Music, Theology and Book Clubs: Singing Your Way To Belief


I belong to a book club for two reasons: I enjoy the company and it leads me to read books that I would not otherwise read—or even know of. Tonight we are going to discuss Music and Theology by Don Saliers. I am almost a blank slate when it comes to music (high or pop) because I missed the “music appreciation” class offered in eighth grade (“not my fault” being the all purpose wail of slackers). And I associate formal theology with highly abstract philosophizing about “the ground of being” and “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” (the thought of which compels me to reach for the TV remote control).

So I was not particularly optimistic when I began reading this short but relatively dense exploration of the relationship between two blank spaces in my own knowledge. And yet, voila, I found myself underlining, check marking, and starring my way through the entire book (my own hierarchical highlighting system). The reading even gave me ideas for a novel I’m cogitating about these days.

I’ll pass on just once sentence (the first one to receive a star) about the relationship between words about God and music about God: “We are asked to say some things that we don’t truly think we believe until we sing them.”

That strikes me as quasi-illogical, but it also rings true to my experience. Why would written words not convey and convince us of truths just as forcefully as sung words, and even more forcefully than music without words? And yet, why have my doubts and struggles with faith throughout my life often faded away when I am among kindred spirits singing or hearing sacral (not identical to sacred) music? Saliers explores possible answers throughout his pithy (and somewhat repetitious) book.

One reason is that music (like its cousin poetry) approaches that border space between the material and the spiritual aspects of reality that is also the arena of theology. Making and taking in music requires the body, but it speaks to the deep human conviction (rejected by materialists, of course) that there are crucial aspects of reality that transcend the physical. We use many similar words and metaphors when trying to describe the effect of music as when trying to describe the spiritual and God: ineffable, transported, wonder, awe, carried away, lost in, mystery. In sum, music helps get us closer to reality’s core, which makes it more possible for us to “believe” in that reality.

Another and related reason that music undergirds belief is that it is a whole person experience (as is storytelling). Abstract words—common in theology and many creeds—address a part of who we are, especially our intellect. Music requires the intellect as well, but it does not give it priority over body, emotion, will, and spirit. The kind of belief required by faith in God requires we be “all in” as human beings. We must be people of faith with all that we are, not with only a part. Music helps us accomplish that.

So if you are struggling with belief, I have two suggestions: sing more and join a book club.