January 17, 2008
Music in American Religious Experience
— Philip V. Bohlman
Sacred music sounds the landscapes of America, and it resounds American history. It marks place and time, and in so doing it realizes the very mobility with which Americans move across time and place. Sacred music is for many Americans the sound of the everyday, charting the intimate paths traversed by those to whom they are closest. The quotidian paths of sacred musical experience, however, also fill with those joining their voices in religious awakening. Sacred music may well envoice the individual, but it gathers the multitude at the crossroads of American history.
The temporal and spatial tensions between the one and the many were very much on the minds of the editors and contributors to the recent Music in American Religious Experience when they embraced the challenge of a volume that unequivocally laid claim to the possibility of a sweeping "American religious experience" in its title, accompanied by the singular "music." Claims that Americans could ever "sing from the same songbook" are the stuff of political hyperbole, and it might seem at first glance that the implicit unity of our project, too, was wishful thinking, or at the very least the self-aggrandizement conveyed by the metaphors Americans choose to describe themselves. The sacred musics and musical practices we individually brought to the book, however, resisted the very singularity we sought to evoke. The sonic fact remained: The hymns, liturgies, and prayers with which Americans have expressed their faiths sound different, and they are about difference. We worship in different ways, and our sacred musics, perhaps more than any other expressive component of worship, are more dissonant than consonant. We might ask ourselves – and perhaps this is the ultimate motivation of scholars of sacred music – if we do not really prefer to sing together but out of tune. If there is a place for all singers in the choir of American religious experience, it follows that every voice deserves its own melody.
A January 25th symposium at the University of Chicago Divinity School will afford a marvelous opportunity to gather at the crossroads and raise our voices in collective chorus. We celebrate the sonic reality that we shall be singing from different songbooks, some more familiar than others. We plan to reflect on the diversity that provided the point of departure for Music in American Religious Experience, but we are keen to tune our ears and voices to the shared tunes that surprisingly have come to articulate common modes of worship in North America. At the symposium, practitioners and theorists will gather together to search for new ways to listen to our common tunes -- in other words, to listen beyond difference. We wish to seek new ways to resolve the musical and spiritual tension between dissonance and consonance; we search for new metaphors that will allow us to understand the sacred voices of others. Ultimately, we believe we might rechart the place of sacred music in American religious experience, transforming the historical landscape into the sacred soundscape.
Two passages may enunciate the sacred soundscape of eighteenth-century America as an invitation to all wishing to contribute their voices to the symposium. How marvelous it is to listen to these sacred voices singing American history into being! With a passage from a 1722 sermon, "The Way of Holiness," the nineteen-year-old Jonathan Edwards begins to state a series of resolutions that would revive the path of the religious life through conversion, that is, the conscious choice to be a religious being in the New World – a citizen of a New America. Music makes its appearance in Edwards's sermons more often obliquely than explicitly, but this passage, declaring the conditions of the gospel state, connects worship to the lived-in world of America:
"First, the holy nature [of the gospel state]:
'And an highway shall be there, and a way,
and it shall be called the way of holiness;
the unclean shall not pass over it.'
Second, the joyful nature of it: 'And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads.'"
A half-century later, with American independence just declared, William Billings pens the hymn "America," with its repeated phrase, "Come let us sing unto the Lord." These expressions of sacred and musical history in America conjoin at the crossroads that we experience each time we sound music in American religious experience.
Philip V. Bohlman, co-editor of Music in American Religious Experience (Oxford University Press, 2005), is the Mary Werkman Distinguished Service Professor of Humanities and Music at the University of Chicago.
The January 25th symposium, "Music in American Religious Experience: Individuals and Communities," is free and open to the public. Lunch is provided with advance registration. For more information or to register, write firstname.lastname@example.org.
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