Music and Religion, thy cup runneth over

Music and Religion has been overflowing with new knowledge and information along with new ways of looking at knowledge that we already had. Between the readings and the papers that I wrote over the course of the semester my ability to look at music through a religious lens grew in leaps and bounds. Part of this was contextual, where I know have a larger base of theological and musicological content from which to analyze a new piece, say a Bach cantata, that is put in front of me.

With the 500th anniversary of the reformation upon us, the work we did in contextualizing Bach’s theology will stick with me from this class. I’ve taken courses that discuss the reformation in my time at St. Olaf, but the Lutheran theology of Bach’s time, though very similar, focuses on new aspects of the religion. Our focus on the influences of the Pietists versus the Orthodox views on music will influence how I view the roles of music within the Lutheran church moving forward. The methods which we approached Bach’s works will also prove valuable in my role as an organist. Being able to read into Bach’s compositions in a meaningful manner (it’s not just a numbers game) will inform not only my future choices in performing Bach’s works, but also a deeper understanding of the theology behind the music itself in works like the St. John passion.

I will also hold dear to my heart all of the information that I learned in the first research that I did on central African hymnody and its westernization within American hymnals. I do not deny the value that world music has within a worship setting, but I have always been uneasy about the motivations that are often behind its use. Inclusivity, and awareness of a worldwide christian population have always been justifying elements to the argument, yet through my research I found that African hymnody (likely other world music as well) is much more complicated than one might assume. The religion was mostly disseminated globally by European missionaries and so global hymnody ends up being full of western influence. This poses an ethical dilemma for those who wish to represent inclusivity within a western church, because a lot of global hymnody really expresses the influence of western christian music upon another culture and religion. I will continue to carry this beyond this course in my life as a church musician, and I will approach global hymnody with the intent to pick hymns that truly represent the culture and concerns of the christians who wrote them, and to use them to authentically represent their creators.

If we had more time in this class I would have loved to spend more time focusing on the music and religious context of non-western religions, especially that of Asian religions. I think that by understanding a large swath of religious beliefs and music together, the connections between music and theology that we made in areas familiar to us could be either questioned further, or affirmed. The value of expanding our reach to diverse areas would, not only be plain interesting, but it could be groundbreaking in the understanding that we have about the relationship between music and religion.

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