Is Christianity better sung than said?

Luther and family: he regarded music as God’s second gift to Man after theology

Music and Faith
By Jonathan Arnold
Boydell, 288pp, £30/$40

Few readers of this magazine would, I imagine, challenge the idea that music is a Good Thing with a proper place in liturgy. It hardly seems a controversial statement. And it might not seem to warrant a 288-page book to argue the point. But then, Jonathan Arnold’s Music and Faith isn’t exactly an argument. It’s a voyage round the subject, written by an Anglican priest, the current Dean of Chapel at Magdalen College Oxford, and presented as a series of conversations linked by commentaries that read as though they originated in some kind of doctoral dissertation. Which is to say, they’re not a literary joy.

The prose is leaden and repetitive, the conversations puzzlingly random, drawn from interviews with people who include a professor of evolutionary psychology, a painter whose work is a response to musical notation, a historian researching medieval liturgical drama and a musicologist writing a thesis on the songs of ABBA. I wish I could report their conversations as being alive with interest and wisdom. But they aren’t.

So why bother with this book? Well, if you stay the course it offers something like a potted history of how the world of music has fitted into the world of theology.
There are plenty of choice quotes along the way – one of my favourites being from the Anglican cleric Giles Fraser, who asserts that “Christianity is always better sung than said,” because “to the extent that all religion exists to make raids into the what is unsayable, the musicians penetrate further than most”.

This hasn’t always been an orthodox position. Many of the Church’s early spokesmen took a cautious view of music, summed up by St Augustine in the 4th century, who embraced it as part of the divine order but thought its sensual beauty harboured danger.

And by the time you reach the Reformation, Protestant clerics are positively lining up to delegitimise the musical expression of spiritual thought. Luther himself was actually not among them, regarding music as God’s second greatest gift to creation (after theology) on the grounds that it gives shape to our unvoiced thoughts and demonstrates our implicit beliefs. But those who followed him took a harder line. The 16th-century Swiss miserablist Zwingli wanted music banished from church use. And though the Englishman John Merbecke is chiefly remembered as the author of the lyrically serene chant ubiquitous in High Anglican contexts (and taken up by English Catholics post-Vatican II), he believed in praising through the mind rather than the voice, denouncing part-singing and descants as intended to “delight the vain, foolish and idle ears of fond and fantastical men”.

Of course, the Catholic Church, responding to the Reformation at the Council of Trent, had views of its own on elaborate word-setting that obscured the meaning of sung texts. And those views feed into a broad historical perspective that Jonathan Arnold lays out in attractively neat terms.

There is, he argues, a medieval period of “experiential” Christianity in which the non-verbal essence of music is deemed appropriate to spiritual expression and indicative of what the 13th-century French bishop Durandus imagined as “heavenly joy … such that words will cease”.

But then comes the logo-centricity of a Renaissance dominated by Protestant discourse, where words matter too much to bear decoration. And finally there’s our own time which Arnold calls “post-secular”, dominated by religious illiteracy and (as he sees it) a return to the pre-Reformation primacy of the non-verbal that favours music as vital to the search for something beyond ourselves: a perfect expression of faith as a process, or journey, exploring meaning through encounter.

In other words, we’ve turned full circle, rediscovering the medieval sense of awe that recognises music as a vehicle for transcendence. As the science author Robert Jourdain puts it, music “for a few moments makes us larger than we really are … the world more orderly than it really is”. And that sense of order is, if nothing else, significant to our psychological wellbeing.

According to the Oxford psychologist Anthony Storr, “though music is not a belief system … its importance and appeal also depend on its being a way of ordering human experience”, making sense of the fearful mysteries of life and a “source of reconciliation, exhilaration and hope”. And in doing so, it of course offers something beyond the context of religion. Music, says George Steiner, “has long been and continues to be the unwritten theology of those who lack or reject any formal creed”.

But it gets complicated when you open the debate to choice and quality of music. We all have our own sense of what does or doesn’t work in liturgy. As the Anglican bishop Nick Baines puts it: “I go along with Wesley that if you sing you learn your theology from what you sing. And if you sing rubbish you believe in rubbish. Language matters.”

How this fits with Joseph Ratzinger’s assertion that “the singing of the Church comes ultimately out of love”, I’m not sure, but it brings us back to St Augustine whose “Cantare amatis est” is maybe all we need to know about the subject. Singing is a lover’s thing. And if we love, it’s what we do.