“Pictures at an Exhibition” and Theology


Modeste Mussorgsky 1839-1881

Two nights ago Terrie and I heard a presentation of Modeste Mussorgsky’s “Pictures from an Exhibition” by the San Diego Symphony.

(Here’s a Youtube link to a performance:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oN2j-5ZB3ZQ).

The piece itself was well worth the price of admission.  It’s very stirring and uses the full range of an orchestra’s resources.  But what was especially fascinating was that the performance was preceded by an hour long presentation about the piece–the composer, the circumstances of the composition (it was an homage to a deceased friend, an artist), what Mussorgsky was trying to accomplish, and the process by which Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) transformed Mussorgsky’s piano piece into an orchestral arrangement.  The talk was interspersed with bits of “Pictures” illustrating points made by the talk.  There was also extensive use of photos and paintings.

While listening to this well-executed presentation, I was irresistibly drawn to the idea of presenting theology in a comparable way.

What the symphony’s presentation reminded me is that music is always the product of a particular situation–in it the composer is trying to accomplish something.  It may be a technical musical issue or it may be the expression of a feeling or desire or it may be the need to make a public statement, but music is never simply an instance of supposedly eternal laws of musical composition.  The music always arises out of the composer’s life and circumstances.

Theology, like music, always arises
out of particular circumstances

The same is true of Christian theology.  There is a great temptation to assume that theology–true theology–never changes because it is simply putting into human words the eternal word of God. What this assumption overlooks is what becomes obvious to anyone who teaches theology, namely that it is not an abstract system of ideas but is instead the verbalization of the theologian’s struggle with God.  The theology of the greatest of modern theologians (easy examples include Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth) gives abundant testimony to this fact, but it is true as well of theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther and Friedrich Schleiermacher.  Too often the logical form of theology masks the existential circumstances of its composition.  When this happens we have a theology that is something to be learned in the way in which school children learn the multiplication tables.

Theology is not a
timeless system of ideas.

What the Mussorgsky presentation suggested to me is that perhaps the best way to present theology is not the traditional mode (a plodding journey through ideas in an artificially logical form) but is instead biographical and circumstantial–an approach that takes seriously the situation of the theologian and, of course, the communities of which he or she is a part.

Coincidently, I’m teaching this semester two sections of a general education course, The Christian Tradition. I had already decided to take a mostly biographical approach this semester, focusing on the lives of Augustine, six medieval Catholic women, Martin Luther, and John Wesley. My hope is that students will feel the urgency and greatness of Christian thought by seeing its connection to living human beings.  Of course, given our culture’s aversion to history, I face a daunting task.  But the presentation of “Pictures from an Exhibition” gives me some hope.

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