A Musical Case for Typological Realism, 2

As we attend to these and other aspects of music’s temporality, Begbie suggests, we will find means by which to resist some of our habitual modern ways of conceptualizing time, most especially our tendency to conceive of time as if it were a homogeneous set of technologically quantifiable units laid out on a time-line in linear succession—a quasi-spatial way of thinking about time. Begbie’s resistance to such one-dimensional linearity does not entail opposition to directionality, but the advocacy of richer conceptions of what directionality looks like.

Although some have suggested an opposition between supposedly biblical “linear” concepts of time and “cyclical” concepts of time in paganism, Begbie’s work suggests that there are better ways of conceiving of time in a truly directional and teleological fashion, which are not straightforwardly “linear.” The intuition that time is directional and not merely cyclical is a profoundly biblical one, yet directionality need not entail linearity.

Music’s patterns of tension and resolution can instruct us in the art of patience that is essential for the Christian task of living between the times, of holding onto the promise until its fulfilment. Begbie here returns to his point about tension and resolution operating on many levels within music: resolution on one level can increase tension and expectation on another. “However strong closure may be any one level, there will always be levels in relation to which closure generates an increase in tension, giving rise to a stronger reaching out for resolution.”[1] This holds for promise and fulfilment too: “A fulfilment—a ‘downbeat’ or closing process—resolves something of the tension generated by the initial promise, and of the tension created by previous fulfilments. But each fulfilment also gives rise to a further tension demanding completion, a tension not only of the same power at the same level (the next wave), but of greater and accumulating power at upper levels. In this way, hope is intensified, re-charged, a more potent ‘reaching out’ engendered.”[2]

These “musical” patterns of tension and resolution, of promise and fulfilment, involve a heightening of hope and a fleshing out and escalation of the promises. The incompleteness of resolution is essential to the process of biblical meaning and the generation of Christian hope, once again in a manner analogous to music and its effect on its listeners: “Over and over again in tonal music we have closures which are positioned in the metric matrix in such a way that they ‘stretch forward’ for further resolution. This lends the piece an incomplete character, an ‘opening out.’ We are given a tension which is not fully resolved, or which is only dissipated in the silence which follows the piece. The music is projected beyond the final cadence into the ensuing silence. Promise ‘breaks out’ of sound.”[3]

Prefiguration is a central biblical dynamic that music can serve to illuminate. As Begbie observes, much as the “musical present is charged with its future,” “many of the partial fulfillments of earlier prophecy are regarded not simply as incomplete fulfillments of earlier implications but as foretastes of the end to come.”[4] He gives examples of pieces of music that prefigure their own endings early on, and where such prefigurations initiate new processes.

Begbie suggests that doing theology with music as our conceptual metaphor can help us better to understand such biblical phenomena as the relationship between imminence and delay in the context of the Parousia. An overdependence upon linear and quantitative conceptions of time, in contrast to musical and qualitative ones, makes it difficult for us to grasp how imminence and delay can go together. Reflecting upon history through a musical lens can help us to “do justice to the experience of living within a dynamic directional field, a field in which things and events are intrinsically interrelated by virtue of sharing in waves of tension and fulfilment, in which anticipatory fulfilments generate wider and more intense hopes for the final fulfilment, and in which imminence and delay can therefore go together.”[5] For instance, AD 70 and the final end of all things need not be played off against each other, but can be seen to have a ‘musical’ relationship to each other, AD 70 being an anticipatory statement of the dreadful and majestic concluding cadence upon which the curtain of history will fall.

In arguing this, Begbie doesn’t merely substitute qualitative for quantitative understandings of time: there are dangers in the other direction here too, when qualitative time overwhelms quantitative time. Music takes time, and although past, present, and future might come to be interwoven, they do not thereby collapse into each other. The quality of our time may have changed decisively following the advent of our Saviour, placing us within the shadow of an inaugurated eschaton, but we must still patiently await the consummation of all things.

Music and Transience

Conceiving of time in our culturally habitual ways makes it difficult for us to think well about transience—“temporal closeness and distance are seen as quantitative or quasi-spatial apartness.”[6] Transience is an essential aspect of music, which depends on “the coming into being and dying of tones.” Where our typical ways of thinking about time suggest a tragic and deficient absence of solidity and substantiality—“change and decay in all around I see”—music, in its distinctive insubstantiality, reveals the potential fruitfulness of transience, the beauty and goodness of finitude. Time and transience are integral to what we are as creatures and are neither a “necessary evil” nor a “neutral backcloth.”[7] Finitude is a good thing and should not be confused with actual evil.

Music’s revelation of the potential goodness and beauty of transience and finitude can offer helpful new ways of conceiving of creation. Using the conceptual metaphors of music and song to think of creation can alert us to such things as the radical contingency of the world and its creatures, its complete dependence upon the continuing creative work of Spirit and Word of God, the delight of the Creator, and the calling of the creation to participate in this music in the echoing forth of joyful praise.

This brings into focus elements of creation that are less clear when we think of creation as if it were the construction of solid objects that endure through the homogeneous medium of time, or are subjected to its cruel ravages. Time is not just something that happens to us, but is integral to what we are. Thinking in such a manner teaches us to remember and appreciate our own finitude and to value and reflect more closely upon the changing seasons of our lives. Silence, the face over which the spirit of music hovers, reminds us of our enduring relationship to nothingness, as those who have been brought forth from it by God’s creative voice.

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, 107. Emphasis original.

[2] Theology, Music and Time, 107-108

[3] Theology, Music and Time, 126

[4] Theology, Music and Time, 111

[5] Theology, Music and Time, 120-121

[6] Theology, Music and Time, 61

[7] Theology, Music and Time, 94