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Musical Theology: 3 Gifts from My Wheaton Experience in the Conservatory of Music

Posted by Wesley Newton

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The dean at the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music, Dr. Michael Wilder, humorously proposed a “warning label” for our instrument cases: “Caution: Use of this instrument can lead to… a tendency to spend prolonged periods of time practicing alone in very small rooms...” With this warning, Dr. Wilder reminds us that being a music major entails years of solitary focus. This rigor could make a music school an ivory tower, an intellectual island isolating performers from other academic disciplines. The Wheaton Conservatory of Music, however, exemplifies a holistic spirit, integrating the full spectrum of the liberal arts. Wheaton offers numerous “elective studies” programs in which music majors take advanced coursework in another field. Moreover, the Conservatory faculty instills their music courses with interdisciplinary insight. Here are three ways that I have personally grown by majoring in music and theology at Wheaton:

  1. Worshiping with Both Music and Words

Much of music is non-verbal: bows sounding strings, air traversing embouchures, mallets striking timpanis, fingers pressing piano keys. A famous inscription at an opera house ponders that “God gave us music so we might pray without words.” Wheaton has taught me to make music in this way, humbly expressing the “inexpressible” in speechless awe of God’s glory (2 Corinthians 12:4).

At the same time, Wheaton has also taught me the power of words. My professors, in music history and theory classes, challenged me to write about music. Initially, this seemed impossible: how do you describe that which defies description? How do you translate sounds into speech, wonder into words? These difficult writing assignments pressed me beyond my personal music-making toward exciting new worlds. Art. Literature. History. I thus wove my life into the broader cultural tapestry. Writing about music also taught me to unearth meaning in music: what does this song or symphony reveal about humanity — and ultimately about God? This musical analysis enriched my study of Scripture. After taking a class on Biblical Interpretation, one of my mentors, Dr. Johann Buis, showed me how to apply the literary theories from this class back into interpreting music.

This challenge — writing about music — has prepared me for a still greater challenge: writing about God. These two challenges are poignantly similar. Music is more than melodies: We must not only emotively express our feelings, we must also eloquently edify others. Likewise, theology is more than thinking: we must not only dream dreams and see visions but we must also master the language to incarnate the eternal Word into written word (John 1). Wheaton has taught me to combine abstract music and articulate words in this quest to transcribe transcendence. As George Herbert versed in his poem “Praise,”

 

Of all the creatures both in sea and land

Only to man Thou hast made known Thy ways,

And put the pen alone into his hand,

And made him secretary of Thy praise

 

  1. Integrating Academics and Devotion

Arriving at Wheaton, I generally viewed scholastics and spirituality as separate departments. That being said, I was surprised when my first music class at Wheaton opened with a hymn, “This Is My Father’s World.” This was a taste of a feast to come. Dr. Jonathan Saylor opened each of his music history classes with a devotional meditating on the repertoire we studied. Serving as chaplain of our college orchestra, I was thus inspired to design devotionals based on the music we were rehearsing. Dr. Saylor helped introduce me to the treasure trove of sacred classical music. At Wheaton, I heard much of this sacred oeuvre for the first time, including yearly presentations of Bach’s Holy Week Passions. I played this sacred music as well, participating in Haydn’s Creation—and Handel’s Messiah this coming spring! My theology professors, on their part, encouraged me to share my musical perspectives in their classes. For example, I used a Bach cantata to illustrate a Systematic Theology essay. Thus flowed the symbiosis: music providing metaphors for theology, and theology breathing life into music.  

These experiences launched me on an odyssey of exploration. I studied The Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, learning how countless composers shared a devout Christian faith. I discovered the beautiful, God-given diversity of music in global contexts. I traced how the dramatic plots in music fit into the overarching redemptive narrative. A theological love thus united and illumined my studies at Wheaton’s Conservatory of music.  

  1. Synthesizing Music and Theology in Vocation

Majoring in music and theology, I initially thought that I had two career-path options: either a pastor or a performer, either preaching sermons or playing concertos. This was a false dichotomy. I no longer view my future as a strict “either-or.” My violin teacher, Dr. Lee Joiner, has helped me to envision broader horizons. He has supported me as I start touring graduate theology programs, encouraging me to see music as a lifeblood of whatever vocation I end up choosing. Dr. Joiner emboldened me to pursue projects bridging music and theology. My sophomore violin recital was a liturgical lament titled “Requiem: Theological Grappling with the Classics.” In my junior lecture and recital, “Diva, Dance, and Death: Redeeming the Devil’s Instrument,” I juxtaposed satanic showpieces with Bach cantata arias in a parable of salvation. My senior lecture and recital, “Theosis: Echoes of Exaltation,” will ecumenically draw on Eastern Orthodox theology to shine light on the hope of sanctification. Dr. Joiner thus introduced me to the creative counterpoint between music and theology.      

These three personal epiphanies are variations on a universal theme. The fourth-century Church father Athanasius called on Christians to “sing with the heart and with the mind.” For me, singing with heart and mind means worshiping with both musical expression and mental discipline, with both my violin and my theological tomes. My professors at Wheaton College have given me this interdisciplinary enthusiasm.  Their zest gives life to, and forms, the myriad interests of we music majors, thereby creating the dynamic community that is the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music. 

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Topics: Conservatory of Music