Participation with the Divine through Music: Earl Davey’s “The Arts and the Christian Life”
Earl Davey. The Arts and The Christian Life. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2022.   As the late philosopher Roger Scruton writes, “Beauty is a real and universal value, one anchored in our rational nature, and the sense of beauty has an indispensable part to play in shaping the human world.” In a modern-day world… The post Participation with the Divine through Music: Earl Davey’s “The Arts and the Christian Life” appeared first on VoegelinView.

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Earl Davey. The Arts and The Christian Life. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2022.

 

As the late philosopher Roger Scruton writes, “Beauty is a real and universal value, one anchored in our rational nature, and the sense of beauty has an indispensable part to play in shaping the human world.” In a modern-day world epitomized by ugliness and utilitarianism, beauty has become one of the most powerful arguments by serious evangelists for arguing the existence of the Triune Christian God. The history of the west is filled with accomplishments of beauty born of the faith that comes from Jesus of Nazareth and the advancement the so-called secular world influenced by the cultural contours of Platonism and Christianity. This philosophy and preoccupation with beauty has enriched our world but is now jeopardized by recent efforts by vandals and philistines assaulting the monuments and artifacts of beauty and replacing them with metallic monstrosities lacking the grace and transcendental appeal of old alongside the purely subjectivist view of art.
The Catholic evangelist Bishop Robert Barron speaks to this as well, speaking to how the subjective experience of beauty is a provable path towards the objective and eternal. “My friends and I were in Washington DC,” he says, “right next to the Capitol and I remember distinctly as I looked at it that I wanted to jump up and down with exasperation—like my whole body was responding to this beauty, harmony, and order I saw. I couldn’t have articulated it then … but my body knew it.” Beauty at its best is participative and it allows us to engage with the material and spiritual realities of itself, refreshing us, transforming us, and offering rest to our souls.
This participation is the subject of Earl Davey’s new music theory text The Arts and the Christian Life, which investigates the complicated nature of participation and how our context and submission to the form affects our understanding and engagement with the artwork. Davey speaks to the subject from the perspective of a musician, who regularly engages in that participation with beauty through his work. He’s worked on the faculty at Brandon University, Tyndale University College and Seminary, Canadian Mennonite University, and is a member of the Canadian Society for Aesthetics.
Beauty of the sort Scruton and Barron speaks of does not come easily. The process of writing, listening to, and properly interpreting meaning and beauty in music is complicated, more so now in our culture that encourages subjectivism and immediate emotional responses over more formal approaches. As Davey notes, the act of creating music is a kind of resurrection—a participation in the long line of everything that this particular music represents. The fullness of the music, the subtleties of tone and performance, and the reality of performance means that art exists in a tradition—one that is alive and ever-growing but equally in danger of desecration. The song you perform isn’t merely the song, it is one instance of the song being performed and your performance is placing you in that tradition in that moment. You engage with the art by performing the art precisely and excellently, becoming the next link in the chain of artists calling forth that beauty into the world once again:
Musical performance is a presentational process, a process in which the articulated and coherent idea of the composer represented in a notational construction comes to fruition because of the musical imagination and the cooperative activity of the performer or listener.
Music of the sort that can be called truly beautiful is, as Davey says, “not merely suggestive of the Divine but revelatory, a revelation of the glory of God.” In a Thomistic sense, beauty is understood to be an extension of God and an outgrowth of his glory. In the act of recreating and resurrecting that art we are participating in that glory which is a participation in beauty.
It is this challenge that Davey approaches in The Arts and the Christian Life. The way someone can participate in that beauty is to make themselves a subject to that art’s experience and to understand it on its own terms, allowing for the proper context to inform the work. As Davey writes, “The joy born of a rich and mature aesthetic activity involves an act of the mind. Informed perception and contemplation are marked by an awareness of the artist’s eye and a recreation of a more authentic voice than is permitted when the observer, passive and naïve, sees or hears with only his partial benefit of his senses. What we seek is an order of experience that yields a glimpse of another’s world, which in turn restructures and refines, rather than extends our own.”
The challenge to this comes in the overcoming of our own subjective emotional reactions—which are complicated in and of themselves but further add to the struggle to understand the fullness of a work and its intents when we cannot approach the work on its own terms. However, the meaning in art cannot be fully divorced from emotion. Objective meaning and subjective reaction do exist within a relationship to one another. Demeaning the purpose of art entirely to self-expression, though, devalues it and strips art of any objective quality and characteristic. In short, a purely subjectivist view of beauty eliminates the transcendental heart of it. To focus only on the transcendental as objective, though, ruins the emotional and subjective power of beauty. It is this balance that Davey believes is best manifested in the Christian vision of unity between subject and object.
There isn’t one core approach to understanding beauty and music. Davey spends a great portion of the book digressing on the challenges of different philosophical approaches to beauty and music but ultimately resting on a formalist approach—emphasizing the way that emotion, metaphor, intuition, and imagination ought to be expressed within the Christian life. But in covering many paths, we are enriched as readers.
If all art exists to glory God then it is incumbent on musicians and lovers of the form to approach it with reverence, approaching life with the Psalmist’s view of the cosmos as a world in need of renewal. In doing so, Davey offers a useful lesson in the challenges of participation and the realities and necessities of that ultimate experience, “Until the time of that fulfillment, let all who may find earthly joy and peace in the grace extended to us through the beautiful and the good found in artistry and the artful, the making an apprehension of that which is beautiful, good, and worthy; and may the church in its glory—and in its sometime vainglory—the poor in the midst of their deep poverty and all humanity in the weakness of flesh find an abundance of joy in Christ Jesus, in his creation, and in his gift to humanity of the capacity to perceive with wonder and create with joy.”

The post Participation with the Divine through Music: Earl Davey’s “The Arts and the Christian Life” appeared first on VoegelinView.

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