but the culmination of a journey. In the same way, Christian redemption is not a simple “back to the beginning” but what culminates in the final restoration. Music, in other words, has a structure resonating with the “four chapter” gospel. From Bach to Brahms, R.E.M. to Eminem, the gospel is heard everyday in almost every tune.

But what about the third objection: “If God cares, why does he often delay?” Again, don’t try to postulate what God might be up to – pull out your iPod and play “Für Elise” instead. On the first page, Beethoven inserted two extra bars just before the main melody returns, so that gratification is delayed. Do you know anyone who thinks his delay in “Für Elise” is detrimental? If however Beethoven isn’t your thing, play America’s 1975 chart-topping hit “Sister Golden Hair” instead. There’s a delay in this song drawing listeners much more intensely into the piece – the same effect you hear in “Für Elise.” Delay therefore can be a good thing. “How long, O Lord?” is a common theme throughout scripture, but music can point to the goodness of God delaying. It doesn’t prove God’s goodness in delaying, but it can make it plausible. Intense longing in music and in lovemaking makes the resolution all the more beautiful and satisfying.

Of course, the point of music is not to defend the faith. The point is to make music and enjoy it. Yet for those with ears to hear – and that can include anyone – music is not composed of entirely separate notes. Vibrating strings set off other strings, making music multi-sensory and multi-storied. It’s the same with the “four chapter” gospel – the four movements of creation-fall-redemption-restoration (or “ought-is-can-will”) are not entirely separate notes but rather multi-storied. If you want to hear the gospel being played this way, listen to Mae (Multi-sensory Aesthetic Experience). You can find them at www.whatismae.com. Play a few of their tunes on your iPod and see what your friends make of their music. The fun of aural reality is that you don’t have to be The Shell Answer Man. And you get to enjoy some great tunes along the way.

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1 Jeremy Begbie, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), p. 30.
2 Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995), p. 9.

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4 thoughts on “I Got Rhythm”

  1. There s a line from the movie, August Rush, that says, “The music is all around us. All we have to do is listen.” I think evangelicals have to reckon with the fact that we no longer have the stage. We are used to thinking of ourselves as speakers, not listeners. To hear what is all around us requires a different skill set than most of us possess, not only learning ‘how’ to listen but ‘what’ to listen for. Several weeks ago you quoted Peter Berger as saying, “I have long argued that one could construct an ‘inductive theology’ that would begin with an analysis of these ‘signals of transcendence’ (which could also be called glimpses of the presence of God in human reality).” If perceiving the trinity via aural perception helps make it plausible, most of us haven’t developed the skills to do so. But if the music, the ‘signals of transcendence,’ are truly all around us, the notion of aural perception may help point the way forward for developing those skills.

  2. Great post. Where can I find the source to learn more from Augustine about your point that “the soul delights in what it learns indirectly and people only believe that which is plausible”? This has spurred some thoughts for me. Thanks.

  3. How refreshing to use metaphor to prove the plausibility of something, not its certain form. Once again Mike, you prove that moving the issue beyond the minds that made it a problem is about finding a better metaphor. It is so refreshing to hear someone prove the plausibility of the Trinity, rather than its precise form? Who has know the mind of the Lord, and who has been his counselor? Yet we often assume that we can explain his nature down to a T. Very encouraging.

  4. This post brings to mind the little phrase I’ve heard somewhere – that missions exists because worship doesn’t.

    So maybe musicians are better missionaries than they may realize???

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