A Musical Case for Typological Realism, 4
April 14, 2016

Time as a realm of participation can be difficult for us imaginatively to grasp. While music is a profoundly temporal art, exploring the medium of time like no other, most of our temporal experience seems decidedly unmusical in character, disjointed and unorchestrated. The form in which we naturally discover time is seldom very musical; rather, time must be rendered musical. Yet any temporal form of participation seems to depend upon such an establishment of musicality.

The Scriptures could be read as a straightforward revelation of orchestrated history. However, it might be more apt to view them as a presentation of the manner in which God has created music within and out of human dissonance and discordance. The unmusical character of immature time and the chaotic cacophony of fallen time are overcome by God’s orchestration, which forms a new temporal unity, as throughout history times that would have been alienated are caught up in the majesty of a single mighty symphony.

The concept of recapitulation is illuminating here. Christ enters into the dissonance of human temporalities, into the discordance of flawed and incomplete presentations of humanity’s theme, and performs that theme in full himself, finally bringing to full and resounding realization a glory what had previously only been most weakly gestured at. In light of Christ’s recapitulation we see how that which went before fell short, but also how it anticipated and participated in the full reality that was to come.

Music is the glorified form of temporal action and speech. It transfigures and elevates our temporal activities. Figural or typological reading of Scripture attends to the musicality of God’s historical activity, to the ways in which the realm of human action has been taken into the divine symphony. This glorification and healing of human time transfigures: its characters and scenes come to bear and display a greater majesty, participating in and manifesting a beauty and a reality higher than themselves.

The musicality and, hence, the higher unity of time is established through the work of the Holy Spirit. Typology is where we follow the coherent unfolding of the symphony of the Spirit throughout history—the symphony of which Christ is the unifying theme. As an antidote to our overdependence on quasi-spatial and quasi-substantial models for union with Christ, the typological realism I am advocating suggests that our union with Christ should be regarded as existing in large measure within the orchestrated time of the Spirit.

We are united to Christ as he has come into our dissonant and discordant time, healing and transfiguring it through his action, and as the Spirit works this glorious music of Christ into and out of our lives. We are caught up within the Song of the Word, a song once intimated in the softest of broken whispers, then clearly and definitively expressed by its unaccompanied Author, now swelling through the Spirit’s inclusion of new voices under his lead, until one day all creation will resound with it.

Music and the Eucharist

Begbie comments upon the peculiar place given to repetition in music, a place far more prominent than in most other art forms. He suggests that repetition’s significance in music arises in large part from the fact that “each repeated component of music will have a different dynamic quality because each occurs in relation to a different configuration of metrical tensions and resolutions.”[1]

Begbie suggests that the notion of musical repetition is illuminating of the meaning and functioning of the Eucharist: “[E]very eucharistic celebration can be seen as a repeated opportunity for time-laden creatures to be incorporated into a temporal environment, established in Christ, in which past, present and future coinhere, in such a way that our identities can be healed, recast and reformed.”[2]

This practice both “stabilises and destabilises.” In each celebration we are once again recalled to Christ’s death, opened up to his past, but also to the future in which that past’s promise is realized: we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Much as in the case of Passover meal, a memorial of a past deliverance anticipates future salvation and each repetition re-establishes us within musical cycles of memory and hope. It repeatedly stabilizes us by restoring us to Christ’s decisive, once-for-all, action in the past, and destabilizes us by exposing us to the fecundity of the future that this action opened. It ties together founding action with the anticipation of final judgment.

As N.T. Wright expresses it thus, “Held secure between past and future—God’s past, God’s future—we go forward on our journey strengthened and given hope.”[3] And, elsewhere, “at every celebration of the Jesus-meal . . . God’s past catches up with us again, and God’s future comes to meet us once more.”[4]

The regular practice of the Eucharist is like the rhythm of the Church’s heartbeat, constantly returning and restoring us to the time of Christ (similar things could be said about baptism, wherein we are baptized into the past events of Christ’s death and burial and sealed with the promise of future resurrection, incorporating our bodies into the temporal achievement of Christ). The ritual of the Eucharist itself is also charged with profound scriptural themes that evoke the “higher time” of God’s redemption.

It echoes the new Passover, it is the manna in our wilderness and the wine of our promised rest, it is a celebration of creation, of the bread that strengthens our hearts and the wine that makes them glad, it is the new leavened bread of the Pentecostal Church and the wine of the Spirit that fills her, it is our foretaste of the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, it memorializes our Lord’s death and follows the institution of the Last Supper, it recalls the joyous resurrection meals, it is a retrospective on the labours of the past week, and a commissioning and sending forth into those of the week to come.

While it is constantly repeated, no two celebrations of the Eucharist should be the same. Each Eucharist finds its place “in relation to the unique configuration of tensions and resolutions to which it relates in the metrical hierarchy.”[5] Not only is each Eucharist related to the ‘over-arching wave’ of Christ’s death and resurrection, but it will also be related to the lower waves of our juncture in history, the Church’s year, the stage of a particular church’s development, and the seasons of our individual lives. Improvisation within our celebration can underline this fact, as in our repetition we accent certain features of the rite’s meaning that most impinge upon our particular and unique time.

Music and Body

In addition to its intense temporal character, music conscripts our bodies. Mark Johnson investigates the question of music’s “meaning,” concluding that “music is meaningful because it can present the flow of human experience, feeling, and thinking in concrete, embodied forms—and this is meaning in its deepest sense.”[6] Music “appeals to our felt sense of life.”[7]

Johnson writes: “We are moved by it, and we are moved because music orders our experience using tone quality, pitch, meter, rhythm, and other processes that we feel in our bodies. We are moved bodily and emotionally and qualitatively. The experience of sitting quietly in a chair and listening to music is almost unnatural, for our bodies want to move with the music. That is why music and dance are so closely and happily intertwined. Music captures us, carries us along on a sensuous, rhythmic tonal adventure, and then deposits us, changed, in a different place from where we started.”[8]

In music, time comes alive for us and we are caught up into its movement. The significance of music’s capacity to establish patterns of movement into which we are drawn is of immense consequence. There is a deep connection between music and “body coordination,” both that of the individual and that of the social body. Music can provide a template for initiating consecutive and coordinated action, bringing together disorganized parts into a whole. This is true for social groups: music serves both a bonding and a coordinating purpose.[9]

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy speaks of the power of song to bind us together: “[I]n singing, we are less remote from other minds than in other forms of communication. Here, the whole notion of different minds is subdued in favor of stressing the unanimity. The “inner” life of man is not a privilege of private individuals. Any group in the world has this inner sanctuary. Even big nations have their privacy where they sing.”[10]

Oliver Sacks remarks on the related phenomenon of coordination of action: “The almost irresistible power of rhythm is evident in many other contexts: in marching, it serves both to entrain and coordinate movement and to whip up a collective and perhaps martial excitement… We see it with work songs of every sort—rhythmic songs that probably arose with the beginnings of agriculture, when tilling the soil, hoeing, and threshing all required the combined and synchronized efforts of a group of people. Rhythm and its entrainment of movement (and often emotion), its power to ‘move’ people, in both senses of the word, may well have had a crucial cultural and economic function in human evolution, bringing people together, producing a sense of collectivity and community.”[11]

The power of music to coordinate is also true for the individual: music can temporarily restore “kinetic melody” to those who have lost it, as in some cases of Parkinson’s Disease.[12] Music can also elevate the powers of memory, rhythm assisting us to remember and to recite.[13] Embedded in musical sequences, we can perform processes that we could not perform without it.

By this point, I trust that the value of the musical quality of ritual will be more apparent. Ritual coordinates many bodies into unified action. It carries us along in its patterns, capturing our embodied imaginations, minds, and emotions through its music and movement. It binds us together in song. It assists our memories with its rhythms. It coordinates us with its choreography of bodies—standing, kneeling, turning, etc.

Christian liturgy is the place in which we encounter the musicality of the divine drama in an especially elevated form,[14] and it is where we are most powerfully incorporated into its music. Liturgy has music at its heart, coordinating us, capturing our bodies and imaginations, binding us together as one, so that together we might be raised up into God’s music.

A Surpassing Beauty

The historical type maintains not merely particularity, but also distance. Not only having the unspecific distance of a generic temporal alterity, types are held at specific distances from each other, their distances measured in various ways (in ‘clock time’, in their significant variations, in their relative positions in the metrical hierarchies of salvation, etc.). The degree to which distance is constitutive of the value of typological relations is more markedly apparent when we attend to them as robustly temporal. Like the pregnant silence between notes, the temporal intervals between redemptive historical types need not be signs of absence or bare hiatuses that secure difference, but can be realms of profound tension, anticipation, or remembrance.

The categories appropriate to such a temporally arriving reality are those of memory and hope, but also desire and beauty. The correspondence of beauty with difference and distance is explored by David Bentley Hart: “Beauty is the true form of distance. Beauty inhabits, belongs to, and possesses distance, but more than that, it gives distance. . . . If indeed ‘metaphysics’ names that species of discourse that strives to deny difference and overcome distance, then a proper understanding of beauty’s place in theology may show how Christian thought eludes metaphysical ambitions, without sacrificing (as a prevalent philosophical prejudice often presumes one must) the language of analogy, reconciliation, or truth.”[15]

For Hart, this distance and difference is related to time, which is perceived to possess a musical character. Central to music is the creation and celebration of the beauty of distance and difference in time: “The harmony of the kingdom is not the proper arrangement of essences, but a choral placing and yielding of voices… The motion of reconciliation in the Spirit, which is the motion that makes time beautiful, occurs within time; this, at least, is the assurance given by Christian eschatology: that the particular is always included within the terms of reconciliation, that reconciliation is not an Aufhebung, a tragic forsaking of the particular instance, but a symphonia. The beauty of time is its openness to the novelty of peace, which can redeem every moment, ‘carry back’ all discord into the complications of God’s harmony.”[16]

The typology of God’s work in history—including the enaction of the “music” of this within word and sacrament—is one of the principal ways in which this redemptive end is achieved and manifested. Music is, I have argued, a peculiarly potent conceptual metaphor by which to understand this. The study of biblical typology is the study of time transfigured, caught up within the glorious music of the Spirit’s orchestration.

Far from being mere literary art or mere pedagogical technique, typology constitutes and displays the actual unity and interwoven character of God’s time and the Son who is the unifying Theme in whom it all consists. The musical character of typology is operative in the sacraments, which place us together within and pattern our lives according to this music, in our bodies as in our hearts. The discordance and dissonance of our broken and fallen time is healed and we are caught up within the divine song, as the Father sings forth his Son on the breath of his Spirit.

Alastair Roberts recently completed his doctoral studies in Durham University. He is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged.

[1] Theology, Music and Time, 161. Emphasis original.

[2] Theology, Music and Time, 166

[3] N.T. Wright, The Meal Jesus Gave Us: Understanding Holy Communion (London: Hodder & Stoughton), 58.

[4] The Meal Jesus Gave Us, 47. Emphasis original.

[5] Theology, Music and Time, 169

[6] Mark Johnson, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (London: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 236

[7] Meaning of the Body, 236

[8] Meaning of the Body, 236-237

[9] See David Huron, ‘Is Music an Evolutionary Adaptation?’ Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 930:53ff. for a fascinating exploration of the bonding purpose of music.

[10] Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Speech and Reality (Norwich, VT: Argo Books, 1970), 125.

[11] Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (London: Picador, 2008), 267-268.

[12] Musicophilia, 270ff.

[13] Musicophilia, 256-260

[14] Sung readings, for instance, are one way of manifesting the musical quality of God’s deeds in history.

[15] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2003), 18.

[16] The Beauty of the Infinite, 401-402

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