With the publication of Theology, Music and Time in 2000, Jeremy Begbie showed that musicological and theological expertise can be illuminatingly combined. He thereby established himself as a major contributor to explorations at the intersection of theology and music. In this new book, he adds historical expertise and thereby extends the relevance of this interface to a much wider cultural context. His hope is to ‘show that music’ is capable of providing a kind of ‘theological performance of some of modernity's most characteristic dynamics’, while at the same time ‘yielding highly effective ways of addressing and moving beyond some of the intractable theological aporias that modernity has bequeathed to us’. He acknowledges that ‘these are bold claims’, and thereby invites readers to ask just how effectively the book establishes them.
The chapters that follow are full of interest and range widely, from relatively narrow historical topics – Calvin's real attitude to music, for instance – to highly abstract philosophical and theological topics – the ‘picture’ theory of language and the concept of eternity are just two. At every point, Begbie reveals an astonishing level of familiarity with disciplines that are normally thought necessarily the province of specialists, and he raises and rehearses many evidently important debates in a very engaging way. Several of the chapters are devoted to long and detailed examinations of substantial books on musical and philosophical themes – John Butt on Bach, Karol Berger on Bach and Mozart, Andrew Bowie on German Romanticism, Nicholas Cook on musical multimedia, Roger Scruton on musical understanding. In all these cases Begbie uncovers a relation to contemporary theological debates about which the original authors are largely silent. In between, he makes more limited but highly informed reference to a great many other writers, past and present. Only a profoundly unsympathetic reader could fail to be impressed by the remarkable learning that this book represents.
There are, however, three points on which doubts might arise about just how far all this is used effectively in sustaining Begbie's ‘bold claims’. First, since he expounds the writers with whom he is concerned at much greater length than he engages their thought with his own theological position, this generates a sense that it is the authors he discusses who establish the terms of the debate. His theological reflections seem somehow tentative: ‘might there be aspects . . . that could be more fruitfully advanced if brought within a theological ambit?’; ‘the Christian faith ventures to claim’; ‘there seems no prima facie reason to suppose that . . . the practices of music making . . . cannot contribute’. This way of writing seems to lack the boldness we are promised. Secondly, and relatedly, it is hard to believe that the secular writers with whom he is concerned – especially Andrew Bowie – would take up his theological themes as readily as he takes up theirs. Indeed, the theological assertions he makes are (to my ear) steeped in the kind of language that isolates much theology from the wider world of academic inquiry at large. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, his regular combination of ‘music, and discourse about music’, raises a question about which of these it is that really engages with theology and modernity. This is an issue he expressly addresses, since it arose in connection with the earlier book also, but his response is not entirely persuasive. Begbie shows, certainly, that musical structures can provide illuminating analogies for theological questions. It is much less clear how sounded music could do this. The book's subtitle is ‘essays in listening’. But for all their interest, the essays invite us to think about music, not to listen to it.