‘We Can Work It Out:’ The Intersection of Music and Theology


Editors Note: The following is a short presentation given in my contemporary theology class. The assignment for to argue for the use of music within theological work.

What can one say about a musical form that makes multimillionaires of people who can boast (in all earnestness) that while they “have 99 problems, getting a [insert vulgarity for female] here.”[1] Or causes millions of Americans to spend countless dollars voting on which glorified Karaoke contestant sung a better rendition of that American classical piece “Over the Rainbow.”[2] One might be tempted to quote German musicologist Theodor Adorno who referred to the pop scene as “banality relentlessly controlled to make it salable.”[3] The debate over music and its place within the space of Christian reflection stands as a loaded topic. The relative success or failure of one’s argument, as it often does rises and falls upon the categorization of the thing being categorized. I would argue that any defense of music presented stands as a defense of some musical form held dear by the author, and any attack of music becomes a referendum upon some musical form deemed irreverent or unworthy of musical consumption.

So how should I proceed? I could simply state what I or others liked about their musical heroes in generic enough terms that each of you could consider my argument in terms of some such music as you deem interesting or exciting. Perhaps we could discuss Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a Nazi Prison building playing and replaying the music he loved in his head. There he wrote to a friend saying that, “the music we here inwardly can almost surpass, if we really concentrate on it, the music we hear outwardly.”[4] I could even quote Barth who stated that “I even have to confess that if I ever get to heaven, I would seek out Mozart, and only then inquire after Augustine, St. Thomas, Luther, Calvin, and Schleiermacher.”[5]

These two Germans, perhaps, have shown us ways to think of music and provide no limit to the freedom of God to work within it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in discussing music coined the phrase “polyphony of life” meaning that in life as in music there are many lines of melody, yet there is often central theme known in music as the cantas firmas which draws it all together. The musical experience then becomes a gate by which the Spirit might meet with a man or a woman and reveal the Word made flesh.[6] It should come as no surprise then that Albert Blackwell might then discuss the “sacramental potential” of music. Here of course “‘ sacramental’ can be applied to ‘any finite reality through which the divine is perceived to be disclosed and communicated, and through which our human response to the divine assumes some measure of shape, form, and structure.'”[7] For Bonhoeffer, Barth, and others including myself, Christ stands as that central theme, and it is often in music and musical expression that we have been able to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” I must confess that I tend to agree with Barth’s statement found in the Dogmatics that “the praise of God… seeks to bind and commit and therefore be expressed, to well up and be sung in concert. The Christian community sings. It is not a choral society. It does not sing in concert. But from inner, material necessity it sings.”[8]

In this urgent capacity music deserves and maybe even requires that we treat it with respect and admiration. And so I ask you, humble classmates, to seek to incorporate the many varied splendors of the musical world to your own theological vocabulary. In this way you might be able to join with Chicago’s own lyrical genius Kanye who offered this statement on his musical endeavors:

I ain’t here to argue about his facial features
Or here to convert atheists into believers
I’m just trying to say the way school need teachers
The way Kathie Lee needed Regis that’s the way I need Jesus.[9]

Or if that is not your style you might join in with the hymnist who stated:

Just as I am, though tossed about

With many a conflict, many a doubt,

Fightings and fears within, without,

O Lamb of God, I come, I come.[10]


[1] Jay-Z, “99 Problems,” Black Album, Def Jam / Island Records, 2003.

[2] This perennial favorite of American Idol-Wannabes has been sung during this season by Jason Castro, and by countless other contestants. In fact a Google search of the the two phrases gets 118,000 hits.

[3] Theodor Adorno quoted by Dr. Steven Pierson, ” ‘We Sang Ourselves Free,'” (paper presented in Croos-Cultural Research class, Wheaton College, 1 April 2008).

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer as quoted by Jeremy S. Begbie, “Theology and Music,” The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology since 1918, Third Edition, ed. David F. Ford with Rachel Muers (Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publications, 2005), 724.

[5] Karl Barth as quoted by Begbie, 722.

[6] Begbie, 721-722.

[7] Albert Blackwell as quoted by Begbie, 720.

[8] Karl Barth, The Doctrine of Reconciliation: Church Dogmatics, Volume 4, Part 3.2. Authorized English Translation, trans G.W. Bromiley (Edniborough: T & T Clark, 1962), 866.

[9] Kanye West, “Jesus Walks,” The College Dropout, Roc-A-Fella Records, 2004.

[10] Charlotte Elliott, “Just As I Am, Without One Plea,” Hours of Sorrow Cheered and Comforted, 1836.

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