Monday, January 22, 2007

Paul Tillich's Theology of Indie Rock VI

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V.

It is time to look a bit closer at the kind of experience we have been exploring in this series. I think most people would agree that we experience something extraordinary when listening to some kinds of music, and many would agree that this experience is spiritual in character. The question I want to ask now is, however, if it makes sense to call this experience Christian?

This is a difficult question, and we would have all kinds of methodological issues to deal with if this was done properly. More recent research on mystical experiences has emphasized the importance of the interpretation of the mystical experience as a central aspect of the experience itself. This means that it makes sense to speak of a Christian mysticism where the mystic interprets the experience using Christian language, especially language associated with central Christian doctrines.

Could Christian doctrinal language be used to describe what we experience listen to music?

I think so. First of all, this experience is a experience of creativity, of creation. It is far from rare that musicians, even those that otherwise shun identification with any religion, claim that they cannot explain the process of writing a song, that "the best tunes just appear". Music - as well as other forms of art - is in a way a celebration of this experience of creation. I think this notion is related to the religious idea of creation on several levels, as I have argued elsewhere.

Secondly, the experience we have when listening to this kind of music is relational. Music is about communication, and the magic, if you forgive my casual use of the word, happens in the contact between the performer and the listener. Music is never about listening to a thing, a product - it is about listening to a person who is giving something to you.

Thirdly, the experience is one of meaningfulness. When listening to something that grabs you deeply you experience that this is something that is of the highest importance, it concerns who you are on a very fundamental level

Creation, relation, meaning - there's some Trinitarian thought for you. Can we go further?

Music is an incarnational experience. I have a home-made theory about music being the source for the original concept of a bodyless existence, because music does seem to have an existence that is not tied to matter: a melody exists even if no one is at the moment singing it, even if no recording of it is made, even if it has not been written out. However, unless the music becomes flesh - in the performer and the listener - there is no experience. Does this not point towards the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ?

These ideas should not be taken as expositions of the Christian doctrine. I just want to show how Christian language can be applied to the experience we are dealing with here.

Why, then, is this important? Why have I bothered to work out this theology at all? Well, for two reasons primarily. First, as someone who loves music, and someone who understands myself as a Christian I want these to aspects of my life to be in unity. I want to be able to express why Radiohead means so much to me, without creating an inner conflict in me.

The second reason is that I see an tendency in modern theology to make religion this separate compartment in the world - a neat post-modern haven with its own rules and reality, without any connection to the lives of a wider public. I think Tillich's theology is needed to counter this.

Christian theology needs to interact with culture to be relevant.


Michael said...

This is a fantastic post! As an 'ex' musician and atheist I find it very interesting!

I can certainly comment on the creative process. You're right that many musicians find it difficult to explain the process of writing a song, especially a good one. However I would say that you rarely find a beginner writing a great piece of music. More often than not they are very experienced in composition. This is shown through the ages by musicians who's first pieces are rarely as good as their later work.

My opinion on this is that it really comes down to experience. The more you know, the more you are practiced and the more you understand the creative process the more likely it is that you will create something that will last the test of time.

As with most musicians, I used to get 'writer's block'. It happened a lot. The common way to get out of this is just to play and see what happens. Another tool I was Oblique Strategies. You may have heard of this? It's a creation by Brian Eno.

You drew a card and it would say something like Humanize something free of error or The most easily forgotten thing is the most important.

I'm going off on a tangent slightly but the point I'm trying to make is that I don't believe that there's anything spiritual about the song writing process. It really is just about experience and falling back on musical instincts.

There are of course many bands that disagree with me. U2 are a prime example. Bono will say that he just lets the music flow through him and he doesn't know where his words or music come from, they just appear.

The two questions I'd have for Bono are:

1. If you didn't have the experiences that you do, if you didn't know how chord progressions worked, would you still be able to write as you do? Is it easier to write now than 10 years ago? If so, is it not experience that allows you to create the songs rather than divine intervention?

2. If you were not raised in a religious environment would you still put down your writing to a supernatural being? Or would you look at it as I, that is, that it's the ability from experience that allows you to do what you do?

I hope I'm making sense because it's very late (I'm also in Europe).

I think it's a great topic though and I'll take a deeper look tomorrow.

Quixie said...

I very much enjoyed reading this series on Tillichian Analyses of Rock music (delightfully post-modern).

What OF instrumental music, as you yourself ask? I think that any system of categorization would have to account for that as well. And while we are at it . . . what about Cole Porter, Schubert, Kurt Weill, Stephen Sondheim, and Robert Johnson, just to name a few others that might present a challenge to this categorical scheme?

Also, I think it is unfair to present Dylan (and the others you cite) as an artist who "doesn't care" about rhythm and sound. You risk setting your own esthetic filter as the standard by speaking that way.

I once posted a bit that once found in the Oxford History of Christianity on one of my own blogs . . .

It makes an interesting supplement to your argument in a way.

By the way, I'm part of a nine-piece (with horns) ensemble that plays weird big arrangements of Radiohead tunes.

Patrik said...


I agree that this is far from complete, if I return to the theme some day in a more solemn mood I'd have to try to include more styles of music.

As for Dylan, I guess he cares for sound and rhythm but in a way very different than for example Radiohead. For what I have gathered it seems he seldom bothers with arrangements, he just lets the musicians play the way the can and if he likes the result he uses it - it is not as he sees it as an integrated part of the songwriting. I in no way mean this a degrading, it is just a different approach.