lenten journal: the melody of theology


    I graduated from high school in 1974, which means all my high school dances were before disco took over, which is to say we had live bands. One of my friends was on the committee that picked the bands for our dances. If they could play “Free Ride” and “La Grange” they got the gig. The little bit of recorded music that was played was saved for when the band took a break and was mostly all slow dances. The best slow dance of them all was “Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues. Those of us who owned the record of Days of Future Passed knew that “Nights” went on beyond the radio edit into a poem, “Late Lament,” that finished with these words:

    cold hearted orb that rules the night
    removes the colors from our sight
    red is grey and yellow, white
    but we decide which is right
    and which is an illusion

    I thought of the closing lines of the poem as I read further into This Is Your Brain on Music this afternoon because Levitin was discussing perceptual illusions and the brain. He used Kaniza diagram to demonstrate how our brains perceive what is not actually there.

    No matter how much I tell myself the triangles aren’t actually there, I still see them. So what does that mean about what I see? Is it “there” or not? It comes down to what we mean by that word illusion. The dictionary says, in psychology, it means, “a perception that represents what is perceived in a way different from the way it is in reality.” Then it says reality means, “something that constitutes a real or actual thing, as distinguished from something that is merely apparent.” Levitin has more to say:

    Perhaps the ultimate illusion in music is the illusion of structure and form. There is nothing in a sequence of notes themselves that creates the rich emotional associations we have with music, nothing about a scale, a chord, or a chord sequence that intrinsically causes us to expect a resolution. Our ability to make sense of music depends on experience, and on neural structures that can learn and modify themselves with each new song we hear, and with each new listening to an old song. Our brains learn a kind of musical grammar that is specific to the music of our culture, just as we learn to speak the language of our culture . . . Music, then, can be thought of as a type of perceptual illusion in which our brain imposes structure and order on a sequence of sounds. Just how this structure leads us to experience emotional reactions is part of the mystery of music. (108-109)

    Illusion. Reality. Perception. Actual. True.

    All of them are words in common usage and, when it comes to talking about how we think and feel as we live our lives out on this planet, they become charged, even dangerous. Listen to Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

    Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes – The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

    There is what we see and hear, and then there’s what we see and hear. Real and true are not necessarily synonymous. The reality is any musical sounds are made up of vibrations, yet when we hear them, we hear music: voices, instruments, melody, harmony. And we hear the same music: When James Taylor makes the strings of his guitar vibrate, we all recognize the introduction and are ready to sing along:

    when you’re down and troubled
    and you need some love and care
    and nothing oh nothing is going right
    close your eyes and think of me
    and soon I’ll will be there
    to brighten up even your darkest night

    As I was thinking about the implications of what Levitin was saying, I remembered a book (or at least the title of a book) I hadn’t pulled off the shelf in a long time: Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Melody of Theology. I opened the book to find these two quotes as epigraphs:

    Without ceasing and without silence, they praise the goodness of God, in that venerable and thrice-illumined melody of theology. – Nicephorus of Constantinople

    The virtuosity (or special calling) of a person is . . . the melody of a person’s life – Frederick Schleiermacher

    Perhaps, we can also say of theology what Levitin says of music: the ultimate illusion is that of structure and form as we respond to the rhythm of God, to the melody of faith. I find myself, again, at the hymn that closed last night’s post:

    my life goes on in endless song
    above earth’s lamentation
    I feel the sweet though far off hymn
    that hails a new creation
    through all the tumult and the strife
    I hear the music ringing
    it finds an echo in my soul
    how can I keep from singing

    Faith, said the writer of Hebrews, is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Just as we are moved to love and laughter and tears by the perceptual illusion of music and melody, so are our lives called and changed by the melody of theology that knocked Paul off his horse on the road to Damascus, sent the Samaritan woman running back into town to bring people to see the man that knew her life story and still loved her, forgave Peter for his denials of Jesus over breakfast on the beach, and left Moses barefoot in front of a burning bush.

    Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes – The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

    The mystery of music, Levitin says, is in the “perceptual illusion” of the structure our brains impose on the sounds we hear. The mystery of Communion is in something more than the motions of passing the bread and wine to one another. The mystery of faith is in the evidence of things not seen in the melodies that are our lives.



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