Music, Texts, and Time

I’m enjoying Peter Leithart’s Deep Exegesis, and wanted to share some of his thought-provoking material about music, texts, and time.

First, he notes a difference among various forms of art.  The result of one of the more visual arts — a painting, a sculpture — can more or less be taken in at a glance; with a single look, one can get at least a first impression of the whole.  On the other hand, music is categorically different: “We cannot take in music in a moment. . . . If we are going to listen to music at all, we have to give it time to unfold.” (52-53)

Then, he notes that texts are similar to music in this way: “Texts are musical in the fact that in both texts and music, meaning is temporally unfolded. . . . Texts are musical in that they take time, and the time texts take is musical time.  The time of music and the time of texts always involve reaching for the next moment.  Music is always moving toward the next note, and we are always reading beyond the individual word.  Each sentence compels us to move forward; each paragraph carries us along to the denouement.” (53)

Finally, he connects these ideas with the Biblical text: The notion that the comprehension of texts and music takes time “does not appeal to us.  We are often impatient with music, and we are impatient with texts.  A writer lingers, and we want to grab him by the throat and say, ‘Get to the point, man!’  Evangelicals would reverently refrain from throttling an apostle, but the demand for practical Bible teaching often has this threatening subtext.  ‘Don’t give me all these names, lists, genealogies, stories.  Tell me what to do.  Tell me about Jesus.”

He continues, “God in his infinite wisdom decided to give us a book, a very long book, and not a portrait or an aphorism.  God reveals himself in his image, Jesus, but we come to know that image by reading, and that takes time.  God wants to transform us into the image of his image, and one of the key ways he does that is by leading us through the text.  If we short-circuit that process by getting to the practical application, we are not going to be transformed in the ways God wants us to be transformed.  ‘Get to the point’ will not do because part of the point is to lead us through the labyrinth of the text itself.  There is treasure at the center of the labyrinth, but with texts, the journey really is as important as the destination.” (55)

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