Tag Archives: religion

Numinous Noises

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Theologians often treat music as a potent tool for fostering sacred awareness. Music’s ethereal abstractness suggests a reality that is beyond the ability of words to describe. Of the resources available to humanity, musical sounds are the closest representation of the divine. To quote Joseph Addison, they are “all of heav’n we have below.” Yet, theologians are quick to remind us that music and theology are not the same. The absorbing impact and amorphous beyondness of music might hint at God’s immanence and transcendence, but this effect is, at best, a useful metaphor.

This cautious approach is conspicuously absent in The Idea of the Holy (1917), Rudolf Otto’s influential treatise on the phenomenology of religion. Giving preference to experience over analysis, Otto claims that supernatural encounters—or numinous experiences—are real events that stand apart from ordinary occurrences. Rationalizations and approximations are used to describe the ineffable event, sometimes giving rise to myths, rituals, and dogma. The experiential moment—the thing itself—becomes religion.

Oddly, Otto assesses the musical experience in an identical way. Music is first received as an all-consuming, supra-rational force. Only subsequently is it understood in emotional or other humanizing terms. In contrast to the visual arts, music is not representational or expressive of anything specific in the physical world. Rather, it is “wholly other”—the same phrase Otto applies to spiritual communion.

Moreover, Otto believes that numinous experiences, while separated from day-to-day activities, are not unreachable or even uncommon. All human beings have access to episodes of transcendence. Thus, the regularity with which music brings about spiritual sensations is not a trivialization of the numinous, but confirmation of its accessibility.

The blending of musical and spiritual language in Otto’s treatise has its climax in the following passage: “Such is the effect in Music in the highest degree, for Music stands too high for any understanding to reach, and an all-mastering efficacy goes forth from it, of which, however, no man is able to give an account.” Replace “Music” with “God” and the point becomes clear. (The capitalization of “Music” further sharpens the effect.)

In a recent article, religious studies scholar Christopher I. Lehrich contends that Otto’s treatment of music in The Idea of the Holy allows for a “disconcerting” reformulation: “Suppose that, instead of writing a book about numinous experience, Otto had chosen to write one about musical experience.” Beyond merely discarding the theologian’s preference to mark distinctions between music and theology, Otto essentially groups them together. Music is not simply a means for coming into holiness. Music is Holy.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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Musical Suspension of Disbelief

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Creators and performers of worship music come in two basic types: those who are believers and those who are not. While it might be assumed that the first group represents an overwhelming majority, candid admissions from composers, accompanists, choristers, music directors, and even some clergy would suggest that nonbelievers (and people on the fence) have a sizable presence among the makers of prayer-song. On the surface, their involvement reveals a scandalous contradiction: they lead congregations in devotional music, yet they are not themselves devout. However, a poll of people in the pews would show a similar assortment of true believers, nonbelievers, and occupiers of spaces in between.

Among other things, this indicates that level of conviction does not necessarily determine level of sincerity. One can be fully committed to the enterprise of worship music without pledging allegiance to the words. The simple reason for this is that music allows for easy suspension of disbelief—or, more precisely, makes belief secondary to experience. Music-making is an inherently spiritual activity in that it facilitates deep sensations, heightened awareness, and a departure from one’s ordinary state of being. As such, it accomplishes the religious goal of tending to the spirit—and it does so regardless of textual content.

This is especially true for religiously disinclined composers who nevertheless write music for expressly religious purposes. A famous example is Ralph Vaughan Williams, who, according to his poet wife Ursula, was “never a professing Christian.” In her biography of her composer husband, Ursula wrote: “Although a declared agnostic, he was able, all through his life, to set to music words in the accepted terms of Christian revelation as if they meant to him what they must have meant to [religious poet] George Herbert or to Bunyan.”

As a conscientious composer, Vaughan Williams was careful to match lyrical themes with appropriate musical accompaniment. He undoubtedly took equal care when setting secular words to music. In the process of composition, he absorbed himself in the text, not in order to believe its literalness, but in order to turn words into an elevated—and elevating—musical experience. Like so many musicians and congregants, he approached the words of prayer essentially as an excuse for music, and the spiritual gratification he received validated his efforts.

Before we rush to judge Vaughan Williams’ position as false or impoverished, let us reflect on these eloquent words from his wife: “He was far too deeply absorbed by music to feel any need of religious observance.” So it is for innumerable others who devote their talents to worship music.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Hearing the Sacred

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The term “sacred music” has fallen out of fashion somewhat in recent years. As a label for music used in devotional settings, it is synonymous with liturgical music, ritual music, and pastoral music. However, because “sacred” is an adjective, the term has been criticized as an attempt to distinguish some quality of the music itself. We cannot substantiate any claim of inherent sanctity, since the dividing line between secular and sacred music has never been strong and is increasingly blurred. Another problem is that when the term is expanded to performers, we get the boastful designation “sacred musician,” which may or may not accurately reflect the way a musician lives his/her life or views him/herself.

The issue lies in how “sacred” is understood. If we assume that it modifies the word next to it, then it is a misnomer. But if we see it more as a verb—something that the music does—then sacred is perfectly accurate. As difficult as it is to determine what (if anything) is holy about any sound, it is plain that sacred music is defined by its function.

A few examples from Jewish life illustrate the point. The core musical elements of the High Holy Days (called Mi-Sinai tunes, meaning “from Mount Sinai”) are derived in part from ballads and street songs of medieval Germany. A large portion of Sephardic synagogue music is essentially the same as Ottoman high court music. It is a Hassidic custom to transform popular songs into worship melodies by replacing the lyrics with nonsense syllable like “yai dai dai.” Twentieth-century America witnessed the emergence of liturgical music written in the style of 1960s protest songs; and a number of services have been composed in jazz, country, and other ostensibly “secular” idioms.

The list could go on, but the message is clear: sacred has little to do with the music itself, and everything to do with its purpose. This puts considerations like congregational preference and comfort level at the forefront. In order for the music to work (and thus be called sacred), it must be conducive and not disruptive to the worship experience. If it is sufficiently well liked and shown to succeed on a regular basis, it may earn a spot among the conventional favorites. Indeed, it is easy to forget that even the most popular and frequently sung synagogue melodies had premiere performances, and had to pass through several stages from novel to accepted to standard.

So, what is “sacred” in sacred music? The answer to this question is that it is the wrong question. Sacredness is not found in pitches, rhythms, intervals, or phrases, but in themes, intentions, and performance settings. All sorts of styles have been used in this capacity, and their suitability for worship is, in the end, a matter of taste. It is not necessary (or really possible) to apply objective measurements to sacred music. What is important is that the music helps cultivate a prayerful mood, no matter what it sounds like.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Inventing the Supernatural

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The conjuring of supernatural explanations for natural phenomena is a hallmark of religious thought. Ancient civilizations freely invented extra-physical explanations for the sun’s apparent rise and fall, the occurrence of earthquakes and droughts, the origins of plants and animals, and the collapse of kingdoms. In the spirit-filled world of the ancients, fortunes, failures, ailments, recoveries, victories, tragedies and all manner of circumstances were attributed to divine intervention. The characteristics of the deities and the ways in which they were worshiped varied from place to place, as each group drew upon its own surroundings and experiences. Similar cultural variations persist in religious systems of our day. And despite the great extent to which physical and social sciences have explained things once thought mysterious, the devout continue to frame material existence in supernatural language and imagery.

The concoction of religious ideas to comprehend nature is apparent throughout the history and diversity of religion. Less often considered is how religious notions were devised to account for events of our minds, or inner nature. Dreams, for instance, were (and sometimes still are) believed to be a mechanism of prophecy, revelation or divine inspiration, rather than an involuntary succession of images, sensations and scenarios that occur during certain stages of sleep. Likewise, psychiatric and mood disorders were (and sometimes still are) attributed to demons or divine punishment, rather than genetic, circumstantial or chemical causes.

The ubiquitous association of music and religion can be grouped with the supernatural explications for human nature. Music’s often-overwhelming and usually unavoidable hold on our emotions has long been a source of theological discourse. The interaction of this abstract art with our inner being is felt as evidence of a spiritual force. There is no shortage of literature describing how music is a portal to human-divine communion, a conduit for the divine presence, a pathway to the heavenly plane.

The intersection of music and theology is so widely asserted that some commentators refer to worship music as “sung theology” or “theology sung.” Contrary to what might be assumed, this is not because worship songs typically involve prayerful words set to music—and thus expose practitioners to theological themes—but rather because our encounter with music transcends the ordinary and hints at something beyond ourselves.

As with other areas of consciousness, religious reasons for music’s impact can only resonate with the theologically or spiritually oriented. The philosophical materialists among us require a material explanation. However, as much success as researchers have had deciphering sources of dreams, mental disorders and other arenas of the mind, music remains largely inexplicable. Despite many reasonable theories and promising discoveries, we cannot yet state precisely why we respond to music the way we do.

Of course, the absence of scientific consensus does not make supernatural claims any more valid. Explaining a mystery with a fantasy is a fruitless endeavor. Instead, music demonstrates that we need not fully understand what is happening outside or inside of us to appreciate our experience of it.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Seasonal Separations

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Maintaining distinctions between sacred and secular music is a common religious concern. Ever since people began writing critically about music, faithful authors have wasted little time and much ink appealing to a higher authority and inventing higher demands for the music of worship. Views on the issue can be passionate, imaginative and thought provoking; but they ultimately fall short of delineating objective qualities. While attempts are made to outline intrinsic differences between sacred and secular music (that is, looking at non-textual and non-contextual attributes), such efforts are always subjective, frequently elitist and habitually ethnocentric. Taste and convention play a far greater role in determining the “sacred” in music than anything else. Music is music, and all sounds are susceptible to multiple applications, religious and other.

The debate could—and perhaps should—end here. After all, if there is no such thing as a sacred interval or a secular chord progression, then critics are simply couching their opinions in pious language. However, while the scientific search for separate essences comes up empty, cultural conventions inform us otherwise. Continuous usage in one setting or another creates fixed associations. Add to this thematic content and musical purpose, and disco obtains a secular character, while plainsong earns a religious one. Pure reason tells us to abandon efforts to place genres in their “proper” place (a socially constructed concept); but visceral reactions to perceived musical encroachments remain real and often intense.

As mentioned, this is most frequently a religious problem. It is, in fact, a symptom of a larger religious concern: separating sacred from profane. Fans of popular music are not as likely to complain when a church-linked idiom creeps into a Top 40 hit. But religious intrusions into secular music can be just as jarring, and may occasionally ignite criticism.

A seasonal example is “Here Comes Santa Claus,” written by Gene Autry and Oakley Haldeman. Christmas is a double holiday: one part secular, one part sacred. The first part manifests in snowmen, ugly sweaters, dazzling lights and fruitcakes, while the second includes nativity scenes, scriptural passages, angels and worship services. The two halves of Christmas have their own soundtracks: “carols” for one and “songs” for the other. Sonic differences between the two are sometimes clear and sometimes not, but the lyrics rarely conflict. “Angels We Have Heard on High” retells a New Testament story, “Jingle Bells” depicts a winter joyride. Among the few exceptions is “Here Comes Santa Claus,” a song that intentionally confuses the territories.

As a cultural icon, Santa Claus fits neatly on the secular end of the Christmas spectrum. Santa is not Jesus, and Jesus is not Santa. Autry and Haldeman stepped over this line. “Here Comes Santa Claus” utilizes light and dancey music typical of the non-religious category, and travels through the usual secular references: reindeer, stockings, presents, sleigh bells. But beneath this innocuous façade is a religious agenda, evident in these sneaky lines: “Hang your stockings and say your prayers”; “Santa Claus knows we’re all God’s children, that makes everything right”; “Peace on earth will come to all, if we just follow the light. So lets give thanks to the Lord above, that Santa Claus comes tonight!”

Not surprisingly, this song is a favorite of the “Jesus is the reason for the season” crowd. In their minds, it shines a much-needed religious light on the “frivolous” celebration of a sacred holiday. But just as religious people complain when elements perceived as secular seep into their music, secularists are justified in objecting to the Autry-Haldeman concoction. If distinctions between sacred and secular songs exist at all—and they certainly do to the ears of many listeners—then respect for borders should be upheld on both sides of the divide. For this reason, “Here Comes Santa Claus” is, at the very least, an uncomfortable hybrid.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Art and Apartness

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Art is a sacred endeavor. Not in a theological or ideological sense—which is clouded by intellectualism and socio-religious determinations—but in the purer and more experiential sense of apartness. The primary aim and impetus of art is connection with the “beyond-the-ordinary”: a sensation of transcending the confines and occurrences of the mundane world. The artist who labors undisturbed in the creative process occupies a separate and all-consuming sphere of consciousness.

This explains the casual observation that artists are rarely drawn to the usual aspects of religious life: regulated rituals, group affiliation and formalistic prayers. Without having statistics to support this perception, it nevertheless seems that utterly artistic people—those who exist in an almost perpetual state of inward reflection and inspired invention—live the ideals that religion strives to impart through texts and structured practices. The artist is intimately familiar with transformation and elevation, making religion’s attempt to manufacture these qualities superfluous or even disruptive.

This does not mean that artists cannot be religious in the normative sense. The same variations of religiosity and non-religiosity are found among artists and the general population. Obviously, too, numerous artworks have been created for and commissioned by religious institutions, and many performing artists (mainly musicians) find steady employment in houses of worship. Even so, artists need not rely on public rituals or religious calendars to tell them how or when to encounter otherness.

From a humanistic perspective, religion, in all its forms and modes of engagement, is but a particularistic means toward a universal goal. The aspiration for transcendence is present within every human being. It is built into our biology. The fact that religions emerged at all in the course of human evolution is proof of this inborn longing of our species. Those who do not find sacred peaks in the everyday often turn to religious events (or pseudo-religious events, such as sports or concerts) in order to be pushed into that experience.

William Sharlin, a cantor-composer who found ecstasy alone at the piano and transmitted ecstasy through liturgical singing, included this remark in a lecture on the topic of art and the sacred: “The non-artist at best may strive for the occasional moment of transcendence and therefore may need the help of worship to separate himself from the ordinary.” Not so the artist.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

We Sing a Body Eclectic

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Everything that we feel, consume or otherwise experience is really an accumulation of many things. At the microscopic level, all matter is composed of a variety of tiny units that combine in different and almost infinite ways. Combinations are also detectable at the macroscopic level. Take, for example, the clothing a person wears on a given day. Most of the time an outfit is pieced together from articles manufactured and distributed by different companies, acquired at different times and places, and sewn from a medley of fabrics and patterns. Similar mixtures are present in the food we eat, the gardens we plant, the cars we drive, the places we visit, the appliances we use, the words we speak. Purity simply does not exist in any strict definition of the term.

Yet the composite nature of everything is not usually obvious. This is primarily because of presentation. When soup arrives in a bowl or the pages of a book are flipped, we get the impression of singleness. A part of us realizes that soup is made of several ingredients and that books contain innumerable influences. But we gladly receive them in their entirety. The forest distracts us from the trees.

Unless we consciously direct ourselves to see, smell, taste, touch or hear the finer details and points of intersection, the whole is what we experience. Indeed, even when the diversity of components is obvious, we tend to receive them as if they were uniform. This is probably an evolutionary adaptation: it helps us organize and make sense of the complexities of reality.

Examples of this are found in the world of music. For instance, a songbook may consist of divergent offerings from varied songwriters, styles and time periods. But their inclusion in a single volume—printed in uniform fashion and on pages of identical shape, size and quality—obscures their origin and character. The same occurs when a performer gives a recital featuring sundry compositions. Because the same person is playing each selection, it is easy to lose track of the multiplicity—even when the music exhibits signatures of divergent schools. And there is the basic fact that each piece contains within it a blend of materials and inspirations.

One musical venue where assortment is especially hidden is the American synagogue. Like the country itself, American Judaism is an amalgam of people and practices from around the world. German-Jewish immigrants brought a tradition of choral hymns to American soil. Eastern European Jews introduced melismatic hazzanut. Twentieth-century composers like Ernest Bloch and Leonard Bernstein expanded the limits of synagogue song. The 1970s brought guitars into the synagogue walls. Songwriters dabbling in an array of styles, from Sufi chant to Brazilian pop, have contributed to Jewish worship. Not confined to a singular rite, most liberal congregations are free to construct a service drawing from eclectic styles.

However, because most synagogues have a steady staff of performers (e.g., a cantor, pianist and choir), and because musical settings are typically presented without introductions or program notes, the line demarcating one piece from the next is blurred. Widely heterogeneous music is presented in a more or less homogenous way. Again, this phenomenon is perfectly natural and clearly beneficial: it adds to a service’s sense of flow, consistency, comfort and stability. Our disinclination to detect variation preserves the illusion of oneness. In a world as complicated and overwhelming as our own, that is nothing to be ashamed of.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.