Some Love from Begbie: Music and Metaphor

Arts and TheologyI’m currently reading Jeremy Begbie’s Resounding Truth and am digging it so far. Unlike other books by Begbie that I’ve read, this one attempts to look at what theology can bring to music. Most of the other books were the other way around (what can music bring to theology). In the first chapter, Begbie digs around something integral to music and the arts in general: the idea of metaphor.

Starting on page 50, he starts with the metaphor being a “surplus of meaning”:

The different terms of the metaphor each draw on a whole range of connotations and associations of the the words…thus a metaphor generates a whole new set of new meanings for us, and just because they are generated this way, these new meanings can be apprehended only through this metaphor, by being drawn into its life. Thus a metaphor is irreducible.

Begbie goes on to say that unlike many visual arts, music does not live or die based on referring outside of itself. It is a “stream of metaphors” that reference itself constantly. The rhythms that we hear or the repetitions of melodies, for example, all reside within the music themselves.

And the metaphor creates something unique, or at least something other than a wooden description. If I say, “My friend is a rock,” I could have said,”My friend is strong.” But this doesn’t have the amount of connotations and associations that Begbie’s quote spoke of. And this also brings up the question why use the metaphor at all if strength is the only thing I mean? When David says that God has broken his bones, does he mean God actually broke his bones? There is something more going on here- something that says much more than what appears initially on the page. That’s why Hebrew poetry can be so terse, and yet so deep and almost timeless, but I digress…

This metaphor of music that can happen from completely within itself may not be able to refer to specific words or thoughts like “my cat is fat” but that does not mean it does not refer at all. It seems to me the biggest push that comes from music’s use of metaphor is a realization that there is something going on out there, outside of ourselves and outside of mere materialism. As Begbie writes, “Art reminds us that in fact the world always exceeds our grasp and perception.”

Obviously something like this gets me excited, being the music-theology-nerd. And we all know that I like Begbie. These few quick thoughts show us that we need art, we need music, for more than mere entertainment. It is part of theology.

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