Melting The Venusberg: A Feminist Theology Of Music by Heidi Epstein

Tannhauser In The Venusberg by August von Heckel. As presented by Wagner, the Venusberg is a garden of carnal delights, whose forbidden fruits tantalize.

Music’s theological significance now resides, not in its incarnation of harmony and order, but in its promiscuity and disintegration, that is, in its disorderly conveyance of power, pleasure, and intimacy among willing bodies. – Heidi Klein, Melting The Venusberg: A Feminist Theology Of Music, p.186

Few Christian doctrines are grasped as superficially as the Incarnation. Oh, we say the words of the Creed, that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. All the same, ever since St. Paul, most likely unconsciously, expressed his culture’s ambivalence regarding embodiment, we Christians have sought to minimize the full import of the declaration that in the man Jesus is the fullness of the divine Son of God. Jesus is a man. He got tired and hungry. He fell ill with all its uncomfortable bodily side-effects. He broke wind after a good meal. He enjoyed wine and festivities. And, yes, he understood sexual arousal at an embodied level. It is this last that we so often refuse even to imagine. How is it possible to claim dogmatically that Jesus of Nazareth was both fully human and fully divine if we cannot accept that this same Jesus understood the power of human sexuality? I suppose imagining Jesus farting is funny enough; there’s just something bordering on blasphemous, however, imagining Jesus having sexual feelings and thoughts.

Of the many gifts feminist and womanist theological re-readings have offered, it is this reclamation of the blessedness of our embodied selves in all their fullness that are most to be celebrated. By turning the tables on millennia of what author Heidi Epstein calls, in the title of one of her chapters, “A Phallic Rage For Order”, we are reintroduced to ourselves as whole beings, body-and-soul indivisible with the possibility that precisely in our enfleshed, embodied existence lies both the reality of salvation as well as a rich source of theological reflection. Overthrowing the dualities of traditional dialectics of body/soul, immanence/transcendence, sacred/ profane, in feminist theologies we are offered the possibility of an integrated understanding of salvation-as-reintegration of that which sin has rent asunder.

Heidi Epstein’s Melting The Venusberg* is an important, I daresay necessary, corrective to much of the tradition of theologizing about music we in the west have continued even to our day. Beginning her deconstructing of the western Christian tradition of theologizing regarding music with the great pre-Socratic philosopher Pythagoras, whose discovery of the way certain harmonic ratios are reflected in numerical ratios and relations, then through Plato’s preference for a restrained, perfectly harmonized music that reflects the image of the Form both of number and music, most of those who have commented on music, from John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Thomas up through the reformers to the 20th century with Karl Barth’s effusive theologizing regarding Mozart and Jaroslav Pelikan’s similarly enraptured commentary on Bach, have insisted that it is this harmonic resonance alone that both demonstrates and embodies the perfection of what Hildegard of Bingen called Jesus as God-made-music.

The western tradition has always maintained that music has an ethical and pedagogical core; in learning of harmony’s numerical perfection, people (men) would be educated into recognizing the goodness, truth, and beauty of Creation (an idea St. Augustine stole from Plato; an idea that continues to influence musicology and theology today). We learn about God through music. As her survey of the history of western theological reflection upon music demonstrates, however, Epstein emphasizes it is not just “music” as some abstract conception, but particular modes, with an emphasis upon harmony rather than either melody or rhythm. Indeed, it was precisely contemporaneous popular musics through the history of the west, with their emphases upon just those other elements, sidelining the numerical perfection of harmony as servant to other masters, that drew Christian commentator’s disdain. Like the Venusberg, music that impacts us bodily is a danger precisely because it is a pleasure and should thus be shunned, even damned.

In our fractured, post-modern, post-Christian context, however, this pursuit of harmonic perfection at the expense of the embodied pleasures of music is no longer even desirable, let alone theoretically defensible. Both theoretically and practically, Epstein offers an understanding of music that is wholly incarnational without ever losing sight that, as such, both sides must exist together. Theoretically, she defines music as a set of embodied practices, keeping it whole rather than, as she says, “dissecting” music’s body by breaking it down to its constituent parts in order to understand its whole. Practically she retrieves Hildegard of Bingen’s apologia for her own and her convent’s music-making against official clerical censure. She tells the story of Renaissance nuns in Bologna who defied clerical bans to create music in a contemporary idiom that was appreciated both for its aesthetic and contemplative powers. She reclaims woman-as-performer – something the west has always denigrated as little more than sexually promiscuous teasing (consider for a moment much of the criticism leveled at Nikki Minaj) – by retelling the stories of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and performance artist Diamanda Galas, we are confronted with the embodied practices of woman as conveyor of (musical) theological truths in subversive, transgressive ways precisely because of the sexual and ethical power they live in and through their musical performances. When we revision ourselves in light of Epstein’s ideas, passion and contemplation are no longer opposites, but inseparably linked through the disharmonies and even dissonances of Music-as-Woman. Rather than emasculating men (something men either covertly or overtly feared, at least according to much musicological theory since the 18th century in particular), a feminist theology of music makes us all, woman and man, whole again as we celebrate not the dialectic of Incarnation but its ever-present duality: always together in the single body of the God-man Jesus of Nazareth.

I’m not sure Epstein’s work is a “great” work, if only because I think the era of “great” theological works is long behind us. I do, however, recommend this book to anyone interested in thinking in new, productive, seductive ways about the revelatory power inherent in music.

*As envisioned by Wagner, the Venusberg is a cave/castle ruled by the eternal temptress, a place both of danger and pleasure. Epstein’s title, therefore, is equivocal in its notion of the “melting” of such a center of female empowerment. I accept, however, that precisely because it’s an obvious metaphor for women’s sexual power over men – a cave filled with both pleasure (sexual intercourse) and danger (dissipation in sexual wantonness; fathering an unwanted child) – the idea of “melting” also has an obvious double entendre I’ll let the reader consider for him- or herself.

Sunday Morning Make Us All Feel Better

This weekend has not turned out the way I planned or wanted it to turn out.  I could sit around and bemoan that, or I could comfort myself a tad and move on.  I’m choosing the latter, if only because the former is kind of childish.  The two or three of you who read Friday afternoon’s post remember the drill, except this time I’m using my Choral and Sacred Music Playlist (thank you all 76 followers!  You’re my heroes!).

1. Tomas Luis de Victoria – “Lamentations Ieremiae Prophetae: Iod” – Tenebrae, Nigel Short conducting

2. Ralph Vaughan Williams – “Old 100th” – Christ Church Cathedral Choir

3. Thomas Tallis – Lamentations of Jeremiah I – The Tallis Scholars

4.Johann Sebastian Bach – Mass in G Minor, Qui tollis – The Lutheran Masses, The Sixteen, Harry Christophers conducting

5. Cristobal Morales – “Requiem For Phillip II, Offertorium: Domine Jesu Christe” – Gabrieli Consort & Players, Paul McGreesh conducting

6. Ralph Vaughan Williams – “Mass in G Minor: Kyrie” – Christ Church Cathedral Choir Oxford, Stephen Darlington conducting

7. Maurice Durufle – “Quatre Motets: Ubi Caritas” – The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, Christopher Marlowe conducting

8. Anonymous – “Even Like The Hunted Hind” – The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips conducting

9. Anonymous – “Wash Me Thoroughly From My Wickedness” – Choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Dr. John Dykes Bower conducting

10. Anonymous – “Give Me The Wings of Faith” – Chichester Cathedral Choir

And the extra for the video!