Donald Saliers, “Sounding The Symbols Of Faith”, in Kroeker, ed. Music In Christian Worship

When we gather in community to sing and make music to praise God, or perhaps to lament our grief, deep memory is required.  Any musical act of prayer itself must go beyond the surface of the words, beyond the musical score.  The memory of God becomes incarnate in the gathering beyond our own personal memories, something going on for many centuries.  We are more than we can think; we are more than we can feel.  So singing and making music together that expresses our life before God is, in this way, identity confirming and future opening – duty and delight.  Something about being human required this.  Something about the way we come to know and understand our destiny and our world through the senses is provided for us; things God holds out for us in the gathered assembly.  One thinks of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ slightly paraphrased poem here: “The beauty was there but the beholder wanting, which two, once they meet, the heart rears wings and hurls earth off from under our feet.”  Something is there waiting for us, waiting to be released. – Don Saliers, “Sounding the Symbols of Faith”, in Charlotte Kroeker, ed. Music in Christian Worship: At The Service Of The Liturgy, pp. 19-20

Just as with Wolterstorff’s essay, I read Saliers’ while listening to music.  This time it was the rock band Porcupine Tree, a completely different musical environment, to say the least, from Arch Enemy.  All the same, to sit and read Saliers speak about the necessity of worship being a whole-body, whole life experience in which we taste and touch and sing and hear and even dance, all the while a rock band performs a variety of songs that offer listeners and concert-goers the chance to do just that offered a perspective that sitting in silence, or perhaps sitting and listening to Bach’s B-minor Mass might not have offered.  And while I write this, I am listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as conducted by Leonard Bernstein after the Berlin Wall came down back in 1989.  Yet again, a completely different musical environment, at a moment in our collective history in which the future seemed full of possibilities that had not existed for far too long.  Beethoven’s music and Schiller’s poetry combine to offer the world a vision of the human family gathered together in bonds of unity that even the most earnest liturgist could hope to accomplish.

Saliers’ essay does not focus so much on music per se as it does the whole context of worship qua worship, as a whole-life, whole body-and-soul experience.  More than that, as the quote above makes clear, when the Spirit is present, we are joined by all the saints, past and present; all creation in its glory as God made it; and the Spirit joins us all together, brings us all together so that all of us as creatures created in unity by God can and must and do celebrate what God has done, is doing, and will do, in that community we call Church.

And it is music that is, in a way, the binding force of it all.  Precisely because it brings together the human soma in a way no other art form can – we hear the sounds; our body moves to the rhythms; we see the instruments played – it is here that worship becomes true worship, liturgy the true work of the people of God, and we are blessed and God is praised and we can go forth together to do the work to which we are called.  This is the point of worship, after all, and it is precisely music that makes this possible.

Saliers is clear that he makes no judgments about the ways consumerist culture has pervaded even the sacred spaces of the church, saying we live in that particular glass house; he also is clear that the aesthetic ideal – art for art’s sake and no other – at least offers the unchurched an opportunity to experience the numinous and transcendent, as well as offering an opportunity for those who construct liturgy to understand the power of art in all its forms to create in us humans a sense of awe and wonder before the beautiful.  I also found his warning about the demonic potential of art, using the example of Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, a model camp used for propaganda purposes by the Nazis, where Jews performed Bach, Mozart, and even Jazz before being shipped off to be gassed, as an important warning about being too romantic in our grasping after the aesthetic dimension qua aesthetics.  Unless we are willing to place our artistic desires under the guidance of the God we are to worship, we may very well end up on the shadow side of history without even knowing it.

All in all, Saliers’ essay is a beautiful introduction to how to do aesthetic theology, keeping in mind that the aesthetics serves the theological reflection rather than becomes an alternative expression of theological reflection.

Also, because it’s a piece by Don Saliers, I can’t resist including something by the duo of which his daughter, Emily, is a part.