Songs in the Key of Revelation

Why is a musician taking the stage to improvise with strangers like a missionary doing theology?elvis1

First, as we mentioned yesterday we need to discern when our voice is really needed, when it will add actually add something distinctive to the conversation. “Doing theology” is not listening to one’s own voice produce sounds that reproduce theological propositions; it’s done in community and in a context. We don’t want to get thrown off the stage or (if the players don’t have sufficient muscle or desire) be the cause of eye-rolling and “here-this-guy-goes-again” sorts of reactions. That can actually discredit our own contribution, lessen our standing as a conversation partner and, frankly, turn an opportunity to make music (or discern truth) into a power play for who gets to hold the microphone.

Making music is more than stringing notes together, just as doing theology is more than stringing words or propositions together. There is a particular SONG being played here. It’s a song in a particular KEY. The key provides the “tonal center” for the piece, that around which the deep structure of the piece revolves. For us as Christians, God’s revelation in Christ and Scripture form the tonal center of our theologizing.

Here’s something to ponder. Taking a given “tonal center” one can derive a great (but not infinite) number of possible harmonic arrangements, scales, rhythms, compositional methods, etc., etc. There is only one key of G, but there are millions of songs that can be played in that one key. There is only one authoritative revelation, but how many ways can it be arranged, organized, explicated, connected, shaded? There is more truth to be expressed by playing “Songs in the Key of Revelation” than we could ever imagine.

But if we don’t hold the tonal center, we play off-key (or at least atonally). If we are not faithful to be locating ourselves at each and every move in terms of divine revelation, then our theology will be dissonant, and will not modulate well with the Spirit’s tune. (NIV translates Gal. 5:25 as “keep in step with the Spirit” – the New Improviser’s Version might put it “be playing in tune with the Spirit.”)

However, there is more to music than the classics! We can improvise, find novel keys – even play within a different harmonic structure – you do know that there are other “musics” that use scales other than the 12-tone western one, right? Some might be just ad hoc, or of merely academic interest. However some, such as those in Indian or Indonesian music, have roots that go back centuries and, though they may sound “off” to Western ears, they resonate very deeply in the souls of those who have for generations had this music as part of their window on the world. In other words, in both theology and music, the structures that have been handed down to us can be retained as is and used to define, control and restrict most everything els040-P1090109e… or they can be expanded (either faithfully or not, relating to the keeping divine revelation as the “tonal center”.)

So is there only one “key of G”? In Western terms, yes – it goes “do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do” starting with G. But there are LOTS of DIFFERENT scales that can be played… each of which will produce “songs in G” – but some of which can’t actually be played together without clashing? So who is actually “jamming in G”? The ones using the “Western” scale? Not if they’re playing a gamelan! The context and the conversation, combined with a faithful resonance with revelation (that can NOT be pre-defined without reference to context and “tradition”) will determine whether or not we’ll make beautiful music together.Man Conducting

However, as I look through my own theological training, it seems that, in many ways, I’ve been well-equipped to play “chamber music.” That’s the way the majority of the Christian theological tradition in the West strikes me: It is presented in a strictly predefined structure, which goes a long way to determining  its content. It may contain many “variations” (many may be quite complex), but alCharlie-Parkermost entirely built on predefined themes. All the notes/words must ultimately resolve themselves around the theme originally stated (or was it imposed?).

For example, to the naïve classicist, be-bop must have sounded random and chaotic. Over time, it’s now its own tradition (spawning hard bop, post-bop), etc. The future of global theology lies not in continuing to find ways to continue improvising on the “classical” themes (e.g., Reformation answers to late medieval questions) but in finding fresh ways to use our various “instruments” and voices to blend creatively, collaboratively and contextually to “sing a new song” in the “old, old key” of G(od in Christ) reconciling the world to Himself. There is only one such key… but a multitude of faithful redemption “songs” that can be composed and performed by His faithful band.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Dallas "Front Porch Picker" Wesley says:

    Love this! Great post and very thought provoking! Thanks.

  2. Don says:

    Jim, I can’t help but remember a certain small bar somewhere in Northern Illinois where I heard a rather interesting rendition of the yet to be immortalized classic, “Rat City in Blue”.

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