I offered the following reflection at our Jazz Vespers this past weekend. I have borrowed heavily for this from Jeremy Begbie’s book Resounding Truth.
In his wonderful book Resounding Truth, Christian theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie reminds us that within the Christian tradition the world is not the product of chance or random forces. The world is not self-created, but comes forth at the personal initiative of God. There are, he says, two important things we must see about God’s act of creation as it is understood within Christianty.
First God’s act of creation is an act of freedom. There is nothing which forces or compels God to create the world. There is nothing that requires God to call into being that which is other than God. God speaks a creative word in the narratives of Genesis – let there be. And God speaks that creative word out of his own freedom and initiative. At his freely spoken word, the world is formed. At his freely spoken word – mountains, rivers, moons, chickadees, constellations, humans, forests.
But the act of creation is also an act of love. God’s speaking of creation into being is not merely an act of freedom and power – perhaps of arbitrary power. As Begbie says, “this Creator is the God who makes covenants, who reaches out to his people in steadfast love. The Creator is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the saving God of Jesus Christ. His creation is not just a brute fact but the outcome of benevolence; it is given – at least in part – for human delight and flourishing.”
There has been within western culture a unfortunate tendency to denigrate the creation, to deny our physical nature, to seek an escape from our finite nature into some other sphere of existence. Sometimes this thinking has inserted itself into Christianity – this thinking is expressed in a longing to escape the physical, created world into a spiritual realm, or into heaven.
But we are reminded that God creates this world of time and space – this world of matter and physicality – and creates it in freedom and in love. God delights in what he has made. Using Wendell Berry’s words: God is a relisher of this world, its goodness grown immortal in his mind. And we are invited to delight in and care for that which God has made, in relation to which we become guardians. We are invited – no, called – to protect ecosystems, to preserve habitats, to defend rivers against pollution, and to preserve soil with earth-honouring agricultural practices. To delight in that which has been created is to care for it.
There has been a tendency in western culture to engage in a kind of escapism – there has been a wishing for a world unencumbered by physicality and flesh and finitude. It is a tendency we must resist with every fibre of our physical, spiritual existence.
And shifting focus now, we recognize that in the world of music there has been a similar movement of escapism, for we often speak of music as lifting us beyond the mundane, beyond the physical, into an almost spiritual existence – we are sometimes inclined to speak of music as lifting us into a world unencumbered by bodies.
But firstly and decisively, music is a feature of the created order. It is an aspect of the physical, material world that is given in freedom and love. We recall that sounds are nothing more than are physical vibrations of air produced by material objects. As Jeremy Begbie reminds us: “Music comes by pushing air from our lungs over vocal cords, or by plucking a taught wire, or by drawing rough hair over catgut, or by depressing a key.”
The pianist sits at the piano. And through the very physical movements of body and hands, with sensitivity of feeling, he plays and strikes the keys of the piano – doing so hammers strikes piano strings, and vibrations are produced. Those physical vibrations are transferred to the large surface of the sounding board and then transferred to the air. Those vibrations of air are picked up by the human ear drum – and that sensory signal is transferred to and interpreted by the brain.
While the creation of music involves human creativity and making, music is a feature of the created and physical world. The soundboard and its vibrations are as much an aspect the physical material creation as is spinach growing in a field. In the freedom and love of creation, God gives as a gift this physical world we in habit, and gives us the gift soundboard and spinach.
So as we sit in this place, listening to the tones and rhythms produced by a fine pianist and by the instruments he plays – our eardrums dancing to the rhythms of air made alive – we are not so far removed from the creation. Indeed, we are in the middle of it. May our response be one of delight.