The Herb Of Grace

Theology and Poetry, Politics and Prose

Music in Modernity: Gatherings of Sub-Conscious Desire August 19, 2009

Filed under: books,Charles Taylor,Spirituality — Joel @ 5:49 pm

I have spent the summer reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, a large work in which he endeavors to explain how, in 1500, it was inconceivable not to believe in God while in 2000 it is quite easy, if not inescapable.  He is determined not to weigh-in with his own opinion while admitting that this is impossible; thus he simply omits the end of every paragraph where you would expect an essayist to declare, “and so I agree/disagree with this.”  It has been a good read (800 some pages) and I have enjoyed beginning to think through some of his points.

On page 360, Taylor speaks about modern gatherings around music as an example of the uncertain response of many westerners to the various tides of agnosticism, atheism, and anti-deism.  He says,

“I am thinking of the way in which publicly performed music, in concert hall and opera house, becomes an especially important and serious activity in nineteenth century bourgeois Europe and America.  People begin to listen to concerts with an almost religious intensity.  The analogy is not out of place.  The performance has taken on something of a rite, and has kept it to this day.  There is a sense that something great is being said in this music.  This too has helped create a kind of middle space, neither explicitly believing, but not atheistic either, a kind of undefined spirituality.”

Most of us have heard the likening of U2 concerts to church services, and Arcade Fire holding its concerts in cathedrals offers another example.  But it is not the lyrics (U2) or the setting (Arcade Fire) which Taylor alludes to, but rather the sense of profundity that one can experience at a concert.  I think the “undefined” and “middle space” are crucial thoughts here.  While most feel vaguely or strongly uncomfortable with the idea of everyone going to church, they are not ready to abandon the “feel” of sacred gatherings either.  Music, with its poetry and sonic unsayables, offers a gracious canvas on which to place the mixed paint of (1) nostalgia for the common point of celebration and depth that was the Mass, (2) assumed discomfort with “doctrine” or “dogma,” and (3) a palpable “not-going-away” desire to gather around some agreed-upon depth.  All this is experienced in a kind of demilitarized zone of the arts.

I’m both glad and uncomfortable with this.  I’m glad that the longing for sacred gathering is still very much alive.  I see it as a sign of hope that our communal memories are not completely shot.  My discomfort comes with our lack of historical and sociological awareness about the reasons for our musical gatherings.

This is a feeling that I’ve been having all through the book.  Its a feeling akin to someone telling you how ridiculous you’ve been acting around your ex-girlfriend, and you having no idea that you were acting so strange.  Christianity is our society’s ex-girlfriend.  We’re still wanting a little something-something (nostalgia), while at the same time recoiling, remembering truthfully (somewhat) her various infidelities.  I say this not to mean that we should just “turn back time,” I recoil at that; but I am disturbed by our lack of aquaintance with the history of our own desires.  Are we following a path that will lead us into greater light or are we are rats in a causal cage, outfitted with Bose speakers?


2 Responses to “Music in Modernity: Gatherings of Sub-Conscious Desire”

  1. Rachael Barham Says:

    Joel, I’m glad to still be on your mailing list, and loved these first thoughts you send out from your reading. As always, you express things so well… and I especially love the ex-girlfriend analogy – such an apt way to describe the ambivalence that exists towards Christianity in our culture today. Thanks! I hope you guys are settling in well… (are you even there yet?!) We miss you here in the Steve!


  2. […] Filed under: Charles Taylor, books, public theology — masonmusic @ 5:59 am Continuing from my previous post on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, I want to reflect on a point that Taylor makes regarding […]

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