God in Sound and Silence: Music as Theology

PDF God in Sound and Silence: Music as Theology July 2, 2018

Book author
  1. Danielle Anne Lynch
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Music, by its indeterminate levels of meaning, poses a necessary challenge to a theology bound up in words. Its distinctive nature as temporal and embodied allows a unique point of access to theological understanding. Yet music does not exist in a cultural vacuum, conveying universal truths, but is a part of the complex nature of human lives. This understanding of music as theology stems from a conviction that music is a theological means of knowing: knowing something indeterminate, yet meaningful. This is an exploration of the means by which music might say something otherwise unsayable, and in doing so, allow for an encounter with the mystery of God.

"Believers' unanswered questions often lead to them becoming confused Christians. Written in an informative and engaging manner, this book answers many of those questions. Readers will join the author on a journey of learning more about the Christian faith. This book will be a valuable asset to pastors, teachers, and other ministry leaders find themselves wanting to share the faith in ways that are understood by all."
--Marsha Brown Woodard, Director of Supervised Ministries, Palmer Theological Seminary

"This is a brave, creative, and necessary book. Music and theology so interweave as to make a theology more embodied, and our embodiment in music an anticipation of ultimate resurrection."
--Anthony Kelly, Professor of Theology, Australian Catholic University

"How does music make theological meaning? Danielle Lynch listens carefully to specific musical works in their contexts, to theologies of music, and to theologies of popular culture, to develop a nuanced and perceptive account of theology in music--in which the listener has a central role. Her work in turn deserves attentive listening and creative responses from anyone interested in the relationships between theology, culture, and the arts."
--Rachel Muers, Senior Lecturer in Christian Studies, University of Leeds

"Danielle Lynch's God in Sound and Silence explores the revelatory potential of the embodied experience of music. Unpacking the notions of transcendence, sacramentality, and liminality she brings key theological figures into dialogue with current thought on culture and the contextual nature of musical meaning. This framework bears fruit in her insightful exploration of major pieces of music from the classical, romantic, and modern eras, with the Requiem as a golden thread."
--Maeve Heaney, Musician, Lecturer in Theology, Australian Catholic University

Danielle Anne Lynch is Director of Mission at St Augustine's College, Cairns, and a member of the Australian Catholic Theological Association. Her doctorate on a theology of music was awarded by the University of Leeds in 2015.


Modern theologians have often studied the world of human imagination in the arts. Whilst these theological accounts are often relevant to music as an art form, and sometimes explicitly discuss music, there are particular features of music that set it apart from other forms of art. These features—its temporality and embodied nature—are not exclusive to music, but together create a particular impact that is distinctive to music. I argue that, while music’s meaning is by necessity indeterminate —linguistically, at least, since it does not speak in words—it is nevertheless significant. While music does not necessarily convey specific content, it can be used to convey something particular through the use of form, style, context, and musical technique. It also relies often on musical expectations to convey its meaning. Its lack of determinable meaning poses a challenge for theology, which is itself formed in words, and encourages a perspective of theological thought that accounts for the non-linguistic. Therefore, the relationship between the musical form and the embodied experiencer of the music is paramount to the following theological discussion.

There cannot be an all-encompassing theology of music, as music cannot be generalized, but must be analysed with regard to its particular context and in relation to particular musical experiences. Music is as temporallyand context-situated a way of “doing” theology as any other. Nevertheless, I hold that music is a means through which theological meaning can emerge. Theologies of culture have provided the tools for theology to approach all forms of music. In particular, theologies of popular culture show that music, and indeed theology, never exists in a cultural vacuum, but always in relation to the embodied individual, society, and the world. Analysis of the music itself must also feed into theological interpretation, and therefore I often turn to musicologists to give insight into analysis of specific musical works. In this exploration of music as theology, I will attempt to highlight the fundamental characteristics of music in relation to its cultural context, musical analysis, and existing theological thought. I have integrated three areas of scholarship in this book: theologies that explore music, theologies of culture, and secondary literature in musicological analysis. However, these merely serve to elucidate a shadow of the indeterminate meaning of music in words, they never can grasp the full extent of music as theology.

Music is as varied as any human creation, and certain features or styles may be better fits to certain strands of theological thought. That does not mean that theological thought should be limited to the best fit, but rather, music is enlightening beyond pre-existing conclusions, and helps open our eyes to new possibilities. Each genre and style of music therefore has a unique contribution to make to theological thought. However, there are underlying concepts which are relevant to much music, and can be used in specific analysis, and they will be identified at particular points throughout this work.


It was a pleasure to have been asked to write this preface to Danielle Lynch’s God in Sound and Silence. The last few decades have witnessed a huge growth in the number of studies published on the relation between religion and the arts. This is no accident. Religion is concerned with breaking through the barriers that seemingly confine us to this material world, toward some sense of a transcendent reality existing beyond the normal confines of space and time. Although the arts do not usually have such a fundamental aim, there is nonetheless a common element to this degree.Artistic endeavour is usually concerned with taking us to a point beyond where we currently stand, with devices such as metaphor, analogy, and image used to transition the viewer or listener from one position to another—the new focus being in some ways like our existing perceptions, and in some ways not.

Of all the arts, it might seem as though music was best fitted to this shared move from one realm to another, inasmuch as music is often declared to be the least materialistic of all the arts. Thus, whereas a painter’s autograph on a particular canvas would confirm the unique material identity of that work (including its use of specific paints and techniques), music does not quite work like that. There is something much more intangible in the air that we hear and to which we respond. Indeed, even the autographed musical score lacks precisely the same privilege that we would be prepared to accord to the canvas, in that the conductor and performers do not merely transmit or mediate the work; they also, in some sense, themselves produce a unique creation.

Yet, intriguingly, that apparent contrast is not where Lynch begins her analysis of how music and religion might relate. Instead, she contends that the immateriality of music is much exaggerated, and that it is precisely in its materiality that God will be found. In such stress on the materiality of music, it does seem that she is onto something quite important. Whereas half a century ago, concert performances were very formal affairs with little engagement with the audience, if nothing else, declining audiences have encouraged a different approach that returns us to earlier traditions that assumed, for example, willingness on the performers’ part to reveal their emotional involvement, or else eye contact with the audience that acknowledges participation in a shared experience.

But Lynch’s analysis takes us well beyond any such general observations as these. Lynch is well qualified in both theology and music, and so, perhaps not surprisingly, that perspective is reinforced by some profound reflections that draw upon recent work in both disciplines. Thus, drawing on analyses of popular culture and the history of classical music, she notes how much music’s form and impact are dependent on particular contextual settings. Of course, we can continue to enjoy Baroque or Romantic music in our own very different setting, but the impact of the music will be considerably reduced unless we show some willingness to enter imaginatively into those different, earlier contexts. That is one reason why whole chapters are devoted to considering some of the main periods in the history of classical music, and the type of relation with listeners that was implied, including in our own much more pluralistic age.

But, as well as such overall assumptions about the cultural specificity of music and the accompanying detailed musical analysis that is then made possible, Lynch also draws on her deep knowledge of theology to supply us with a corresponding theological framework with which to approach such music. Here she identifies the key category as lying, not as readers might perhaps expect in the “sacred,” but in a broader category which she labels as the “sacramental.” In this, she applies an insight to music that is adopted by a number of Catholic theologians in the twentieth century, Karl Rahner being perhaps most obvious among them. Whereas the first millennium of Christianity had identified a very wide range of material objects as potentially capable of participating in transcendent reality, for various reasons, in the second millennium such terminology came to be more narrowly identified with specific sacraments. The return to the earlier wide usage allowed perception of the possibility that the material might, through its symbolic character, effectively already hint at or disclose the transcendent, and it is this notion that Lynch uses so powerfully in her treatment of music. At the risk of putting the issue in altogether too-crude terms, one might say, whereas an Aristotelian account of reality requires a sharp distinction between our world and transcendent reality with argument required for us to move from one to the other, this more participatory or Platonic conception permits us to see divine “signs,” as Augustine might have expressed it, already there in the material order, waiting to explode into a fuller realisation of that alternative reality.

Even more profoundly, it also allows Lynch to challenge the view that God is only to be found in “sacred” music: music specifically devoted to the creation of religious sentiment, most obviously perhaps through the attachment of suitable words. Even without words, though, certain symbolic features within a specific piece of music might have exactly the same effect. If this is indeed so, then major questions are certainly posed about any attempt to ban non-sacred or “secular” music from churches, as though the “secular” is necessarily without religious impact. Although Lynch does not discuss these issues, one challenge would be to those who object to the “devil’s best tunes” being usurped for Christian hymns. Another, perhaps more controversial topic would be the decision by Pope John Paul II to ban “secular” music concerts from the churches of Rome. Was the decision well-founded or not?

Any type of music whatsoever has, therefore, the potential in Lynch’s view to enable an embodied encounter with God, and thus, so far from retreating to our spiritual core to provide the necessary means, it is the body in itself that offers this privilege. It does not do so by illustrating specific Christian doctrines, as some have suggested, but rather by providing a moment of revelation, and this it does most explicitly at points of liminality. This is one reason why the requiem form so interests Lynch, and in particular the way in which it has changed across the centuries, as social context has changed.

However, as the book’s title already alerts us, such liminality can sometimes be seen at its most effective in sound’s apparent opposite, in silence. That is no doubt one reason why the book’s final chapter is devoted to that topic. Drawing on a wide range of music where silence plays a prominent or exclusive role, in composers both classical and popular, she argues that silence can not only conjure the liminality of death, as with Takemitsu’s “Requiem for String Orchestra,” but also (as in Cage’s 4’33”) human bodily limitation, and so an infinite beyond. This is in virtue of the fact that no human silence can be made absolute: precisely because human beings are embodied, we are always hearing new sounds even as others are suppressed, as experiments in anechoic chambers fully confirms.

God in Sound and Silence is a work of considerable erudition in which, even if readers do not always agree with Lynch, they will undoubtedly find their knowledge of the field greatly improved, not only in respect of some of the major figures (for example, Balthasar, Schleiermacher, and Tillich) but also of the multifarious other ways in which the relationship between music and religion has been approached in modern times. Her own style of argumentation is also always refreshingly clear and easy to follow. So, I have no hesitation whatsoever in warmly recommending this book. Danielle Lynch is making a substantial claim: music, because of its revelatory character, is nothing short of embodied theology. That she writes not only as an academic but also as both a practising musician (and composer) and faithful Christian add greatly to the book’s depth and appeal.
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