Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Review: A Journal of Theomusicology

 I’m in the midst of writing a lecture for my church’s summer forum, and it’s been a really fun experience.  Also, I have the best research job ever, because part of this research has involved finding really bad Lady Gaga parodies.  In any case, I have a plethora of music library books out on topics ranging from church music history, hymnology, and cultural and social considerations.  I also have a volume of the journal Black Sacred Music, which I found so interesting that I read a great deal more of it than strictly required for my research.  (Academics, of course, rarely read the entirety of books they’re using for research.  I learned the value of tables of contents and indices early on!)  But in this case, the volume, entitled A Journal of Theomusicology (Black Sacred Music, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1994) proved to be a fascinating and useful read precisely because I had never heard of this 90’s-era movement.  Theomusicology sounds, at first, to be a different name for the interdisciplinary musicological and theological study of which I am a part through my association with the Forum on Music and Christian Scholarship.  However, the two movements are not the same.  There are a few marked differences, and this review will explore a few of them.

Let me admit here that I did not read the entire journal.  With thirteen other books to work through as I prepare my lecture, I just don’t have time!  I read most of the first section, “Query, Theory, and Methodology” and one of the essays from the final section, “Discourse within Christian Theology.”  I have a sense about what the field is about, but didn’t read the majority of the articles applying this interpretive framework to specific topics.

FMCS – and its sister, the very new International Network for Music Theology – attempt to study liturgical and other church music through the lens of religious context.  Thus, musical thought and musical works are examined through their relationship to contemporary liturgical practice, theological belief, and religious politics.  While I have observed a focus on the Western musical canon, this research is by no means limited to this repertoire, and I have also heard papers given on popular sacred music topics (CCM, or contemporary Christian music) as well as non-Western musics.  Many of these papers have involved close analysis of musical works in order to reveal underlying theological assumptions.  How does this series of key changes reflect eschatological beliefs, for example?  How does this hymn setting emphasize key textual moments?  How does the pacing of this music echo liturgical practice?  Born from the field of historical musicology, this sort of scholarship is best accomplished when traditional musicologists, ethnomusicologists, historians, and theologians come together to examine the artistic performance of Christian practice.

Theomusicology is a bit of a different animal, which started as a movement within ethnomusicology and seems to have never really caught on.  From what I can tell from these essays, theomusicology is based on the idea that all humans express theology, often unintentionally and subconsciously, so that any music can be analyzed to reveal theological beliefs.

There is an explicit evangelical goal.  “A theological interpreter of music is never free just to observe and analyze the way in which a culture’s music expresses its religious meanings.  A theological interpreter is always interpreting and analyzing for the sake of that more blessed state of God’s restored justice and peace which music can so powerfully express” (Clyde J. Steckel, “How Can Music Have Theological Significance?,” 22).  Which is to say, theomusicologists do their work in order to influence the religious beliefs of others.  It is a strange ideal to find in the field of academia.  I expect it of theologians – but most these authors make the specific disclaimer that they are not trained theologians.  Another essay discusses what it calls theomusicotherapy: “the highest possible goal of every act of theomusicological research – healing, wholeness, love, peace, communitas” (Jon Michael Spencer, “Musicology as a Theologically Informed Discipline,” 55).

Aside from this idealogical ambition, the primary difference between theomusicology and the sort of research done by scholars in FMCS seems to be that theomusicologists specifically include secular music of all kinds within their area of study.  “The presumption of theomusicology is, in the words of theologian Langdon Gilkey, that because the secular not as unreligious or as unconstrained by the need for mythical language in their self-understanding as they (or we) may suppose, theological discourse is perhaps the only way to understand the nature of their human existence.  Through its particular systematic approach, theomusicology seeks to discern how the secular…perceive the questions and mysteries that myths address and how these ‘ultimate concerns’ figure into their world outlook, which in turn formulates the character of the larger cosmocultural world” (Jon Michael Spencer, “Musicology as a…,” 59).  Starting from the assumption that all humans are fundamentally, inescapably religious in character (“Homo religiosus”), theomusicologists conclude that all music is therefore religious in character and can be studied to determine how these works of art seek to answer fundamental philosophical and religious questions.

I grew concerned by the mistrust of traditional narratives of sacred music and of the Church as an institution betrayed by a later article by one of these same authors: “In fact, there seems to be something religiously inauthentic about church music in general: it is perhaps doctrinally ‘correct’ but not actually reflective of people’s beliefs and behaviors in the real world.  In other words, if we really want to know what the masses are thinking religiously…we cannot turn to church music, where provisional answers to the vital questions are already narrowly predetermined.  We must turn to the secular sphere outside the institutional sacred gathering places, where a more honest religious discourse – no matter how ‘profane’ it may be – is occurring” (Jon Michael Spencer, “Overview of American Popular Music in a Theological Perspective,” 216).  He seems to be implying that one cannot find authentic theology within the church or in church music.  Instead, “honest religious discourse” can take place only in the secular sphere, free from the narrow doctrines of these “institutional sacred gathering places.”  Hmph.  Studying theology found in music while mistrusting theology as discovered throughout centuries of study by the Church?  I find this to be a dangerous, misguided line of thought.

I’ve talked to a lot of scholars of sacred music and have never heard of this movement before, so my guess is that theomusicology never really took off, despite the dedicated push of a few devoted scholars.  It’s an interesting movement, certainly, but I find a few problems in its methodology and what seems to be an instinctive revulsion of traditional religious discourse by established liturgical churches.  If any of my sacred-music-researching friends are reading this, have you heard of theomusicology?  Is my analysis of the movement accurate?  Is anyone still using this interpretive framework to examine sacred music?

Things I’m reading:
Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, Adam Nicolson
Ballet Shoes, Noel Streatfeild


  1. Hello. I don't know if you are still keeping this blog up but I ran across theomusicology in my research recently and have many questions. Do you know of any other critiques?

  2. Also, why wouldn't certain populations have valid cause to mistrust the theology of the church as the only means of discerning what an institution really thinks about God? As the unknown hard wrote long ago, "Ev'rybody talkin' 'bout heav'n ain't goin' there..."