In many places of Christian worship throughout Australia, at any given worship service, music will play a significant role in the facilitation of worship. Music will be utilised to accompany text, it may function as a cue or fill, and it will provide possibly a soundtrack for audio-visual presentations, prayers, and other worship rituals. But how often does music stand alone – as textless? Can textless music function as a corporate worship act? Can, for example, the contemplation of a Bach fugue or an improvised guitar solo during worship mediate Christian experience, meaning-generation, and transformation? If so, how? And to what do we ascribe music’s mediatory power?
If one adopts a logocentric model of divine revelation, whereby knowledge and experience of God’s self-communication is reduced to what can be articulated verbally and propositionally, the validity and value of textless music would tend to be, understandably, questionable. (Such questionability would relate probably also to other non-verbal art forms and poetic modes of language). Within such a model, music might be seen as useful within worship only when tied – handmaiden-like – to song lyrics. Within this model, it is difficult to see how music could function beyond highlighting and heightening what is otherwise believed to be expressible clearly and precisely through texts. However, experience shows that textless music does ‘speak’ to people in ways which exceed and precede words.
Views of divine revelation whereby human receptivity to God’s self-communication is seen as encompassing and originating potentially in all dimensions of human existence and experience (including the senses and the emotions) are more conducive to the use of textless music (and other art forms) within worship. However, when textless music in worship does elicit some form of meaning, we can grapple for ways to come to terms theologically with such meaning. Such meaning is extremely precise in terms of neurophysiological responses, affects, and the field of meaning-generating possibilities elicited by those responses and affects. However, such meaning is also fundamentally vague in the sense that it is indeterminate. How can such meaning qualify as Christian? How can it facilitate our transformation into the community of Christ?
Christian discourse can sometimes appear to imply that divine word and power is siphoned (magically?) through music (and music-maker) from divine source to human recipient in a linear, direct, unidirectional way – like the music is some sort of hollow conduit. At times, the discourse seems to evoke images of music (and music-maker) as an empty container being temporarily inhabited by divinity. These images represent understandings which are not only highly problematic theologically, but ultimately restrictive and unhelpful. They can deny, paradoxically, both the radical transcendence of God and God’s immanence in the world. They reflect a ‘god-of-the-gaps’ mentality which sets up a false dichotomy between ‘spiritual’ and ‘material’ processes. They ignore (among much else) the dynamics of human anthropology, subjectivity, and receptivity; context; and musicological dimensions including the specific musical properties and structures of particular musical pieces and performances.
A model of divine revelation which is helpful for grounding understanding of the mediatory role of textless music (and other art forms) within worship is symbolic mediation (Avery Dulles presents this model in Models of Revelation). God’s self-communication is mediated via entities (verbal and non-verbal) functioning as symbols. This model recognises originating divine source and initiative in God’s self-communication, but it also acknowledges that human receptivity to God’s self-communication is constructive (it constructs). This means the myriad and diverse particularities of anthropological, social, cultural, and historical contexts, and, importantly, the specific materiality of mediating symbols are crucial to Christian experience, meaning-generation, and transformation.
Entities function as symbols when they manifest, via their own constitution, realities distinct from themselves (such as when a harsh vocal tone manifests and thus refers to anger). At the same time, entities functioning as symbols do not reduce those realities to themselves (anger is not equivalent to or exhausted by a harsh vocal tone). Symbols could be likened to prisms which refract white light in myriad, diverse colours, shapes, intensities, and angles according to the prisms’ own constitution. The refracted light is the light (in one sense or another); it is the means whereby the light is manifest in particular ways; but the refracted light does not exhaust the light’s possibilities.
For Christians, Christ is the preeminent symbol (incarnation) of God’s self-communication. Christ’s humanity – his life as a whole – and the Christ event in particular, mediates divine life, character, and purpose. Christ is divine; Christ’s humanity and the Christ event is the means whereby the divine is manifest; but mediation of the divine through Christ is a continuing, progressive, inexhaustible process. (I am not claiming equivalence between Christ’s symbolic function and that of other symbols. Rather, within the Christian tradition, Christ as symbol of the divine is the condition whereby, and paradigm through which, all other entities functioning as symbols of the divine can, respectively, do so and be investigated.)
Christian worship symbolically mediates Christ and the Christ event (like a symbol within a symbol) according to a particular range of acts, words, feelings, physical items, etc. (which function as symbols). For example: the material constitution of bread and wine manifests the dissolution and change inherent within Christ’s death and resurrection; the public reading of Scriptural narratives, exhortations, and poetry opens up windows on specific aspects of divine realities; and union and communion during worship is a realisation of Trinitarian union and communion. Such symbols are the realities to which they refer (in one sense or another); they are the means whereby these realities are manifest in particular ways; but they are not equivalent to these realities – the realities transcend the symbols.
Textless music belongs to a special group of symbols (including other art forms) within worship which can offer potentially new and deeper levels of mediation of Christ and the Christ event due to their nonconventionality and multivalence. The specific properties and structures (as heard by listeners) of a piece of textless music enable the piece to function symbolically when they are perceived as manifesting particular qualities. These qualities are not determinate in meaning but they are full of possibility for, and thus condition, meaning-generation. When these qualities are brought into mutual dynamic relation with particular symbols of the worship context, meaning of a determinate nature can emerge. Such meaning may take the form of concrete experiences, thoughts, images (sensory and conceptual), ideas, behavioural responses, and mindset changes which can constitute Christian insight and transformation.
Imagine a piece of textless music mediating qualities which could be described as profoundly mystical, calmly ecstatic, expressively warm, and deeply interior. This piece is performed during a Christmas Eve service. Due to the unique convergence of and interaction between these qualities and the mediation (through worship symbols) of events surrounding, and notions pertaining to, Christ’s birth, new experiences and insights could emerge regarding the Incarnation and the ramifications of the Incarnation for the world and worshippers’ individual lives. It is impossible to predict exactly what might emerge, and outcomes would differ for each worshipper, but this explication shows that the specific musical properties and structures of the piece (along with dimensions of human subjectivity and the Christian tradition) are constructive of what is communicated of the divine. The specific musical properties and structures are (in the sense of being recruited as part of) the realities to which they refer; they are the means whereby such realities are manifest in specific ways; but they are not equivalent to these realities – these realities transcend the musical properties and structures.
Textless music thus functions as a symbol within a symbol (the entire worship event) within a symbol (Christ/the Christ event). This symbol scheme does not connote a simple top-down or bottom-up hierarchy. The symbolic power of textless music is not merely determined by other symbolic layers nor does it invent Christian experience and meaning. Rather, the symbolic power of textless music interacts in potentially dynamic and unpredictable ways with/within these other symbolic layers to enlarge, purge, or even disrupt what is (has been in the past and will be in the future) mediated by these other symbolic layers. Such dynamism and unpredictability is not equated with the work of the Spirit (as if the Spirit is only ‘present’ when such dynamism and unpredictability is clearly at play), but dynamism and unpredictability is seen here as one of multiple modes in which the Spirit can be at work (perhaps another mode can be a musician’s daily and sometimes painful surrender to the physical and mental discipline required for attaining musical expertise).
Space limitations preclude (much-needed) further explication of the musical-liturgical meaning-generating process including the bases on which relations are established between musical properties and structures; qualities; and experiences, thoughts, and ideas. However, at the very least, it is hoped that a picture is being painted here which begins to cut through, on one hand, dismissive attitudes towards the mediatory power of textless music, and on the other hand, banal, esoteric explanations of such power. Perhaps if we can catch a glimpse of the beautifully confounding conjunction of precision, complexity, and seeming inexhaustibility involved in God’s self-communication, people involved in the facilitation of Christian worship may be enabled to embrace increasingly the rich and infinitely-expansive possibilities that textless music can open up for Christian experience, meaning-generation, and transformation.
Jennifer Wakeling is a musician, educator, and researcher in the fields of music theology and worship theology. She has submitted her PhD thesis entitled ‘Divine Resonance: Meaning-Generation via Instrumental Music within Christian Worship’. She lives in Kau-in Kau-in, Ningi Ningi country.