Rough and Rowdy Ways: Bob Dylan’s Gospel and the Excavation of American Music

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A 79-year-old Bob Dylan released his latest album Rough and Rowdy Ways on 19 June, and it’s been widely hailed as a late-career masterpiece. The title is drawn from the 1929 Jimmie Rodgers song ‘My Rough and Rowdy Ways’, and this is only one of the numerous cultural byways that the album takes us down. Indiana Jones and Edgar Allen Poe sit comfortably alongside each other as Dylan says hello to Mary Lou, and goodbye to Jimmy Reed. In the remarkable slice of American gothic that is ‘My Own Version of You’, he plays the role of Dr Frankenstein, stitching ‘the Scarface Pacino’ and ‘the Godfather Brando’ into a ‘robot commando’ of his own making, ‘at the Black Horse Tavern on Armageddon Street’. All while ‘Mr. Freud with his dreams’ and ‘Mr. Marx with his axe’ are having the flesh torn off their backs by ‘a rawhide lash’ in a burning hell. In its own way, it’s all as stunning as the literary masterpieces that appeared on his mid-60s albums. It’s also profoundly Christian in the worldliest and most humanly-grounded kind of way. After first gaining inspiration from the elder statesmen and stateswomen of the blues, he has become one of them himself, with the same mix of worldly impulses and spiritual longing that characterised their art.

People talk about Dylan’s ‘Christian period’ or his ‘Gospel years’ (c. 1979–81) as if they ended at some point, as if the rest of his body of work were not also littered with sermonic rants, biblical allusions, prophetic denunciations, and a deeply-held personal faith. Even the material in the earlier part of his career is filled with Christian material. On his debut self-titled 1962 album, he drove the Gospel plough asking Jesus to make up his dying bed and meet him in the middle of the air. Sure, he drew much of this from the unmistakeable presence of Gospel music in the American roots music that has always been his inspiration. At the same time, there’s an unmistakeable personal conviction in his entire body of work that draws on a range of Christian ideas. When his faith became explicit in 1979 on the Slow Train Coming album, it was in some respects only a continuation of the fierce, finger-pointing, apocalypticism that had always pervaded his work. Yes, Dylan had become a Bible-bashing fundamentalist. But should this have taken us so much by surprise? After all, the guy who told the ‘masters of war’ that he would stand over their grave until he was sure they were dead was never going to become an Episcopalian.

Dylan is often seen as someone who wears masks and plays with multiple identities, refusing to be defined by anyone but himself. Early in his career, he told all kinds of lies, including that he had run away from home and joined the circus. He’s been telling tall tales ever since and baffling all attempts to quantify and commodify his art. He enraged the folk purists in 1965 by plugging in at the Newport Folk Festival and playing a very loud rock set. Two years later, on the cusp of the psychedelic era and in the wake of The Beatles’ Sgt Peppers, Dylan released John Wesley Harding (1967) an album of stripped-back mystic Americana that opened up his country gentleman period. No one saw that coming. No more than they saw his Christian conversion, or that he would one day release a Christmas album, or five discs of Frank Sinatra covers (!). On the Rolling Thunder Revue tour (brilliantly documented in Martin Scorsese’s 2019 semi-fictional film), he literally wore masks and at times switched identities with other band members. These various renditions of himself are usually seen as the expression of an artist’s unwillingness to reveal his true self to a watching world. Let the songs speak for themselves. The music recorded in the Gospel Years, on the other hand, was Dylan without masks. Listen to the deeply-personal and public songs of gratitude, faith, temptation (and yes, self-righteous piety) that are found on Trouble No More, 1979–1981: The Bootleg Series vol. 13 (2017) and you hear Dylan with the masks stripped away, achingly vulnerable to a world that either hated or loved his message of repentance, faith, and holiness.

Now in old age, Dylan’s music remains uncompromisingly personal and authentically Christian. He’s teetering on the edge of eternity and he knows it. He’s standing ‘three miles north of purgatory, one step from the great beyond’, ready to pray to the cross, kiss the girls, and cross the Rubicon. But there has never been anything polite or harmless about Dylan’s form of Christianity. He has never suffered fools gladly and his famous venom remains intact, though it sits right alongside a remarkable tenderness. On the opening track, ‘I Contain Multitudes’ (a line borrowed from William Blake), he barks:

 

You greedy old wolf, I’ll show you my heart

But not all of it, only the hateful part

I’ll sell you down the river, I’ll put a price on your head

What more can I tell you?

I sleep with life and death in the same bed.

 

A few songs later, we have the contrast of these lines from ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself To You’:

 

If I had the wings of a snow-white dove

I’d preach the gospel, the gospel of love

A love so real, a love so true

I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you.

 

Is this a love song or a hymn? Is the singer giving his heart to a woman or to his Lord? A line from the following stanza suggests the latter: ‘Take me out traveling, you’re a traveling man / Show me something I don’t understand’. Dylan may be a Christian, but his Gospel is definitely in inter-faith mode here. He tells us, in ‘On Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’, that he knows ‘all the Hindu rituals’, and, in ‘My Own Version of You’, that he’s studying Sanskrit and Arabic to improve his mind. On ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’, he lives on ‘a street named after a saint’ where ‘women in the churches wear powder and paint’ and ‘where the Jews and Catholics, and the Muslims all pray, I can tell a Proddie [Protestant] from a mile away’. And then comes the farewell to the beloved black blues man, ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed, Jimmy Reed indeed. Give me that old time religion, it’s just what I need’:

 

For thine is kingdom, the power, the glory

Go tell it on the mountain, go tell the real story

Tell it in that straightforward, puritanical tone

In the mystic hours when a person’s alone

Goodbye Jimmy Reed, Godspeed

Thump on the Bible, proclaim the Creed.

 

‘I feel the Holy Spirit inside’, he testifies on ‘Crossing the Rubicon’, and yet he also warns us to ‘keep as far away as possible’ because ‘it’s darkest ‘fore the dawn’. The seemingly spontaneous aside ‘Oh Lord’ before admitting ‘I turned the key and broke it off’, is a groan that reminds us that the Spirt-filled person remains a flawed sinner in need of grace still at times uncertain of his or her entry to the kingdom.

In a strange way, Rough and Rowdy Ways blends the particular with the universal. It’s a quintessentially American record in its name dropping and cultural references. At the same time, it highlights the human condition from a time ‘long before the first Crusade, way back ‘fore England or America were made’. Set against the touching folk song arrangement of ‘Mother of Muses’, Dylan urges his feminine muse to take him back to more ancient times and places, to ‘sing of the mountains and the deep dark sea … of the lakes and the nymphs of the forest’. He begs her, ‘put me upright, make me walk straight … forge my identity from the inside out’, before praying: ‘Wake me, shake me, free me from sin. Make me invisible, like the wind’. It’s a song that exhibits a profound creation spirituality, and also lovingly evokes the women who have so often been the inspiration for his art.

The album closes with ‘Murder Most Foul’, the first insight we received on this new body of work when it suddenly dropped unexpectedly on the Bob Dylan YouTube channel on 27 March. That a 17-minute song about the assassination of John F. Kennedy would prove to be Bob Dylan’s first ever song to top the Billboard charts must surely be a sign of these strange times we’re living in. Perhaps it’s appearance during the pandemic struck a chord with an audience that needed a familiar voice to reassure them? Or maybe we just missed him? The song is a dream-like trance containing almost ‘spoken word’ stream of consciousness reflections about one of America’s defining moments punctuated by radio airplay requests that document an America in decline:

 

Goodbye, Charlie, Goodbye, Uncle Sam

Frankly, Miss Scarlett, I don’t give a damn.

What is the truth, and where did it go?

Ask Oswald and Ruby, they oughta know.

 

Dylan remembers the day they killed Kennedy, when someone said to him: ‘Son, the age of the Antichrist has just only begun’. During such times we need music as the soundtrack to our lives. Now we create our own Spotify playlists, but once upon a time we asked the disc jockey to play our favourite song to give meaning to our lives:

 

Wolfman Jack, he’s speaking in tongues

He’s going on and on at the top of his lungs

Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack

Play it for me in my long Cadillac.

 

Sure, you might dismiss it all with, ‘Ok, boomer’, the ravings of a worn-out old man nostalgically mourning a forgotten past. But Dylan is so much more than this. As a living archivist, he carries within him the back catalogue of more than a century of music. As a hungry 20-year old kid in Greenwich Village, Dylan would beg, borrow, and steal other people’s record collections so he could excavate the hidden world contained therein. Sixty years later, he’s still engaged in the archaeology of the blues. At one point in the long playlist requested in the second half of Murder Most Foul, he requests, ‘Play “It Happened One Night” and “One Night of Sin”. There’s twelve million souls that are listening in’. ‘One Night of Sin’ was a 1956 hit for New Orleans rhythm and blues singer Smiley Lewis. When Elvis Presley covered it a year later, the risqué lyrics were sanitised to ‘One night with you’. This deep dive into the rich veins of music history is something that only our cultural elders can carry out, and it’s hard to think of anyone who can do it better than Bob Dylan. He may be one of the strangest cats on the planet, but we’ll sure miss him when he’s gone.

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Glen O’Brien is a theologian and historian. He is a Uniting Church minister employed by The Salvation Army as Research Coordinator and also serves as Chair of the University of Divinity Research Committee. Interested in all things Wesleyan and Methodist, he has published widely in that field including Methodism in Australia: A History (Ashgate, 2015) and Wesleyan-Holiness Churches in Australia (Routledge, 2018). His monograph, Liberty and Loyalty: John Wesley’s Political World, is currently in peer review with T&T Clark. Glen lives and works on Wurundjeri country in the beautiful Plenty Valley, gives thanks for the wisdom and custodianship of elders past and present, and has pledged to hear their voices and learn from their experience.

Is now the time to make art?

What kind of time is this? And what might such a time mean for artists and their work?

Beyond the very real financial hit that many artists are currently taking, a great many of us, artists included, are welcoming this abnormal moment to ask other questions – existential questions, and questions about our regular habits and commitments, for example. It is suggested that to try to carry on with business as usual, however tempting and well-intentioned that might be, would be to forego a rare opportunity to reimagine and re-embody other modes of our living. Others are turning to all kinds of creative endeavours. Others still – including artists – are asking whether now is really the time to make art at all?

Of course, we’ve been here before. This is hardly the first time in our history that such questions have been asked.

In the aftermath of WWII, where the dominating backdrop was clearly otherwise than it is today, the philosopher Theodor Adorno, in his Negative Dialectics, raised the question of whether the traumas of Auschwitz mean that ‘we cannot say anymore than the immutable is truth, and that the mobile, transitory is appearance’. It is not, he insisted, a case of an impossibility of distinguishing between eternal truth and temporary appearances (Plato and Hegel had already showed us how that could be done); it’s just that one cannot do so post-Auschwitz without making a sheer mockery of the fact:

After Auschwitz, our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims: they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate. And these feelings do have an objective side after events that make a mockery of the construction of immanence as endowed with a meaning radiated by an affirmatively posited transcendence.

Put more plainly, our emotional responses to horrors of such magnitude ought to outweigh all our attempts to explain them. It was this conviction too that led Adorno to state famously (in his essay ‘Art, Culture and Society’) that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’, and that ‘the task of art today is to bring chaos into order’. The line between explanation and intelligibility has been severed. In the wake of such, we are left with the possibility of Adorno’s ‘negative theodicy’, a kind of theodicy in which the old intellectual and philosophical distance is impossible. If we are to make any headway at all in recognizing how the Nazi death camps succeeded in the destruction of biographical life, and reorientate our thinking in response, Adorno argues, we must learn how to regard Auschwitz as the culmination of a trajectory embedded in the history of western culture in the wake of the Enlightenment. In other words, there can be no genuine acknowledgement of the Holocaust that does not begin with the realization that ‘we did it’.

Today, our questions may be otherwise. For some of us – for those, for example, trying to discern (or create) lines between unbridled capitalism, ecological disaster, and global pandemics – perhaps they are not so.

In his latest post for The Red Hand Files, musician Nick Cave responds to a series of questions about his own plans for this time during the corona pandemic. His reflection is worth repeating here in full:

Dear Alice, Henry and Saskia,

My response to a crisis has always been to create. This impulse has saved me many times – when things got bad I’d plan a tour, or write a book, or make a record – I’d hide myself in work, and try to stay one step ahead of whatever it was that was pursuing me. So, when it became clear that The Bad Seeds would have to postpone the European tour and that I would have, at the very least, three months of sudden spare time, my mind jumped into overdrive with ideas of how to fill that space. On a video call with my team we threw ideas around – stream a solo performance from my home, write an isolation album, write an online corona diary, write an apocalyptic film script, create a pandemic playlist on Spotify, start an online reading club, answer Red Hand Files questions live online, stream a songwriting tutorial, or a cooking programme, etc. – all with the aim to keep my creative momentum going, and to give my self-isolating fans something to do.

That night, as I contemplated these ideas, I began to think about what I had done in the last three months – working with Warren and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, planning and mounting a massive and incredibly complex Nick Cave exhibition with the Royal Danish Library, putting together the Stranger Than Kindness book, working on an updated edition of my “Collected Lyrics”, developing the show for the Ghosteen world tour (which, by the way, will be fucking mind-blowing if we ever get to do it!), working on a second B Sides and Rarities record and, of course, reading and writing The Red Hand Files. As I sat there in bed and reflected, another thought presented itself, clear and wondrous and humane –

Why is this the time to get creative?

Together we have stepped into history and are now living inside an event unprecedented in our lifetime. Every day the news provides us with dizzying information that a few weeks before would have been unthinkable. What deranged and divided us a month ago seems, at best, an embarrassment from an idle and privileged time. We have become eyewitnesses to a catastrophe that we are seeing unfold from the inside out. We are forced to isolate – to be vigilant, to be quiet, to watch and contemplate the possible implosion of our civilisation in real time. When we eventually step clear of this moment we will have discovered things about our leaders, our societal systems, our friends, our enemies and most of all, ourselves. We will know something of our resilience, our capacity for forgiveness, and our mutual vulnerability. Perhaps, it is a time to pay attention, to be mindful, to be observant.

As an artist, it feels inapt to miss this extraordinary moment. Suddenly, the acts of writing a novel, or a screenplay or a series of songs seem like indulgences from a bygone era. For me, this is not a time to be buried in the business of creating. It is a time to take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for.

Saskia, there are other forms of engagement, open to us all. An email to a distant friend, a phone call to a parent or sibling, a kind word to a neighbour, a prayer for those working on the front lines. These simple gestures can bind the world together – throwing threads of love here and there, ultimately connecting us all – so that when we do emerge from this moment we are unified by compassion, humility and a greater dignity. Perhaps, we will also see the world through different eyes, with an awakened reverence for the wondrous thing that it is. This could, indeed, be the truest creative work of all.

Love, Nick x

Like Cave, Adorno too challenges us to ‘take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for’ – and to lean into ‘other forms of engagement’ that such uncertain and time-altering times render (almost) unavoidable. It is certainly a time to consider our responsibility to and involvement in all kinds of violence, for example.

But is this the only or final word on the matter? Returning to Adorno and his book Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life, he suggests that:

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity [fancy] or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects ­– this alone is the task of thought.

Is not what might be true for ‘philosophy’ and ‘thought’ not also true for art? Redemption, the ‘messianic light’, exposes the incongruity between the world as it appears now and the world as it might be. That exposure – birthed and sustained by profound and counterintuitive hope, hope born not of trust in markets or in a change of conditions but which is the wholly unanticipated gift of the God of life – serves as both a judgement upon all that threatens and overcomes life, and as a promise that there is a love that is stronger than death.

That exposure also brings new possibilities for artists – in their freedom – to find their banjos, their pens, their brushes, their shoes, their voices, their humanity, etc. etc.

Human poiesis (and theology too, for that matter) can be – and in this world ought to be, as Jonathan Sacks put it in To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility – a form of protest ‘against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet but ought to be’. It can like placing oneself right in the midst of a broken world – something like the way that the cellist Vedran Smailović placed himself in Sarajevo’s partially-bombed National Library in 1992 – and refusing to accept that the way things appear is the way that things must or will be.

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JASON GORONCY IS A THEOLOGIAN, ARTIST, AND FOLK FESTIVAL TRAGIC WHO LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

Truth, Reason, and Textless Music

A piece of music for solo piano by Philip Glass called ‘Metamorphosis Two’ is performed during a Christian worship service immediately after the reading of brief excerpts from Genesis 1. As a result of hearing this performance, several worshippers gain new insight into aspects of ‘Christian truth’.

What does textless music have to do with truth? And how can textless music be mentioned in the same breath as reason? For some, the yoking of this triad – truth, reason, and textless music – reflects shaky ground indeed! This is the case particularly if truth (including ‘Christian truth’) is seen as something to be mastered (by a select few), expressed essentially through propositional language, and accessed directly through reason, whereby reason is equated with premise-to-conclusion processing. Of course, postmodern thought in particular has shown that truth cannot be reduced to such notions, and reason exceeds deductive method. But still, how can indeterminate, non-propositional, and multivalent phenomena such as textless music play a significant role within the (Christian) truth-seeking enterprise?

Truth

It has been said that ‘… all the great philosophers have allowed for more than they could explain, and have, therefore, signed beforehand, if not dated, the death-warrant of their philosophies’.[1] Susanne Langer notes that ‘… the early philosophers are conceived to have been not so much disturbed by the contradictions in the tradition as attracted by certain factors on the horizon of experience, of which their tradition gave no adequate account’.[2] While these statements relate specifically to philosophy, they shine a light on the ever-present gap between propositions about reality claiming truth status (theological or otherwise) and actual experience of reality through time. These statements imply that truth-seeking involves a disposition of openness to disruption, purgation, and expansion of currently-held views. So how can truth be defined, particularly within a Christian context?

It is not presumed that such an immensely complex topic as truth can be dealt with adequately here, but some thoughts will be offered in light of aspects of the theories of Charles Peirce (1839–1914), an American scientist and philosopher. According to Peirce, a progressively reasonable representation of reality (what is real independently of what anyone in particular thinks)[3] is ascertained and appropriated by humanity at the communal level through the continuous growth of ideas and the emergence of real generalities (patterns or ‘laws’) over time through experience. Truth is the finally agreed upon (reasonable) representation of reality, although this does not mean that such a representation is necessarily actually attained (yet). What Peirce offers ultimately is a method for truth-seeking (in all areas of life including science, religion, and everyday experience). In this sense, truth is not like some ancient, fixed, abstract, object-like phenomenon that can be dug up, enshrined, possessed by some select group, and fortified against the onslaughts of anomaly, paradox, and new ideas and experiences. Neither is it a merely human invention to be determined or discarded at will. Rather, it is an (objective) ideal that perpetually surpasses what can be grasped fully but is, nevertheless, that toward which humanity can (and ought to) progress over time.

While some fundamental aspects of Peirce’s theoretical system are incongruent with a traditional Christian framework, truth as conceived above can be seen in some sense as coincident with God’s self-communication. Christians believe (ultimate) truth is constituted by God’s active disclosure of God’s being, nature, action, will, and relation to and view of the world (through Christ’s life, teaching, Passion, and perduring presence). However, this disclosure is not unmediated as if transmitted in some pure, complete form but is mediated symbolically and progressively (against the horizon of the final manifestation of God’s ‘kingdom’). Such symbolic mediation involves the emergence of real generalities (patterns or ‘laws’) over time through experience (according to socio-cultural contexts). (‘Experience’ is not dichotomised here into so-called ‘natural’ and ‘spiritual’ categories; however, some experiences, e.g., corporate worship, are seen as more ‘saturated’ with theological truth-seeking potential than others.)

Reason

Symbolic mediation involves (human) reason as a vital dimension. For Peirce, at any point in time, a group (or individual) operates within a particular set of ‘coherent and stable assimilated habits’.[4] Habits are mindsets or beliefs which come into operation and drive thinking and behaviour at both implicit and explicit levels (‘belief’ is conceived pragmatically by Peirce and not reduced merely to intellectual assent to some explicitly-expressed dogma). However, within experience, expectations carried by these habits/beliefs can be thwarted. Consequently, a group (or individual) can become aware of the inadequacy of these habits/beliefs to account reasonably for reality (i.e., to constitute truth). Ideally, a process of further inquiry ought to be triggered and new hypotheses generated and tested which account more reasonably for reality and lead to new, adjusted, refined, or expanded habits/beliefs.

According to Peirce, there are three necessary stages of reasoning which constitute such inquiry: abduction, deduction, and induction. Deduction (derivation of conclusions from given premises) and induction (inference of general principles from a selection of singular cases) are well-known. However, abduction, a vital first stage of the reasoning process, is not necessarily widely recognised. Abduction is the generation of a hypothesis. It is of the nature of an informed guess – a creative leap which nevertheless relates in some respect to what is already known. It is not heavily controlled by the mind and will and is predominantly unconscious; seemingly instinctive. Peirce says it ‘comes to us like a flash … it is the idea of putting together what we had never before dreamed of putting together’.[5] As open, creative, and inventive, abduction is the only means whereby new knowledge and beliefs can be acquired (e.g., in scientific, theological, and everyday contexts). As fallible, abduction needs to be tested and refined through deduction and induction. Truth-seeking demands all three stages.

Abductive-deductive-inductive reasoning is a vital dimension of human receptivity to God’s self-communication through the Spirit. (I suggest that it is overly presumptuous to equate automatically and exclusively the work of the Spirit with abduction. The emergence of thoughts or feelings as if ‘out of the blue’ – even as the Spirit works – involves the brain doing what the brain does, as in the cases of deduction and induction.) Within a Christian context, particular sets of habits/belief in relation to truth-seeking pertaining to, for example, interpretation of Scripture, and Christian dogmas, practices, and metaphors may be shown to be inadequate (or even highly problematic) through the emergence and recognition of anomalies, paradoxes, and new ideas and experiences. In such cases, it is hoped, one might be compelled to inquire further.

Textless music

Textless music, including its performance during Christian worship, can provide a rich opportunity for abduction to occur. With its non-prescriptive character, textless music can disrupt habitual, linear, premise-to-conclusion operations by allowing worshippers to experience ambiguity and surprise, and by bringing cognitive dissonance to the surface. As a result, some worshippers may engage in reasoning processes that result in shifting or enlarged views pertaining to Christian truth.

In the scenario described at the beginning of this article, the performance of Metamorphosis Two follows after the reading of excerpts from Genesis 1. These excerpts include the description of the ‘earth’ as ‘formless’, ’empty’, and covered in ‘darkness’, with the Spirit ‘hovering over the waters’ (verses 1 and 2). Small extracts of each of God’s commands (‘Let there be …’) are read (verses 3-26). Having conveyed the divine establishment of order, fullness, and light, the reading climaxes with the words, ‘God saw all that [God] had made, and it was very good’ (verse 31).

Metamorphosis Two is an evocative work that can be said to embody a range of feeling qualities (I recommend Sally Whitwell’s performance in the album Mad Rush). Three of its most salient qualities are continuity, gentle propulsion (constant oscillation between two quaver length tones a minor third apart), and circularity (a series of phrasal ebbs and flows, always returning to the tonic chord). A quality of deep profundity also marks the piece (minor mode; regular sustained tonic octaves in the bass), perhaps being heard as interiority or even desolation and/or darkness. The melodic line (played in octaves in the treble) with its accompanying harmonic progression embodies lyrical warmth, beauty, and light but could be heard also/instead as melancholy, quiet resignation, and/or uncertainty. After some time, rapid, forceful, triplet arpeggio figures break in. These figures shadow the melodic line and double the aforementioned harmonic progression, conveying what could be heard as cosmic-like power, perhaps electrifying in affect. Everything then continues as it began. (Purely for the purposes of this article, it is assumed that worshippers do not associate the piece with any other context in which aspects of it may have been utilised).

Metamorphosis Two may appear initially anomalistic or paradoxical in relation to Genesis 1, particularly if Genesis 1 has tended to be reduced in import to conveying merely some distant, cosmic, singular, literal, or final event. (One might expect a musical narrative of disorder followed by complete resolution along with pastoral, chirpy, or grand galactic musical tropes!) However, these (micro) abductions (above) can give rise to a macro level abduction which involves guessing what would have to be the case in order for this piece, with its particular range of feeling qualities, to make sense within its Christian worship context.

The piece seems to situate the worshipper within time as if folded into the continuing present; within the immediacy and flow of real life and the depths of human existence and experience (in which, for example, desolation and beauty cohere). This immediacy and flow is powered by a disruptive, creative, life-giving force (the arpeggio figures) that originates from an external source but permeates and imprints itself upon all that is encompassed by the continuing present (the arpeggio figures shadow the melodic line and double the harmonic progression). For worshippers who reflect upon such an abduction, further implications could be derived utilising deduction and induction. Straight lines could be drawn from this abduction to Christian teaching regarding the redemptive (breaking-in) work of God: the imaging of its primordial dimension in Genesis 1; its primal locus in the cross – a place of desolation and triumphant power; and its continuity expressed in the manifestation of God’s kingdom as ‘already and not yet’. Relevant data elicited by real-life experience could include the existence of ongoing desolation and uncertainty as part of life, but, at the same time, the real (not fictional) possibility of hope, strength, and transformation through, for example, suffering and acts of solidarity with those who suffer, along with other (creative) acts via which humanity can participate with divinity in bringing increasing order, fullness, and light to the world.

In this way, textless music has allowed aspects of ‘Christian truth’ in relation to God’s creative/redemptive work to cut through into the immediate, personal, general (and ongoing), always real, and developmental dimensions of existence – something that propositions (if taken ‘flatly’) cannot necessarily attain (try using a string of propositions to explain why a comic strip is funny). For some worshippers, this musical-liturgical experience may help to mitigate highly problematic mindsets such as, on one hand, ‘spiritual entitlement’ whereby God is seen largely as a ticket (for a select few!) to escape suffering, or on the other hand, fatalism in relation to suffering at global levels (often conceived through an ethnocentric, chronocentric lens). The experience may counter tendencies to reduce the proposition, ‘God saves’ to some abstract, extramundane legal transaction (as reflected in the abovementioned mindsets), and facilitate a wider (and more truthful?) vision wherein ‘God saves’ involves – as an intrinsic dimension – human participation with God in the (continuing) creation/transformation of the world.

[1] C. D. Burns, ‘The Sense of the Horizon’, Philosophy 8, no. 31 (1933): 303–04.

[2] My italics. Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), 6.

[3] See Cornelis de Waal, Peirce: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 130.

[4] Luis Oliveira, et al., ‘Musical Listening and Abductive Reasoning: Contributions of C. S. Peirce’s’, Journal of Interdisciplinary Music Studies 4, no. 1 (2010): 13.

[5] Charles Peirce, Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vol. 5:181.

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Jennifer Wakeling is a musician, educator, and researcher in the area of intersection between music, theology, and worship. She has recently been awarded a PhD for her work in investigating how meaning is generated via instrumental music performance within Christian worship. She lives in Kau-in Kau-in, Ningi Ningi country.

Paul Kelly and the lighthouse in the sky

Peter Hudson - 'Words and Music. Portrait of Paul Kelly', 2007. Oil on canvas over board, 170 x 180cm, Art Gallery of NSW
Peter Hudson, Words and Music: Portrait of Paul Kelly, 2007. Oil on canvas over board, 170 x 180cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales.

At a gathering recently I heard a rendition of Paul Kelly’s song ‘Meet Me in the Middle of the Air’. It brought back the moment, more than ten years ago, when I first heard Kelly sing it in a pub in Torquay, on the coast southwest of Melbourne.

It was the height of the summer holidays when I was struck down by a sadness I could not name. A rental holiday shack in Anglesea was not a convenient place for a dark night of the soul; it was crowded with the sleeping bodies of our teenagers and various friends bunking in on the lounge room floor. One night I ended up curled up in the car, weeping in the wee hours. In the morning, my bewildered husband suggested a drive along the Great Ocean Road.

Stopping at Airey’s Inlet, we discovered that the Eagles Nest Gallery housed a cheerful exhibition of artworks depicting lighthouses. At first, I was uneasy – lighthouses were under a kind of suspicion in my mind, associated in my childhood with a religious outlook full of certainty.  Shaking off my resistance I entered the gallery.

The works were in wood, glass, oil, pastels, embroidery, charcoal and ceramics.  Most were by local artists, with a connection to Airey’s Inlet. There were so many ways of seeing a lighthouse; some were straight and sure with the white tower of strength topped by the red cap of a lifesaver. Others were delicately drawn with architectural accuracy.

Playful lighthouses were surrounded by motifs of fish and flowers, some bending and scooping upwards in trajectories of joy, some standing firm above a flurry of waves. A single black and white photograph, magnetic to the eye, showed the small white pillar of a lighthouse, stark against the huge dark sky; one small vertical amid parallel lines of gathering cloud and billowing seas.

Unassumingly in a corner hung exhibit number one. A painting by Juri Tibor Novak. His picture suggested the lighthouse aloft. There in the small rectangular frame, the lighthouse was suspended in mid-air. It sat on a round foundation, a rock in the middle of the sky above the sea. It did not hover with uncertainty, it simply claimed the space and waited there, whimsical and solid, softly coloured above the flat horizon. Something expanded in me. The lighthouse aloft began to inhabit a space in my chest.

That same night we were booked to hear Paul Kelly back along the coast. The beer garden of the Torquay Hotel was packed with young people. The band and Kelly unfurled onto the stage. His darting head and silver shaved hair gave off a shimmer; with beetle black eyebrows he conducted the band and the audience.

We knew his songs, singing the words of ‘Deeper Water’ from start to finish. Kelly grinned to the band and immediately taught us a new song, complete with parts. We were in a pub with a bunch of 20-somethings and we were all singing the same song. Kelly’s pace was intense, no wasted moments. The songs themselves were spacious and resonant. I watched a couple in their 30s, entranced in the evening light, their faces utterly still with a peculiar expectant beauty.

At the end, the musicians re-grouped. Instruments aside they stepped forward, heads close around one microphone for the last song. Kelly sang the first line then sang it again as the audience settled into the surprise of a capella from a rollicking band of blokes.

All the more surprising to recognise the words of the 23rd Psalm. The words were familiar and re-cast all at once; the Shepherd, the pastures green, the valley of shadow, the cup running over. There was a new refrain running through: ‘I will meet you in the middle of the air.’ The old invitation was here offered with a new cosmology.

The songs met us in hope and in despair in ‘the middle of the air’. There was a space of yearning there. That space is where the artists, songwriters, and psalmists send us. That is the place we can be met.

At the end of the night, I returned to the tiny holiday shack. In my mind’s eye, the lighthouse hovered on its boulder over the flat horizon. I no longer felt alone in my sorrow. I felt I had been heard and met.

Reposted from Eureka Street.

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JULIE PERRIN IS A MELBOURNE WRITER, ORAL STORYTELLER, AND ASSOCIATE TEACHER AT PILGRIM THEOLOGICAL COLLEGE, UNIVERSITY OF DIVINITY. SHE KEEPS A WEBSITE, AND HER MOST RECENT BOOK IS TENDER. SHE LIVES AND WORKS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

Towards the Quest for an Australian Jesus

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Queenie McKenzie, People talking to Jesus in the Bough Shed, 1995. Christof Collection of the Diocese of Broome. This painting was the theme image for Catholic celebrations of NAIDOC Week 2019.

HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies, a South African-based open-access journal, has just published a little piece that I wrote:

‘“A Pretty Decent Sort of Bloke”: Towards the Quest for an Australian Jesus’. HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 75, no. 4 (2019), e1–e10. (HTMLEPUBPDF)

Abstract

From many Aboriginal elders, such as Tjangika Napaltjani, Bob Williams and Djiniyini Gondarra, to painters, such as Arthur Boyd, Pro Hart and John Forrester-Clack, from historians, such as Manning Clark, and poets, such as Maureen Watson, Francis Webb and Henry Lawson, to celebrated novelists, such as Joseph Furphy, Patrick White and Tim Winton, the figure of Jesus has occupied an endearing and idiosyncratic place in the Australian imagination. It is evidence enough that ‘Australians have been anticlerical and antichurch, but rarely antiJesus’ (Stuart Piggin). But which Jesus? In what follows, I seek to listen to what some Australians make of Jesus, and to consider some theological implications of their contributions for the enduring quest for an Australian Jesus.

The article can be accessed here.

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JASON GORONCY IS A THEOLOGIAN, ARTIST, AND folk festival tragic WHO LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

 

The Mediatory Power of Textless Music in Christian Worship

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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.

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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.

The Diggers’ Requiem, Tears and Blood

IMG_2411.jpegThe interview was well underway when I tuned into the car radio. A man spoke about weeping every day, how he’d got used to the weeping in the time he’d been researching the First World War. He also said he seemed to be bleeding a lot; he kept cutting or scraping himself. Tears and blood.

I pulled the car over and listened. The ABC’s Myf Warhurst was interviewing Christopher Latham, artist-in-residence for the Australian War Memorial. He is a classical musician, she was slightly out of her comfort zone. Latham was introducing ‘The Diggers’ Requiem’, which brings together the work of composers past and present. Latham had been researching music from the era of the War and had also commissioned new pieces. While I sat parked at the side of the road, a piece by Elena Kats-Chernin poured through the car speakers. It was so beautiful, I decided I would go to the performance at St Pauls Cathedral in Melbourne a couple of nights later.

It was the end of September. I went alone to St Pauls, entering the expectant quiet of the gathered crowd in the Cathedral. I wanted my experience to be unmediated. I wanted to hear for myself what the weeping bleeding man had brought together. I took my seat and waited.

The first movement was Handel’s ‘Dead March’– now arranged with four voices and a piano accordion. Such an intriguing arrival, as the four singers and the accordion player stepped up the central aisle in a dirge-like procession. The sound came like a slow-rolling wave of deep sorrow. I wept as they approached, holding before them the familiar round metal helmets of First World War soldiers, they stepped gravely forward.

The evening did not disappoint. Latham had taken a variety of compositions and woven something seamless and whole. It was a work made with love. At the end, he turned to the gathered audience and invited us to join in a chant of the words ‘Pie Jesu’, all sung on one note.

Latham made one beautiful, telling stumble. When he was conveying the words, printed in the program as ‘Grant us eternal peace’, he said ‘Grant us the strength for peace.’ Indeed.

Later, when searching for more information about ‘The Diggers’ Requiem’ and Christopher Latham, I found his own words which echo this prayer that we might find the strength for peace. Latham writes:

After 15 years of living with this music of war, I see that the musical works created in the battlefields are an attempt to leave some trace of consciousness and memory in the face of erasure, and that these pieces have something important to teach us…

I wish to harvest these beautiful flowers from the past, to give voice to these buried experiences, so that we understand more clearly the cost of war and become more resolved to achieving a lasting peace.

There have since been performances in Canberra and Sydney. And as the 100-year anniversary is now being marked, there will be full resonance for Latham’s words and music, made with tears and blood.

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Julie Perrin is a Melbourne writer, oral storyteller, and Associate Teacher at Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity. She lives and works on Wurundjeri land.

 

Divine rhythms

ABC’s Compass program recently aired a fascinating show about three artists – Nicholas Ng (musician), Maria Mitar (musician), and Yorgo Kaporis (dancer and choreographer) – preparing their work for performance at The Sydney Sacred Music Festival.