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Friday, June 16, 2006

Music, Religion

Posted by Adam Roberts on 06/16/06 at 06:35 AM

I’ve been toying with the notion of founding a new religion.  I don’t mean in an L Ron Hubbard sense, of course.  I mean as part of a book I’m planning to write; or more precisely, you know, in the service of the general business of plotting out imaginary worlds and the writing of fiction thereunto.  In the course of this I’ve been wondering what a religion might look like if it were predicated upon, say, a piece of music. But I don’t think it’s going to work, no sir, no madam.

Familiarity perhaps blunts us to the oddness of the fact that it is three intertextually related books are the starting points for religions which now claim as followers more than half the global population.  What I mean is that it’s odd that the visual arts and musical texts have not generated similar bodies of faith.  Don’t works of music move us and inspire us just as much as works of writing?  Indeed I’d say that, traditionally, music has enjoyed a greater reputation for putting the human listener in touch with numinous, transcendent or metaphysical states of mind.  Yet no religion, to my knowledge, has been predicated on a sacred musical text or a sacred visual artefact.  Naturally, music has often been written in the service of religious practice, from Mozart’s Requiem and Taverner’s Akathist of Thanksgiving, from hymns to Christian pop.  Similarly the visual arts have been marshalled with great vigour and often great success to the service of religion, from church frescoes and stained glass to rich and lengthy traditions of sculpture and painting.  But this is not the same thing.  Works of music and works of visual art have very frequently been fashioned as adjuncts to religion, but no religion has been founded in the first instance upon a work of music or a work of visual art.  Books, for some reason, are different.

The salient detail here is the fact of mere bookishness; which is to say not necessarily the fact of Great Book-ishness.  It so happens that the Koran, the Torah and the New Testament are great works of literature, consistently striking, powerful, poetic, uplifting.  But this is not, it seems, a necessary prerequisite of a founding religious text.  Some very widespread religions, belief-structures held sincerely by millions, have been founded on excessively feeble books: the Mormon testament, for instance, which reads as a thin pastiche of King James’s Bible, or the dreadful writing of L Ron Hubbard, patched together from orts and scraps of Pulp SF and the discourses of popular self-help, but which have nonetheless inspired and continue to inspire many hundreds of thousands.  Whatever it is that fills peoples souls with joy and meaning, it is not (it seems) literary or aesthetic quality in and of itself.

So why aren’t there widespread religions founded upon a markworthy visual artefact, or a stirring piece of music?  Why do the musical and visual arts follow after religion, rather than--as is the case with the Torah, the New Testament, the Koran--determining religious faith in the first place?  I’m interested in this question not because I’m religious, for I am not; but because literature, music and art play so large a part in my life.

Ideas are important for human minds, but the visual arts are clumsy at expressing ideas.  Ideas expressed in iconographic form are famously subject to misinterpretation.  And music expresses almost no ideas at all.  What music and the visual arts are good at is the affective: the emotional, stirring, exciting, moving, cheering, depressing and calming registers of the aesthetic experience.  Written art can do these things as well of course—perhaps not so all-embracingly as music or the visual arts, but nonetheless—but words are really the only medium for the thoughtful, intellectual, metaphysical and ideational registers.

I’m tempted to deduce from this that religion, so central a facet of social and individual human experience, derives in the first instance from the intellectual rather than the emotional requirements of homo sapiens.  But that is so striking and peculiar a sentence that my fingers almost rebel against typing it: because whilst (of course) it is true that religions offer people intellectual and even metaphysical satisfactions it has become almost a dogma of recent theological studies that the religious experience very specifically goes beyond rational discourse.  Science provides us, by and large, with better intellectual explanations of the world in which we find ourselves than do religions.  Faith is taken by many precisely to cover those (large and many) areas where science falls short, or fails: the sort of experience we can summarise with a word, ‘mystery’, a word which carries with it profound and particular theological connotations.  ‘Mystery’ is better captured by music and the visual arts: by the music of John Taverner or the pietas art of the Christian tradition—better captured precisely because these forms of art need not be too specific in their construction.

Indeed, there are artists who have considered this question of the mystery of (say) creation and have come down on the side of music rather than a verbal legislative programme.  J R R Tolkien, a very religious individual, of Catholic-Christian stripe, created an imaginary cosmos which he figured as sung into existence.  This is where the Silmarillion begins: Tolkien’s fictive God and angels singing a beautiful harmony, and this harmony becomes materialised as Middle Earth.  The original Evil enters the picture when Morgorth (Tolkien’s Lucifer) departs from the harmony to sing his own song, creating a dissonance in the divine music.  C S Lewis, Tolkien’s pal, did something similar in one of his Narnia books (The Magician’s Nephew, as it happens).  These are both touching and effective pieces of imaginative writing, but it’s just hard to see how it would work, because after all music lacks the referential specificity to be able (say) to separate out water and land, or conjure animals and plants.  A God who says Let There Be Light is one thing.  We can understand that the following event will be Light.  But a God who whistles a pleasant melody?  What sort of specific creation would follow from that?

Religion, in other words, somehow manages to elide on the one hand the requirements for iron specificity and on the other the requirements not to be too literally or deadeningly specific.  The letter killeth, after all.  It is the spirit that keepeth alive.  Or again: if we said of any statute law ‘this law captures and celebrates the essential mystery at the heart of justice’ then we’d in effect be saying it is a bad law.  The purpose of law is to be as precise and unambiguous as possible.  We maintain enormous and ruinously expensive social structures (courts, judges, lawyers) to mill Law as fine as it can be milled precisely for this purpose.

But it seems to me, from my outsider’s perspective (and away from the centres of barmy religious fundamentalism) that for many believers nowadays religion is no longer the Law.  Religion is no longer statutes, but a melody, an aesthetic numinous in excess of the rational.

It could be argued that the Christian holy text includes two, rather incompatible, myths of creation, as many many students of Bible have pointed out.  In Genesis the world is shaped, moulded or sculpted into existence by a hands-on creator—a world first illuminated, then landscaped, a world, in other words, that is primordially sculpture (visual and palpable).  John, on the other hand, insists that the world begins with the logos, with words, that the world and God Himself is of a type with God’s holy book: literature.  The Christian saviour, Jesus, shares this double identity.  He is a carpenter, a practitioner of the plastic arts, a guy who heals people by laying on his hands.  But he is also a story-teller, a shaper of parables and prayers.  Christianity, in other words, elaborates a myth balanced between the sculptural and the verbal.

But surely Christianity as a religion is premised on the word, and not on the plastic arts?  Imagine a particularly fine and aesthetically inspiring table, made by Jesus himself, paraded around the Mediterranean in the middle years of the first century AD.  Imagine that the sheer physical beauty of this artefact converts millions, and eventually billions, to the faith.  Surely this is an absurd supposition.  But why should it be?

To be clear: I’m not talking about the medieval tradition of (in effect) worshipping shreds of Christ’s body or fragments of his cross: for those, like altar pieces or stained glass windows, are post, not prior, to the faith.  I’m trying to make a different point.  It is, I think, inconceivable that somebody could be moved heart and soul to give up their lives to Christ on the basis on some blood liquefying in a vial without the contextualising literary superstructure of gospel and myth.

Can we imagine any non-literary artwork so profound that it would move people to give up their previous beliefs and adhere to a new god? 

I’m not sure we can.  Moreover it is something specifically abdured by both Christianity and Islam (I mean the worship of artworks, something which is known as ‘idolatory’ and supposed to be injurious to the soul and the prospects of post-mortem reward).  Worshipping the word is a different matter.  There is a broad and long-standing Islamic tradition of extreme reverence for the actual material body of the Koran, the paper upon which the holy words are printed, as well as for the meaning of those words.

Is music a different case?  Can we imagine a piece of instrumental music upon which a functioning religion could be premised?  But I don’t think we can.  For instance: a piece of music, composed by Christ himself, is played in many locations around the Mediterranean in the middle years of the first century AD, and the sheer physical beauty of this harmony converts millions, and eventually billions, to the faith.


Close Encounters of the Third Kind

By on 06/16/06 at 08:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yoou should check out the church of St. John Coltrane:


Now, the existence of this church may not undermine your argument, since it is still a basically Christian church.  But what if there were a Coltrane Reformation of sorts.

Also, with the existence of new forms of recorded media, why not a Church of Dylan?  Something that already has a sound foundation, but in all cases has around it industries of people who write about Dylan, his life, and his art.

To be systematic and organized requires the tools of organization:  of which print media are indispensible.  A song alone doesn’t tell you how to live. 

Another line of argument:  Might religious systems not be drawn to the most durable, reproducable means of communication?  To be crassly materialistic about the question, wouldn’t churches that founded themselves on media that degrade more easily over time simply disappear from the earth for want of some way to spread the word?

By Lee Konstantinou on 06/16/06 at 11:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What music and the visual arts are good at is the affective: the emotional, stirring, exciting, moving, cheering, depressing and calming registers of the aesthetic experience.

What music is especially good for is creating a sense of community among people making music together. There are any number of books that discuss this, not the least of which is my own Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. But that’s theory, not stories—though the book does have a good many anecdotes throughout. You need to look at religion in non-literate cultures. For stories:

Steven Friedson, Dancing Prophets—an anthropological monograph where the anthro talks a bit here and there about his participation in the dancing and spirit possession.

Gilbert Rougement, Music and Trance—the standard review of the subject with some interesting remarks on opera (pp. 242 ff.).

Maya Deren, Divine Horsement—finding one’s way to Haitian voodoo cult and becoming initiated into it.

Colin Turnbull, The Forst People—see the discussion of after-dinner dancing and story telling (pp. 134 ff.).

And what’s the Ishmael Reed novel that talks of “jes grew”?

By Bill Benzon on 06/16/06 at 12:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Religion is no longer statutes, but a melody, an aesthetic numinous in excess of the rational.

I’ve got some remarks on plain-song that seem relevant here (Beethoven’s Anvil, pp. 245-246):

The musical version of this story starts with plainsong, the liturgical music of the medieval Christian church. During the medieval period most plainsong was used within religious communities as a daily aspect of their religious life, rather than being performed with a congregation on Sundays. While this body of music has its roots in pre-Christian music of the Jewish service, it is generally known as Gregorian chant, after Pope Gregory I, who played a major role in organizing and codifying the chants late in the 6th Century CE. these chants are generally regarded as the fountainhead of Western classical music, all of whose forms all have some link to their Gregorian lineage, though many other musics are eventually put to classical use. For this reason we can think of the classical music as developing under a Gregorian Contract.

Obviously Christianity is very much a religion of the book and doctrine was central to the medieval church. But plainsong was central to the life of the full-time religious. Through daily communal chant they affirmed the religious community in the context of which they preserved, maintained, and developed those doctrinal words. And it is this extended community of the Christian religious that, over time, forged the communal that turned a bunch of warring pagan tribesmen into Christendom.

By Bill Benzon on 06/16/06 at 12:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks Bill; that’s very interesting.  I’ll try and check out some of those titles.

Could we say that plainsong is amongst the most verbal, least musical music?  I don’t mean that in a derogatory way; it’s very beautiful.  But it isn’t famous for melodic variety or invention, for musical texture or depth, is it?

By Adam Roberts on 06/16/06 at 12:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Religion aims not simply at filling in the blanks for science, but at understanding and describing that which is Most Real in life.

Art is [hopefully] meant to portray something felt in real life.

Words are better interpreted than music or pictures. Not to say art doesn’t convey meaning—it’s just much easier to misunderstand the artist than the author.

By on 06/16/06 at 01:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d say that plainsong is almost pure melody, but melody that operates within relatively narrow constraints. Since it is sung in unison (or parallel octaves) it has no harmony. Once harmony developed within Western music, arranging plainsong melodies for standard four voices became a standard exercise. FWIW, Western musical notation developed from the notation used for plainsong melodies. At first the notation was just wavy lines written above the words; the development of notes and staff took place over time, centuries I believe. That old melodic notation is best thought of as a mnemonic device that served to jog the memory of someone familiar with the music, but it wouldn’t convey the melody to someone who’d never heard it.

Given that many plainsong chants were taken over from the Jewish litergy, that means some of those melodies have been more or less in continual use for over two millennia.

Plainsong is quite different from, e.g. the music that Mayan Deren danced to. That music was highly rhythmic, minimal words—perhaps vocables rather than actual words. No real use of harmony either.

By Bill Benzon on 06/16/06 at 01:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

We should leave open the possibility that “religions” seem to be founded primarily on written texts precisely because Christianity (and then also Judaism and Islam) are the standards for what counts as “religion.” Nietzsche seemed to think that something like “Greek religion” was primarily musical—and today, concerts and films constitute the closest things we have to a secular liturgy.

Jean-Luc Nancy has a new (in translation) book out on Christian visual art—I haven’t read it yet.  He has a couple essays in The Muses that deal with it, though.

There’s also a strong mystical trend in philosophy—Wittgenstein, for instance (who is supposed to stand at or near the foundation of a certain kind of logical positivism), or Hegel’s “the supersensible is appearance as appearance.” I’d like to think that the properly religious kind of mysticism has more to do with the philosophical kind of mysticism than with getting goosebumps.

By Adam Kotsko on 06/16/06 at 01:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think we can say that Judaism, Christianity, or Islam are religions purely of The Book.  In each case, until the 19th century (or perhaps even the 20th), the vast majority of the believers in these faiths were illiterate.  It’s not the stories or the rules written in Holy Text that form the basis of these religions, but the communities of ritual.  Latin Masses could hold Roman Catholicism together (just as Hebrew cantorial traditions today) because the religion was about the sum total of the ritual moment, not the rules or stories of the New Testament or Deuteronomy (plus, these stories were often gleaned by an illiterate mass from religious icons, stained glass windows, and so on).  The music and performance of, say, the more manic of your black American churches suggest the same.  I’d venture a theory: the more bookish the sect, the more shallow the actual faith of the believers.  That is to say, the more the believers themselves attend to Holy Writ, the more intellectual the religion.

By on 06/16/06 at 01:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

. . . concerts and films constitute the closest things we have to a secular liturgy.

The standard line on Ray Charles is that he took the religious music of the charismatic black church and give it secular lyrics. This caused some consternation in the black religious community, which was depicted in the recent biopic.

Basically, a whole family of popular musical styles, from blues through jazz to rock, etc. owes a debt to the Black church. That’s where you find (St.) John Coltrane. He’s one of many jazz musicians raised in a charismatic church. On his way to his mature style he devoted a great deal of time to studying Indian classical music. I’ve been told that the oldest melodies in that tradition sound like Gregorian chant.

By Bill Benzon on 06/16/06 at 01:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The German domination of classical music owes a lot to Luther, who was a musician himself and made participation in music central to his church (whereas many Calvinists banned music). Catholics used music but it was less participational.

If you want to go far afield, odor plays a major role in Indic religions. Some people are born stinky or smirched, and they cannot attain enlightenment but must go through many recycles of rebirths to gradually cleanse themselves.

Holy men smell good. Bathing, incense, and perfumes are extensively used to help attain holiness.

By John Emerson on 06/16/06 at 08:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Martin Luther’s forward to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae, a collection of chorale motets published in 1538, as follows:

I, Doctor Martin Luther, wish all lovers of the unshackled art of music grace and peace from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ! I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God. The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them.... In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits [italics mine, WLB] ... Our dear fathers and prophets did not desire without reason that music be always used in the churches. Hence, we have so many songs and psalms. This precious gift has been given to man alone that he might thereby remind himself that God has created man for the express purpose of praising and extolling God. However, when man’s natural musical ability is whetted and polished to the extent that it becomes an art, then do we note with great surprise the great and perfect wisdom of God in music, which is, after all, His product and His gift; we marvel when we hear music in which one voice sings a simple melody, while three, four, or five other voices play and trip lustily around the voice that sings its simple melody and adorn this simple melody wonderfully with artistic musical effects, thus reminding us of a heavenly dance, where all meet in a spirit of friendliness, caress and embrace. A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.


.... if one sings diligently with skill and application, then music can make man good and at peace with himself and his fellows by providing him a view of beauty. Music drives away the devil and makes people happy; it induces one to forget all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and other vices, quia pacis tempore regnat musica (for music reigns in times of peace).

By Bill Benzon on 06/16/06 at 08:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs."

Objectivity and civility were not among Luther’s strengths.

I suspect that music is processed through a track of its own. Aspergers people, for example, are oblivious to himan relationships and have a flattened affect, but their appreciation of music is undamaged. (Schneider, Discovering my Autism).

By John Emerson on 06/16/06 at 09:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Terrific post.  In my fiction, I’ve got a leader who founds a religion as well and I have puzzled over a similar question.
I must disagree with your premise, however.  No religion is founded on a text (as opposed to art or music) as you’ve predicated.  You’ve missed something quite essential to the founding and institutionalizing of religion.  The three “intertextual” religions you named are founded on something much more fundamental than the arts (scripture, music, art) through which they find expression.  That something is best termed “experience”.
Judaism is founded on the liberation and nation-making experience of the Mosaic tribes.  This experience was written down, codified, if you will, in the tales, laws, and commentaries on the tales and laws of those witnesses nearby in time.  Christianity is founded on the experience of a few men and women who experienced the profound teaching of a carpenter/rabbi who sacrificed his own life so they wouldn’t be scourged and crucified by the imperium of the day.  They told stories about him, mythologized him, and ultimately deified him because not only did he speak about and teach the mystery of love of the “other”, he lived it.  Islam is founded on the experience of a tribesman who had a vision of a unified Arab people united around the single deity of the Abrahamic faiths.
The writings of these faiths, the artifices, followed the experience.  Music and art also attempted to convey aspects of these experiences, though, indeed, the texts are central and primal.  Not least because they attempt to communicate and interpret the experience for subsequent adherents and generations.
So, your question can now be reframed:  Not that a religion cannot be predicated upon a work of art or music (because, as shown, the religions of the text are not predicated upon their respective texts), but can the central experience (say, the unification of diverse tribes under a central legal authority, the institution of “love” as the recognition of the interests of the “other") which is profound enough to predicate a religion upon be reliably communicated and propagated through the medium of music or art?
The answer, indeed, may be no, just as you surmise.  However, I feel it a more appropriate exercise when the question is properly framed.

By on 06/16/06 at 10:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If you need a bit of music to base a religion on, I suggest Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. A narrative of despair, yearning, and redemption. The story of a lost soul remembering the past, and seeking forgiveness. A tale of hope. A tale of happiness.

Moonlight, turn your face to the moonlight
Let your memory lead you
Open up, enter in
If you find there the meaning of what happiness is
Then a new life will begin.

I must add that Grizzabella was possibly the hardest poem T. S. Eliot ever worked on, and that he once noted that composing it was the closest he ever came to having a religious experience. He ended up abandoning the project because it was getting to be too big a strain on his emotional and physical helath.

By mythusmage on 06/18/06 at 12:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"He ended up abandoning the project because it was getting to be too big a strain on his emotional and physical health.”

Didn’t Eliot do that fairly often?

By John Emerson on 06/18/06 at 06:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I doubt he ever went back to Grizzabella. I haven’t heard of it published in anything like a finished form.

It didn’t help that T. S. Eliot was dying from cancer by that time, and relations with his wife* were going south at a rapid pace. Then add in the fact Grizzabella had a very different tone from his playful Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats poems. Put all that in with the changing tastes in poetry and you’ve got a depressing situation.

*She is owed a lot of credit for putting up with his self-pitying crap.

By mythusmage on 06/18/06 at 10:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This is a great document-given me inspiration for my A level French Coursework-cheers!

By on 11/20/06 at 09:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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