Jordan’s Musical Hermeneutics


More than thirty years after the release of their hit song, “Down Under,” (1978) Australian rock band Men at Work were hauled into court for ripping their flute riff from a nursery rhyme. The issue came up after discussion on a popular rock quiz TV show. [1]

Most Aussies of my generation knew the original (really uncool) song, and the use of it as a motif in a rock song was, well, really cool. The very fact that it didn’t have a big yellow sticker on it saying “This bit is from Kookaburra,” and the listener picked it up, was gratifying. All good music does this. All good movies do this. TV shows also use subtle allusions to past episodes as a nod to faithful viewers (and no show does it with the concrete-cracking understatement of Mad Men).

In this case of the flute riff, any dunderhead could pick it up. While I think that the current owners of the copyright, Larrikin Records, are a bunch of opportunistic bastards (and though they were once considered indie and cool, I guess they are now really uncool), it pains me that modern teachers of the Bible are too cautious to read the Scriptures in this way, too conservative to pick up the motifs, phrases and structural allusions that are obvious once they are pointed out. They are looking for the big yellow sticker, and it ain’t coming.

How does one identify motifs in music? I mean, you can’t copyright single notes, can you? It is a particular progression of notes in a particular rhythm that makes the motif. It can be shifted to a major key from minor or vice versa, and still be recognisable. A couple of reviewers of Bible Matrix criticized it for getting out of hand in its latter half. But that’s where the real payoff is! If you can’t get beyond the Mosaic nursery rhymes and won’t see that everything that follows sits on top of them and refers to them constantly, particularly structurally, then typology isn’t for you. The Bible doesn’t come with big yellow stickers. Just because you don’t get a book or a painting doesn’t mean it can’t be gotten. Why do so few Bible interpreters have any experience in musical or literary criticism?

The Bible is a subtle beast, but the motifs are recognisable, verifiable, not through the identification of their parts, but the order of them, the structure of them as a literary melody. People who have no musical ear or training have trouble getting things that are blatantly obvious to poets, musicians, graphic designers, and also film makers like Darren Doane, who read Totus Christus and actually enjoyed it. He’s a visual guy, and it’s a book that joins the dots between images.

I’m teaching a generation that has been raised with movies and music at their fingertips. And guess what? After a little instruction, they are able to spot the Bible’s motifs a mile away. Bible interpretation (beyond the basic level) is not for the musically-challenged. James Jordan writes:

Does it help to be a musician to understand the Bible? Yes, because the Bible indicates that this is so.

First, music is the God-appointed way of worshipping Him with His own words. The psalms are to be set to music and sung, and in fact a great deal of Western art music developed out of the complex ways in which psalms were set by art musicians. More than that, however, we find in the Masoretic Hebrew text of the Old Testament a whole system of pitch marks, which indicate the chanting lines for the text as it existed when the Masoretic text was produced. A French musical scholar named Haik-Vantoura has offered a decoding of these pitches, but whether she is right or not in her suggested system, there is no doubt but that the text was originally chanted in worship. [2] Sung worship is typical of all pre-modern worship all over the world.

Second, the Spirit is given to help us understand the Word, and the Spirit is the Glorifier. He is the Breath, the sounding forth of the Word. Whenever words are said out loud, they are said musically. Your speech goes up and down, is loud and soft, is punctuated rhymically by consonants and emphasis, assumes various tones (timbres; such as rough, kind, whiny, etc.). In short, all speech is quasi-musical. The Spirit inspires music, and He is the Music of God, who is Author, Word, Music. Thus, being musical and learning about music should add to our ability to grasp the text.

Third, we find that the priests and Levites were established as the teachers of the Word in Israel; but they were also set up as the musicians in the Temple. By linking these two things, God was saying that a teacher of the Word would be wise also to be a musician. (Levites were also guards, and some familiarity with what that means is also good for a teacher/elder in the Church.)

Thus, we see that God programmed music into the minds and hearts of those set apart to interpret the Bible, and into the minds and hearts of all those in Israel who would encounter the text more generally.

In sum, if we want to train people in understanding the Bible more fully, it is good to train them in musical understanding. Music should be part of the educational preparation of anyone engaged in Biblical study and hermeneutics.

Why isn’t this done today? Because of the influence of Western rationalism, especially through the “science ideal” of the Enlightenment. Poetry, which used to be sung, is sung no longer. Many people don’t realize that even post-Renaissance poetry should be read out loud; it should be heard, if not actually sung. (I have a lot of hope for what may eventually develop out of rap music, despite its sorry beginnings today; it moves toward a restoration of the original form of poetry.) We read silently. We no longer sing or whistle while we work. Philosophy, which is contemplative rather than active and liturgical, has influenced theology and Bible study way too much.

Thus, we don’t live in a social and ecclesiastical context that would enable us to read and understand the Bible as well as we might. Restoring music to our lives will help. [3]

[1] See Men At Work in Trouble for Down Under.
[2] Check these out on YouTube. They are hauntingly beautiful.
[3] James B. Jordan, Music and Hermeneutics. I recommend reading the entire article.

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