Music and Reading the Bible (The Reader’s Culture, Part 3)

August 22, 2016

What is music? And what can music tell us about the reader’s role in co-creating the Bible’s meaning?

Rhythm_changes_complete_in_B-flat_SpitzerI took up classical guitar a few years ago.  I had musical experience before I did so, but I never thought about music philosophically.  But once I started playing guitar and, more important, performing, I did begin to reflect more philosophically about music.

I had always assumed that, in the primary sense, music is what the composer wrote–the score.  Once I began to perform and saw the interpretive decisions that go into a performance, I realized that the score is not music, at least not in its fullest sense.  The score is potentially music, but it requires performance to make it actual music.

The notes on a page are thus not the music.  They are instructions for creating music.

Sometimes the instructions are pretty general; at other times they are specific.  In classical guitar music, the further back you go (Renaissance, Baroque), the less the composer indicated how the music should be played.  The nearer you get to the present, the more composers tend to indicate in the score how they want the music to be played.

But every performance involves interpretation.  The score may indicate a tempo of lento or allegro, but those words really indicate ranges; individual measures will be played faster or slower according to how the performer feels the music ought to go.  The score may tell you to play a section quietly or loudly, but it’s really all relative.  The performer finally has the responsibility of determining what he or she thinks the piece is about–what are its dramatic qualities, the interplay of dynamics, of tension and resolution.


One of my favorite Jazz guitarists: Barney Kessel

Joe Pass

Another of my favorite Jazz guitarists: Joe Pass

That is why jazz tells us so much about music.  Jazz is about improvisation.  Within the parameters of the piece’s harmonic structure (the chords), the performer treats the score as a script that can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways.  (See the lead sheet above, which omits the melody and reduces the song to its chords.) And even the harmonic structure can be altered via substitution of one chord for another.  Of course, improvisation and chord substitution are subject to the laws of music, but these are pretty flexible laws, giving the performer great latitude.


So, what has this got to do with reading the Bible?

  • Perhaps we can think of the Bible as being like a musical score–it contains potential meaning, but it requires reading/hearing in order to become actual meaning. Reading actualizes the Bible as a meaningful text just as performance actualizes a musical score and creates music.
  • If so, then reading the Bible is a performance, a creative act.
  • As a creative act, reading does not come about ex nihilo (from nothing).  It comes from the score and the interpretation of the score.  But it’s not just the score in a different form.
  • Just as there is variation in performance, so there is variation in reading, in interpretations of the Bible.
  • Just as there are good and bad performances of music, authentic and inauthentic interpretations of music, so there are parameters for biblical interpretation.  Some interpretations are compelling, others are absurd.  Just as there are parameters even in Jazz and thus limits to improvisation, so there are limits to biblical interpretation.


Photo attribution:



Writing and death (Modern Art and the Bible 5)

August 16, 2016

Here’s a photo of a painting at the Phoenix Art Museum:

Oiled dead

Like all modern art, it invites thought.  What is the connection between “oiled” and “dead”?

Is it statement about the way in which a piece of art, once painted (“oiled”), becomes something fixed (“dead”)?  If so, what at what point is the work of art living?

Or is it a statement about the materiality of painting? That the canvas, which was once something living (cotton or linen) is now, having been oiled (painted), something dead? That while art may be living, it requires death.

In either case, this artist has used painting to say something about painting.  Here, as in much modern art, the product is self-referential.  The art is about itself, and not about an object lying outside itself.

If we meditate thus on the Bible, analogies emerge.  Is the word of God, once written, something fixed (dead) in contrast to the living, spoken word?  There were some second century Christian writers who emphatically preferred the spoken tradition over the written word.  And as Paul said, the letter kills while the Spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6).

As well, like a painting scripture is a matter of laying marks onto a fabric from something formerly living–papyrus, animal skin, trees.

Theologians should study modern art more diligently.  The Bible is, after all, a work of art–an artifice, an artifact.  It is something made.  The way in which modern artists use their art to point to the nature of art can help the theological community grasp the Bible’s character as something material, inscribed on other material.  It can also help us see how the Bible, like much modern art, is self-referential–the ways in which it is constantly drawing attention to itself as something written.

Textual Surface and the Bible’s Underground (Modern Art and the Bible 4)

July 29, 2016

IMG_20160714_145618066Phoenix’s Art Museum has a set of photographs (I forgot to note the artist’s name), showing tree roots and their effects on sidewalks.

They provide a great illustration for all sorts of themes–the power of nature vs. human artifice, the ultimate destruction of all things human, even plate techtonics.


This one (to the right) especially caught my eye.  The image of the root, partly hidden, IMG_20160714_145749471partly visible, snaking subterraneously under the flat surface of the sidewalk, seemed unusually evocative as I think about the nature of the Bible and its writing.

The biblical text is like a flat surface–like the sidewalk’s surface, it gives the appearance of being simply available for visual inspection.  Just as the sidewalk can be apprehended by a simple act of seeing, so the biblical text seems capable of being understood by a simple act of reading.

But it’s telling that the root slithers snake-like under the sidewalk, subtly raising it and displacing the asphalt next to it.  In a similar way, the apparently smooth surface of the biblical text reveals bumps and ripples caused by something under the text, something that sometimes appears and sometimes is hidden.

There is always more to the text than what meets the eye.

Modern Art and the Bible (3)

July 22, 2016

IMG_20160714_145058050Here is a panel from Liliana Porter’s painting, The Traveler (currently housed in the Phoenix Art Museum).

It depicts a small ship on the edge of a mostly gray surface.

It moves from the center to the periphery–a movement of ec-centricity.  Are we to think of this movement as one of danger, of moving toward something unknown?

Or are we to attend to the ship’s smallness in relation to the surrounding gray?

Let the ship represent the interpreter of biblical texts.  Interpretation is always a movement toward something new, occasionally dangerous.  As the Gospel states, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52, NRSV).  Interpretation inevitably involves the bringing forth of some new treasure.  Sometimes the new is experienced as dangerous.

At the same time, the interpreter of a text floats on a vast sea of meaning.  No text can be exhaustively interpreted.  The interpreter is thus tiny in relation to the potential meaning lying in the biblical text.

The Traveler (2)Here is a second panel from The Traveler.  I include it only because of a detail.

IMG_20160714_145118874Pictured in the white field is a page from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, posed, appropriately, with a mirror (reminding the reader of the sequel, Through the Looking-Glass).

In the book that I am writing on the Bible, I use Alice as an example of someone landing in a foreign place and having to find her way about.  For me, this illustrates the situation of the reader of the Bible, finding himself or herself in a very different time and culture, with strange customs and beliefs.

Just as Alice’s adventures are a journey (especially in Through the Looking-Glass), so reading the Bible is a journey.  The reader is a traveler.

Modern Art and the Bible (II)

Shaking out the bed (cropped)

Dana Schultz, Shaking Out the Bed

July 19, 2016

Another report on modern art and its lessons for biblical interpretation.

This painting is named, “Shaking Out the Bed.”  It shows household items being flung up toward the viewer as a bed-sheet is shaken; there are also items lying on tables and the floor around the edges.  The painting is thus a combination of dynamic and static elements.  It’s a bit difficult to see the static elements at first, because the dynamic elements–the things flying upward–occupy the center of the painting and are visually more arresting.

This combination of movement and rest reminded me of John’s gospel.  There is, of course plenty of dynamism and movement in this gospel.  More than in the other gospels, in John’s gospel Jesus moves back and forth between Jerusalem and Galilee.  There is also more change of scene: In chapter 7, for instance, secondary characters repeatedly appear with questions and comments that both drive the narrative and guide the reader’s understanding of the narrative.

At the same time, John’s gospel is extraordinarily static in some respects.  It’s filled with discourse but little action.  Whole chapters go by with little but words.  Jesus is reported to be in a new location without indication of how he got there or why he moved.  This gospel is far more stage-like than cinematic.  There are static, minimalistic stagings–we often don’t know where Jesus is and it often doesn’t matter.  There are people talking, but in often in elaborately symbolic conversation.

To read John’s gospel well, we thus need to attend to both its dynamic and also its static elements.

Modern Art and the Bible (I)

July 15, 2016

I’m in Phoenix and visited the Phoenix Art Museum.  I was struck by the points of contact between modern/contemporary art and biblical interpretation.  So, here is the first in a series of very short comments on some pieces of art and some thoughts about interpretation.

Flowing forms

George Condo, Tumbling Forms

Here’s a piece, Tumbling Forms.  What struck me was the way in which the artist piled gobs of paint in layers.

Here’s an example:IMG_20160714_144026357




Another example:IMG_20160714_143953980

Whatever else this painting is doing, it is calling attention to itself as a painting.  Its caption tells the observer that it depicts something–tumbling forms–but its technique reminds the reader that it is a painting.  It enforces, in other words, a careful distinction between its being a depiction and its being a thing that self-consciously depicts.  By having the gobs of paint turn the painting into a three dimensional object that rises from the surface of the canvas, the artist ensures that the observer is not too deeply immersed in the object depicted, but instead attends to the painting as a painting, as something graphic.

This reminded me of the way in which the Bible sometimes calls attention to itself as writing, even as it directs the reader’s attention to the subject matter that is narrated or discussed.

For instance:

  • Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain” (Deuteronomy 5:3-4, NRSV).  Deuteronomy knows that the people who met with the Lord at Mount Horeb were all dead and that none of those being addressed in these verses were alive when the covenant was first made.  But it deliberately ignores that historical reality to make the point that the covenant is renewed in each generation.  It thus calls attention to itself as something other than narrative, even as it engages in narration.
  • Consider the preface to the gospel according to Luke.  Here the (implied) author steps out of the text to address the implied reader.
  • Finally, there is this passage in John’s gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah” (John 20:30-31, NRSV).  Here the author drops the pretense of simple narration and tells the reader why the narration exists.

In each of these instances, the Bible directs the reader’s attention away from what seems like a straightforward historical narrative and toward the text as something written–as the creation of a writer.

Like the painting above, the Bible wants the reader to be mindful of the way in which the Bible is a written work, even as it seeks to engross the reader in its subject matter.  In other words, it wants the reader to carefully attend to the scribal, graphic features of the Bible.

Dance, a Metaphor for Lent

Romeo and JulietTerrie and I last night went to see Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet.

One of the striking things about dance, when done well, is how effortless it seems.  We all know that dance requires a lot of effort, but when professional dancers perform, they seem to float above the floor.  Unlike the clumsy rest of us, there seems to be perfect coordination of body and spirit. The body has been perfectly spiritualized; the spirit has been perfectly embodied in the body’s movements.

This is a symbol of Lent.  Lent is a time for, among other things, detaching ourselves from the pleasures of the body.  It is easy to interpret this detachment as a revolt against the body and a rejection of its fleshiness, but we can also see detachment as an exercise designed to spiritualize the body–to overcome gap between the spirit and the body, so that the spirit can be fully embodied.

In theological circles these days it is customary to assume that we are embodied creatures, but perhaps embodiment is a task to be accomplished, not something that we can just assume.  Perhaps embodiment is an acquired skill, like dancing.

If so, then those who, in the spirit of Lent, achieve, however fragmentarily, the spiritualization of the body are like the greatest of dancers who in the act of dance realize the union of spirit and body.

God and Dance

SD Ballet

Terrie and I attended the San Diego Ballet’s “Evening of Jazz and Dance” yesterday.

It’s always inspiring to see people doing creative things excellently, like young people with fluid and sinuous movements.

But since I’m a theologian, my thoughts inevitably turn to theology.

During the performance, it occurred to me that there is an important analogy between God and dance (and music). Dance is a matter of form–tempo, rhythm, motion but above all the form of the body, its shape, its posture, the arrangement of head, hands, and limbs, as in a painting composition.

As form, dance is not about something or the expression of something. It simply is something. It doesn’t re-present something, it simply is presentation. When we see dancing, we don’t seek something behind the movement, looking for a meaning. The motion that we see is the whole thing.

There is, then a wonderful superficiality in dance (and music)–not superficial as in shallow, but superficial in the sense that everything lies on the surface, available for seeing.  We see the motion and hear the sounds, but not in order to get at something deeper.  There is nothing deeper; the motion and the sound are the depth.

There is a tradition in theology, going back to Aristotle, that thinks of God as form. Like dance, God is not about something or the expression of something. God simply is. As in dance, there is nothing behind God that would provide the real meaning of God. As in the experience of dance, in encountering God we experience the reality itself, not a reality being mediated to us by an expression.

With God, the divine form, given in the movement of revelation, is not the re-presentation of something behind the revelation or deeper.  The form lies right on the surface of revelation’s movement.

You can learn a lot from dance (and music).

“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:

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.