In recent years, thinkers such as Cambridge musicologist Jeremy Begbie (Music, Modernity and God, Resounding Truth, Theology, Music, and Time) and musician-theologian Maeve Louise Heaney (Music and Theology) have contributed to a growing conversation concerning music as part of the language of theology. They argue in various ways that music says things about God that really cannot be said in any other way, and that therefore music must be better understood in its unique role within the communication of faith. It is more than an envelope for a religious message; it is part of the communication itself. We use music, and are affected by music, theologically. But the fact of the matter is that we do not reflect upon it very much. We should.
This past winter, I had a chance to test the hypothesis that music is more than the envelope for a religious text by conducting a little experiment at a seminar for parish music directors. We looked at Frederick Faber’s classic hymn text, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” (1862) and asked ourselves what it meant, simply by looking at the words. Then we sang the text to two different tunes: IN BABILONE and ST HELENA and again asked the same question. What did this text mean?
The group did not reject either version, or find one tune to be “wrong” and the other “right.” But we found quite definitely that the meaning of the text changed when the music did. In one (IN BABILONE) we felt the bright cheerfulness of sunshine and the energy of a marching tune, while in the other (ST HELENA) we felt the currents of ocean waves and the awe of mystery. ST HELENA, written by Calvin Hampton specifically for this text, emphasized its key theological words (mercy, justice, and so on) with changing notes. The transition to the Paschal Mystery portion of the text was underlined in the tune. IN BABILONE, on the other hand, bounded on with straightforward simplicity and was easy to sing.
If the question we ask is: “What is easy to sing?” IN BABILONE won, hands down. But as soon as we asked “What is the wideness of God’s mercy like? How do we receive it?” our response changed. These questions were answered more profoundly by the singing of ST HELENA. The difference was not in the text but in the music.