Arthur Peacocke
& Ann Pederson,
The Music of Creation
(Augsburg, 2006)

The Music of Creation, by Arthur Peacocke and Ann Pederson, attempts to delineate music as a reflection of the human attempt to reflect the idea of the "transcendance of the immanent and the immancence of the transcendant" in a material form, even given that music is perhaps the least material form known. The authors stated quite plainly that their purpose is to portray some of the ways in which music and its creation reflect and illuminate "how creative Christian community should develop and operate." It's hard to know how to approach the argument. One must, I think, accept a great deal in terms of the authors' assertions on theology, although I find myself forced to question some of those assertions.

For example, the comment in the prelude that the development of Western music "as a vehicle of both personal and communal experience has been especially sophisticated and subtle" betrays a seeming blind spot in the authors' viewpoint; it is childishly easy to find examples in non-Western cultures of the ways in which music plays a fundamental and integrated role in communal rituals, and if one does even the most cursory examination of rituals among Native North Americans, African societies or Australian Aborigines, it is easy to see how music works to identify and legitimize the community. Peacocke makes quite a surprising conceptual leap, also, in equating the idea of creation of the real from the unreal, which in an offside way could be ascribed to most religions (although making careful examination of what some groups think of as "real" could very well blow that idea out of the water) with the idea of creatio ex nihilo, which is not fundamental to "most" religions. On the contrary, it is a concept that is native to the Abrahamic faiths, although one could, I think, make a strong case for Hinduism as reflecting something like that idea. It may very well be a product of contemporary Christian thinking, or at least some schools of it, that conflates the ideas of God as transcendant and God as immanent; it's a conflation that is not really supported in the text.

I found it hardest to accept Peacocke's discussion in the first two parts of the book, simply because he seems to be trying to recast science as a means of describing the ongoing activities of God in the sidereal universe. I can see how that is a logical extension of the idea that God is in everything, but that is not something, again, that is unique to Christianity -- quite the opposite, in fact. His assertion that the conclusion from science that human beings are part of nature is consistent with traditional Christian theology strikes me as very odd, the rationalizations of Teilhard de Chardin notwithstanding; the stipulation that God gave Man "dominion" over the creatures of the Earth, and the position that both Man and Nature fell from grace, but only Man is redeemable, are much more in keeping with what seems to be the traditional viewpoint and would appear to belie Peacocke's interpretation.

Peacocke, aside from spending a major portion of his text ruminating on time and its importance to both music and theology (and let's face it: what can you think of, offhand, that exists outside of time?), also seems to be ascribing "significance" as a characteristic of areas where it is not even really germane, such as evolution; of course, we see significance in retrospect, but that does not necessarily imply that it is a characteristic of the process, which seems to be the idea that Peacocke is trying to advance. (And evolution was probably not the best example for him to use -- many people have trouble reconciling the ideas of random selection at the genetic level with the tough winnowing process at the environmental level, which has nothing of chance about it.)

Pederson's contributions are not so involved, but also seem to be largely beside the point. She brings in organizational theory to draw parallels between different types of music-making -- the classical orchestra, an improvisational jazz group -- and different aspects of worship. She does paint an appealing portrait of Christian community, but somehow never really seems to draw a firm relationship with the structures and creation of music.

Although I am personally gratified that the authors bring in references to Rautavaara, Górecki, Tavener and Pärt, since I tend to be fond of their music, I'm not sure that I can ascribe to them particular insights that display "something different from most Western music." I am the last to argue against the idea of religious experience as a major motivator in the creation of art; in fact, I have often done just the opposite. That a certain group of composers happens to be drawing on the forms and rituals of Eastern Christianity is interesting, and a testament to the resources to be found in those traditions, but the implication that this is somehow limited to a certain group of composers, mostly from Eastern Europe, strikes me as hollow.

I think the book must be taken as a metaphor, and a greatly extended one, but in that context, the discussion seems slightly off-point. All told, I found The Music of Creation somewhat of a disappointment. The reasoning seems fuzzy, with a number of conclusions that just left me scratching my head, and a real lack of discussion of the connection between making music and contemporary Christian thought. Although not Christian myself, I know a number of very articulate Christians who, I think, could draw clearer parallels, and have done so in casual conversation. There is certainly enough to be said about music and religious community, but I'm afraid that if anyone said it here, I missed it.

by Robert M. Tilendis
14 January 2006

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