Faithful Poetics and Christian Knowledge of the World, Part 2
This is the fourth is a series of posts taken from Mark Sprinkle's scholarly essay "Faithful Poetics and Christian Knowledge of the World", which will be made available in our Scholarly Essays section at the conclusion of the series. The first post can be found here.
Resonance and Tension
So far in my discussions of the way imagery helps us to formulate and hold onto abstract ideas I have used largely pictorial terms, as we are now so saturated in visual images that we can hardly imagine that they are not the best kind of representation of the world simply because they seem the most direct and approachable—the most concrete, in fact. But helpful though they are in a general sense, they are also flawed and subtly perpetuate that lie that we may stand outside and apart from the world, exactly as I described in the problem of the Cosmic Elephant in the previous series. Even speaking of the “big picture,” as I have, invites us to visualize (!) ourselves standing back from something of which we are not fully a part. But picking up on the passage quoted in last week’s post, when journalist and cultural analyst Ken Myers speaks of “likenesses” in the auditory field—of “resonances” and harmony as what a Christian sense of discovery should be directed towards—he provides us with a more felicitous model for how all artworks and imaginative structures embody for us the connections and distances between ideas, concepts, and things.
Musician and theologian Jeremy Begbie suggests that thinking musically can help us better understand several key features of the way God reveals himself to and through human experience, in addition to helping us better understand and embrace the paradoxical nature and character of the triune God Himself. Unlike the visual field, he says, in which “things. . .occupy discrete, bounded locations—spaces with edges,” and in which “the eye tells us that things are either here or there; they can not be in the same place at the same time,”1 our auditory senses can accommodate two or more discrete experiences (musical notes) at the same time—each completely filling our ears and perceptual space, yet neither obscuring the other or negating each other. This distinction between the visual and auditory modes of representing abstract concepts to ourselves and others is an important insight into why we—so accustomed to thinking and describing visually—have trouble articulating, much less embracing, how such things as God’s justice and mercy, the humanity and divine natures of Jesus, and the Lord’s sovereign creative agency and our (or the world’s) complex and dynamic freedom can co-exist with each other.
But again, thinking about paradox in this way is more than just a matter of subjective perception—it has its corollary in the mechanics and relationships of concrete, objective reality. In Begbie’s example below, for instance, he doesn’t just talk about our ability to hear multiple notes subjectively, but the way such tones and overtones arise out of objective structural features of the material world in which we live (here, the way vibrations are transmitted sympathetically through air and wood and bronze). Thus, when we are duly attentive to creation and committed to the revelation of Jesus as the co-Creator and redeemer, such illustrations provide us with true analogies for spiritual relationships as well as physical ones—or rather, they are true analogies because they hover at the intersection of the physical and spiritual, the subjective and objective. Precisely as a way to conceptualize a Christian rather than Enlightenment model of human freedom, for instance, Begbie describes the way strings on a piano vibrate sympathetically with each other even when not struck directly:
The strings are not in competition, nor do they simply allow each other room to vibrate. The lower string enhances, brings to life the upper string, compromising neither the integrity of the upper string nor its own. . . [t]he more the lower note sounds, the more the upper string sounds in its distinctiveness, the more it vibrates in the way it was created to vibrate. Such is the nature of the freedom God grants: the more God is at work in our lives, the freer we shall be, liberated to be the distinctive persons we were created to be. And such is the freedom we can share, by virtue of God’s gift of freedom, with others. Simultaneously sounding notes, and the music arising from them, can witness to a form of togetherness in which there is an overlap of spaces out of which comes mutual enrichment and enhancement, and a form of togetherness that can be sensed first and foremost as a gift, not a consequence of individual choices.2
Begbie’s account of the way music provides insight into spiritual relationships goes well beyond just this aspect of sympathy and harmony to include a discussion of the flows and rhythms of time—patterns of tension and resolution that give shape to music at multiple scales and which are highly applicable to the interrelation between scientific and scriptural knowledge of Creation. Both biblical and natural history, after all, turn on the interplay between the rhythms of repeated, cyclic events and processes and one-off occurrences and interventions—ruptures of the overall pattern that mark its forward trajectory.
But from his musical example we can also draw out specific connections with the ideas that I’ve been developing so far in this essay: first, that subjective, creative forms of interaction with and representation of reality help us get a richer sense of “objective” truth; second, that we should expect and delight in the ways such representations are surprising and even difficult to pin down in other terms; and, third, that such approaches to understanding the world and its Creator must always be situated in community, which they consequently support and deepen. The next step is to not only recognize but claim the way that the dynamic of harmony and tension we experience most clearly in musical forms —of distinctly different tones resonating together—is also at work in linguistic imagery—in poetry and parable.
By conjuring visual images via the tempo and tones of words, poems partake of two of our most fundamental ways of interacting with the physical world: sound and sight. What we hear is translated into pictures in our mind’s eye, though sound remains at the heart of the experience and is not superceded by the images we imagine—the very reason poems ought to be read aloud, even to ourselves, to preserve the musical aspects of tension and resolution and rhythm that the words encode.
On the other hand, the physical structure and appearance of the poem as written/printed on the page also carries meaning, often in tension with the cadences of the spoken word. Line breaks are sometimes far from arbitrary or over-determined by the style of verse in use. Nevertheless, the visual quality of poetic imagery is a secondary player to the verbal also in that the words do not translate to only one picture per phrase; the very nature of metaphor and simile in all their forms is a bringing together of different pictures in the same imaginative field—things which do not or can not exist together in “normal” visual space, but can in a musical one whether in relationship of harmony or dissonance. Indeed, this double-meaning dwells in poetic language even at the level of individual words, not just described images, for poetry works by making words do the same thing as the struck string in Begbie’s example of the piano—resonate with multiple related-but-distinctive meanings; and not just meanings as definitions, but sometimes worlds of connotation, allusion and reference. In the next post, I’ll give an example of how specific poetic connections give form to the way we know, not just the things we know.
1. Jeremie Begbie, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007, p. 288
2. Ibid., p. 289.
Mark Sprinkle is an artist and cultural historian, and was formerly Senior Web Editor and Senior Fellow of Arts and Humanities for The BioLogos Foundation. A phi beta kappa graduate of Georgetown University, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, where he studied how artworks embody complex relationships in different cultural contexts. Since 1996 he has been an independent artist and frame-maker, also regularly writing and speaking on the role of creative practices in cultural mediation and renewal, especially in the area of science and Christian faith. Mark and his wife Beth home-schooled their three boys, and are active in the local home-school community in Richmond, Virginia.