Ambrose Singing Some World Harmony

Leo Spitzer, in his “historical semantics” on Classical and Christian Conceptions of World Harmony, explains that Ambrose’s composition of the first hymn focused on world harmony was something that only a Christian theology could have produced. While Hebraic music seemed uninterested in the concept of world harmony, Greek music seemed to believe world harmony couldn’t be imitated in human music at all.

World harmony, the ability to at once “express best the inner depths of human and cosmic nature”, was for the Greeks not only “inaccessible to human ears” but also purely metaphorical. Or, rather, human music was a metaphor for the universal music, but its purpose was purely a spiritual one, to understand the creator (poietes, a poet/musician) and to put one’s soul in healthy order (an idea Spitzer says later attracted Augustine). Thus music is central to Plato in the Republic because of the close relationship of harmony to the soul and the soul to the polis. “Plato establishes the parallel: individual body—individual soul—polis, all three being predicated on order and temperance. There is in man himself a politeia, which bids him attune his body to the harmony of his soul, ‘if he has true music in him’….”

The idea of world harmony, Spitzer points out, is attractive to early Christian thinkers because there is some resonance with passages of Scripture (Job 38:7, Liber Sapientiae 19:17, both of which are connected by later thinkers to concentum caeli and in organo qualitatis sonus). He doesn’t find it surprising, then, that Ambrose would make the connection fully clear in his Hexaemeron, a vision of Christian world harmony syncretized with Pythagoras. But Ambrose’s conception is nuanced or fulfilled. Although it’s quite true that “a human simile can give but a slight reflection of the consonance of the concentus undarum with the concentus plebis,” it’s also true that Christian singing can really be a worthy reflection of world harmony—in fact, even a better one that Greek speculation on it. “The Greeks, on the other hand, ascribed to music the highest place in the universe; and yet, though we are indebted to them for much philosophical speculation about music, it could be said that they have left us comparatively little of the music which should illustrate their philosophy. But in the hymns of Ambrose, we have a ‘performance,’ an ‘incarnation’ of that world harmony about which the Greeks had speculated; and the Church, which was represented in his hymns as echoing the music of the universe, served, actually, as the theater for the performance of these hymns (as it was to serve later as the original state of medieval drama).”

Ambrose, according to Spitzer, gets the “immortal merit…to have assigned to Christian music the task of embodying the Greek world harmony,” and not the ancient Israelites in their Psalms. “The Psalms were full of musical elation in praise of God, but the idea of world harmony was only potentially present; their radiant and resounding similes were symbolic only of the inner wealth of a religious feeling: pictures conjured up to figure the unspeakable.” Certainly it seems like Spitzer’s assessment here is unfair and sloppy. Pictures conjured up to figure the unspeakable sounds like an excellent description of another religion’s music and poetry. And it seems that plenty of Psalms and Hebraic music (19 and 87, the Song of Moses, off the top of my head) would admit a world harmony idea pretty clearly.

But at the same time it’s easy to fall into a trap of feeling the need to find Greek philosophy in the Old Testament, a trap that many thinkers past and present seem to fall into when dealing with world harmony and musica mundana. A fierce desire to make musica mundana a Scriptural idea would presuppose that it ought to be there, merely to fit our Hellenic standards of beauty. The Timaeus is an awfully nice thought, but it is just a thought and it would be silly to wish David and Moses had thought and talked more like Plato. And yet this is what it seems many Medieval authors wished when they spoke of music. I’m content with the thought that Ambrose’s attempt to embody this world harmony would have scandalized the Greeks and struck them as a rash, overly bold and probably blasphemous. You go, Ambrose. Scandalize those stupid Pythagoreans.

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The CREC in the Wilderness: A Parable

And they all cried out to God, and said, “God, sure we have Reformed theology, but we want to change the world with it! We want to do the work of your kingdom. Give us weapons of warfare. Give us food and nourishment.”

So God thought to himself, “I will give them the ultimate weapon of warfare and the most filling food: I will give them the ability to sing the Psalms. But I will test them and only give them 2/3 of the Psalter in a little red book, and see if they complain.”

So the people enthusiastically began singing the Psalms and even were enthusiastic about the Goudimel and the wild word order of the Scottish psalter. But soon the food became bland to them and they lost interest in using the Psalms as weapons. They complained against their leaders, and even some of their leaders began to complain as well: the settings were too hard. “We would rather go back to singing Egyptian songs than have to sing this stuff.” And so they did, or, if they sang the Psalms, they sang only a fraction of the 2/3 of the Psalter they had, and pretty gloomily at that.

And they looked around and saw some mildly disappointing results. Churches fizzled or split, reformations didn’t seem to happen, congregations were remarkably self-absorbed and acted confused when the evangelical Baptists would get the jump on them in ministering to the world. And they all cried out, “God, you need to come down and start a reformation! We need congregations that are aflame with faith, and free! You know, the single sword to Thee bit?”

But God was busy scratching his head, wondering when they would start complaining about only having 2/3 of the Psalter to sing.

And they looked around and saw the poor and destitute, widows and orphans, persecuted and helpless. They saw wicked men, tyrants, abusers, molesters. They saw abortion, genocide, all sorts of awful things. And they all cried out, “God, how do you expect us to deal with all of this? We need a battle plan, we need some paradigm, we need a mechanism for social justice, we need some totally different approach to this that will change everything! Why aren’t you the God of our fathers, David, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, the God of the Reformation, of Luther, of Knox, of Calvin?”

But God was busy scratching his head, wondering when they would start complaining about only having 2/3 of the Psalter to sing.

Psalm 87

“Both the singers and the players on instruments say,

‘All my springs are in you.'”

Glorious things are spoken of Zion: people in Egypt and Babylon, in all the corridors of power, look at the successful, the prosperous, the blessed, and say that they hail from Zion. The Psalmist give multiple examples of these glorious things, but the final sign of Zion’s social and political greatness among the nations is that her singers and players hail from her.

Psalm 78

The famous opening words, quoted later by Jesus:

“I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark saying of old, Which we have heard and known, And our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, Telling to the generation to come the praises of Yahweh, And His strength and His wonderful works that He has done.”

I want to suggest here that Psalm 78 isn’t just obeying this directive, i.e. God commands us to tell our children the stories of Yahweh’s redemption. It is also, even primarily, telling a story about what happened to Israel when they failed to obey this directive. Psalm 78 isn’t just a story of Yahweh’s redemption, but it’s the story of what happens when we forget to sing of Yahweh’s redemption. Psalm 78 is a cautionary tale for us.

For instance, v. 32 says “In spite of this [i.e. the water, manna, and meat in the wilderness], they still sinned, And did not believe in his wondrous works,” which is clearly poking fun at the people of Israel for having the attention span of a fruit fly. In v. 41 it says “again and again they tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel,” but in v. 42 it describes how they tempted God: “They did not remember His power: The day when He redeemed them from the enemy, When he worked His signs in Egypt, And His wonders in the field of Zoan.” So sinning against God, tempting God, limiting the Holy One—these are all Israel forgetting his acts of redemption. For the people of God, “turning back and acting unfaithfully like their fathers” means “not keeping His testimonies,” which testimonies are not simply his laws but the testimony of his works of redemption.

So the opening lines, “Give ear, O my people, to my law; Incline your ears to the words of my mouth,” are a caution. These “dark sayings of old which we have heard and known” we must not hide them from our children, lest we fall into the same mistakes that the wilderness generation did.

Psalm 78 is, in this sense, a meta-psalm. Psalms, from this perspective, are expressions of the specifically dramatic nature of God’s redemption. As we have all heard much of lately, God’s redemption is not a statement or a proposition but a story and a narrative, and as such it must be made into poetry and songhence Yahweh’s redemption is a kind of redemption that always produces psalm singing (Exodus 15). Psalm 78 is a meta-psalm because it tells that story of God’s redemption but in so doing it tells the story of why such stories are so important, why these stories must continue to be sung. Psalm 78 is the ultimate justification for the entire book of Psalms and its continuing usage in the Church today. It is also, for that matter, the justification for the continued composition of new poems and songs that praise current and recent and particular acts of God’s redemption.

Old Testament Prophets

Christians put church music into a binary: contemporary and traditional. It’s a binary because we think the two cannot coexist.

But in the Old Testament, whenever a prophet comes to tell Israel to return to Yahweh, he also promises that Yahweh will do something new. In other words, the contemporary vs. traditional problem correlates in theology directly to people who overemphasize covenant discontinuity vs. people who overemphasize covenant continuity.

Jeremiah

Classically, anti-supercessionists use Jeremiah 31 as a prooftext for God’s everlasting relationship with the nation-state of Israel. Apart from the more-than-dubious connection between ancient Judah and the modern state of Israel, the very idea of using ch. 31 as a prooftext for anti-supercession is quite amusing. Jeremiah 31:35-36 does indeed say, “Thus says the Yahweh, Who Gives the sun for a light by day, The ordinances of the moon and the stars for a light by night, Who disturbs the sea, And its waves roar (Yahweh of hosts is His name): If those ordinances depart From before Me, says Yahweh, Then the seed of Israel shall also cease From being a nation before Me forever.”

But, oddly enough, four verses before, it says guilelessly, “Behold, the days are coming, says Yahweh, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers….” Right there, in uncomfortably close proximity, Yahweh promises to stick with Israel changelessly and at the same time radically change his covenant with them. In case we didn’t get the point, it is a new covenant, not like the old one.

God is calling his people back but forward simultaneously. It’s something old, something new.

Hosea

How does God call his people back in Hosea? In 2:15, he says “I will give her her vineyards from there, And the Valley of Achor as a door of hope; She shall sing there, As in the days of her youth, As in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt.” Here, it seems, Hosea is all about continuity.

But immediately the verse after, “And it shall be, in that day, says Yahweh, That you will call Me ‘My Husband,’ And no longer call Me ‘My Master.'” All puns aside, Hosea is suddenly emphasizing discontinuity. To use his allegory, God wants to woo His bride “as in the days of her youth,” but is going to make it more intimate as a provision against her returning to her “Baals.”

The point is an obvious one that can be seen in the very structure of most of the prophets: Isaiah ends with a restoration of God’s people in which there will be a totally new social order; Ezekiel ends with a restoration of God’s people in which there is a totally new temple. But there are just a few fascinating places where that simultaneous restoration and renovation are so close it is difficult to wrap one’s mind around them.

My thesis, then (at the end): if we are faithfully returning to Biblical worship—covenant renewal, psalm singing, and so on—then it should result in all sorts of new music. This new music must be traditional, and if that very sentence does not make sense to us, then we should figure out a way for it to.