Friday, July 3, 2015

The “Spiritual” in Music Is an Ambience

E. Byron Anderson’s essay, “Music and Meaning for the ‘Spiritual But Not Religious,’” in Liturgy 30, no. 3, explores some of the assumptions people make about the spiritual quality of music. Is “spirituality” inherent in certain kinds of music? Is there something about only some music that evokes whatever people mean by “spiritual”? Is some music suitable for spiritual purposes that are not religious? What is sacred music? Anderson invites us to think carefully about our labels for the music of worship and the music that SBNRs consider “spiritual.” 
Often what is considered spiritual music has less to do with particular genres or affections and more with a particular ambience created by the music: “If you want, listen to some music. It can be classical or new age, as long as it puts you in a reflective and open mood.” ( This quote, from a wiki on how to be “spiritual but not religious” in fifteen (easy) steps, suggests that spirituality is not connected to any particular genre, style, or period of music but to music’s effectiveness in evoking a particular reflective and open mood in the listener. In this case, music is not self-transcending, but mood-altering.
To be spiritual is to participate in or to experience a particular ambience, a feeling. As Jeremy Begbie notes [in Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Baker Academic, 2007), 261] music that is labeled spiritual is often “characterized by a highly contemplative ambience,” and becomes popular because “it offers a cool sonic cathedral in a hot, rushed, and overcrowded culture.” Sarah Bryan Miller, responding to the surprising, even confounding, popularity of chant recordings and the mystical minimalism of Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt in the mid-1990s, suggests [as quoted by Begbie] that such contemplative music has become popular because it somehow resonates “with a search for meaning in a culture that has rejected much of its spirituality and now feels the loss.” 
Such attention to a contemplative ambience, however, invites more questions than it answers: Can music be spiritual if it is not contemplative—or does anything in the classical genre become de facto contemplative music? Are Bach’s cantatas or Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” contemplative? . . . 
Perhaps more important, however, is the theological concern Begbie raises: the focus on contemplative ambience seems to reflect a renewed dualism between body and spirit and a distancing from God’s incarnation in human history, as if the spiritual life cannot or should not be troubled with the messiness, ugliness, and violence of human life. Cool contemplative music becomes an antidote to and a means of escape from the heat of daily life. Such an understanding, Begbie argues, “plays too easily into a world-denying (time-denying) distortion of Christianity in which God’s cross-centered involvement with humanity is marginalized.” From this perspective, spiritual music, when defined only by an ability to facilitate a contemplative ambience, seems contrary to a Christian faith that proclaims God’s dwelling with humanity in all of its brokenness…. 
Cautioning against ascribing to music certain intrinsic qualities that may or may not support or express the complexity of Christian faith, Anderson notes that today’s scholars of music and social scientists have shown that what is considered “spiritual” is an attribute brought to the music by the listener.
What is perceived as spiritual is always a response to that music interpreted by our expectations and frames of reference. The spiritual in music is something we attribute to it, not something in the music itself. . . . “Spirituality, like emotion, is a form of expression that arises from the music; an awareness that is apprehended in the encounter with music” but not with some inherent character of the music itself. (
What music, then, is appropriate to the nourishment of faith? Tune in two weeks from now to read another installment of a part of Anderson’s analysis. The entire essay is available to those who have access through personal subscription or your library’s subscription to ATLA where the contents of Liturgy may be found. 

E. Byron Anderson is Styberg Professor of Worship and director of the Nellie B. Ebersole Program in Music Ministry at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. He served as president of The Liturgical Conference from 2004 to 2015. His published works include Worship and Christian Identity: Practicing Ourselves (Pueblo Books, 2003). 

E. Byron Anderson, “Music and Meaning for the ‘Spiritual But Not Religious,” Liturgy 30, no. 3 (2015): 14-22.

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