The Bible and the Composer

One of the matters I sought to refute in Beauty and Joy: The Christian Nature of Music is the idea that the best art made by Christians is art with content drawn from the Bible.

Paul Westermeyer advocates - or rather assumes - this:

If you emphasise Christ’s humanity at the expense of his divinity, you might choose music that affirms our humanity - music that relates to us who are beings with bodies. If you follow this logic, the music may be rhythmic and perhaps even sensuous. Or may be the highest possible art.

The second choice, emphasising Christ’s divinity at the expense of his humanity, suggests mystery, what is not bodily, and what stands above the body in contemplation and beyond contemplation. In this case you might choose music that is other-worldly, ethereal, unrelated to our bodies and therefore with a rhythmic pulse governed more by contemplation than by physical movement.

The third option, that Christ is both God and human, comes with an inherent paradoxical tension. The tension of the position might be reflected in music controlled by this paradox. Music that affirms bodily movement and music that lives in an ethereal world of contemplative mystery might be forced to live in an incarnational tension. The theological posture will not logically allow either musical style to exist without the other.

("Te Deum - The Church and Music", by Paul Westermeyer, p.52)

This surprised me when I first read it. I had never considered that musical style ought to be directed by the symbols of salvation. And I still don't know why it should. After all - a consistent execution of Westermeyer's outlook would surely result in not only one style, but one piece of music! And then what would the composer do?

Most people are less symbolic than Westermeyer - they simply believe that the Bible is the primary content for all Christian art.

Films and the Bible

I am listening to the soundtrack of The Bible. I have not seen this mini-series and have no interest in seeing it. The soundtrack is amusing. I keep flicking back to discover what the track is about and I am trying to imagine that there is a connection between the two. But I don't hear it.

Judging by the reviews on, many people are surprised by how bad The Bible is. They complain that it is not accurate. I am aware that some American Christians can be over-sensitive in reviews. (I recall a review of the near-perfect Cosgrove Hall production of Wind in the Willows complaining about someone being called a Silly Ass. The reviewer had stopped his children from watching any more before they were exposed to more profanity - not realising that Ass in English means donkey, whatever it means in American!)

Deep underneath the glowing reviews for The Bible is the stunningly optimistic notion that just having a blockbuster series like this on TV brings the Gospel to millions. This is not the job of art. That is the job of the preacher. The preacher uses the Word of God. He does not sell it. He does not score it.

Patrick Kavanaugh has a different point of view.

Elgar’s plans were spiritually ambitious. In the words of musicologist Percy M. Young, "It may be seen that Elgar chose to set to music virtually the whole New Testament - or at least so much of it as would with music give such total effect." Few artists on all of history have spent so many years of their life using their gifts to enhance the Scriptures, particularly with his huge compositions entitled, The Apostles and The Kingdom.

("Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers", by Patrick Kavanaugh, p.162)

My religion does not need my music. My Bible does not need any enhancement.

Having an overtly Christian connection (or Jewish connection, since some episodes of The Bible must have interest for Jews as well) is a short-hand for selling. Christians always flock to the great new hope and are then dissatisfied that it did not live up to expectations.

But it is the expectation that is the problem. Whoever said that art should expound the Word of God? Whoever said that Christian dramas should only deal with faith? Whoever said that we needed a mini-series of the Bible? How could such a series ever be deemed accurate enough? It is like taking a 5 dimensional object and pushing it into 2 dimensions. Should we then be surprised that it has lost something?

The music of The Bible is typical fare, just as I expected. The afterglow has died.

The Composer Counts

Franz Waxman gave us beauty in The Story of Ruth. Miklos Rozsa poured everything into Ben Hur. Elmer Bernstein almost did as well in The Ten Commandments. But this new soundtrack sounds like a poor version of Gabriel Yared's Troy (or even James Horner's). Although by the same team who did Gladiator, this new work has none of its power. It would like us to believe it is profound. But it is nothing of the kind. It lacks identity.

We know that Hans Zimmer communicated better in Batman and enjoyed himself more in Inception (also scored with Lorne Balfe). And at the back of my mind, I remember that Zimmer scored the Da Vinci Code and the two do not sit well. He must be insincere in one of those scores - which one?

It is an impossible task to score Scripture adequately. Music is only ever a shadow of a reality, not the reality itself. At best it demands that we take notice of something that is worthy of our attention. Waxman and Rozsa inherited a language capable of proclaiming worth. Zimmer did not. We do not have the musical vocabulary to begin the task today. We don't know how to proclaim any worth, let alone the highest.

I read reviews from fans of this music - the atheist who loved the series and cried at the end. He is an atheist still. The show "worked" on him, emotionally - but it cannot do more. And given the flimsy approach to the music, I am surprised it can do even that.

Those who believe music can "enhance" the Bible have fallen into the trap of believing that sensory impressions are the same as faith, that moving the heart is moving the soul. It is not.

Whilst men cannot distinguish between faith and feelings, I would sooner have no more musical evocations of Scripture. We are not wise enough - as composers or as listeners.