By Christine Sunderland
Music, an ordering and art of sound, is a profoundly intriguing phenomenon. What is, after all, music? Why is it deeply personal and grandly universal at the same time? What is the “music of the spheres?”
I wish to explore some of these ideas in my next novel (working title, The Music Librarian). Writing novels (or writing anything, for that matter) is largely about asking and answering questions, a conversation. We pose a question in the first words, lines, pages, chapters and seek to answer it by the last. After a century of deconstructionism in all of the arts, today too many questions are left unanswered, the story left hanging, open and dangling, reflecting our increasingly nihilistic culture.
But Christians are not nihilistic. They may not know the specifics, but they know God’s grand plan – one of hope, redemption, and eternity, fulfilled by love.
I have explored these themes before, most particularly in my fifth and sixth novels. In The Magdalene Mystery (OakTara 2014), Kelly dreams she is soaring above green forested hills. A melody pulls her higher and higher toward a mountaintop. In The Fire Trail (eLectio 2016) Zachary is entranced with the beauty of music. He practices piano when not teaching English Literature at Cal; he streams Beethoven and Borodin and Vivaldi through earbuds as he jogs the Fire Trail in the Berkeley hills.
I dream of Heaven. Recently Heaven appeared to be a grand play-ground as well as a pray-ground. A playground of joy. Many are playing, happy in the doing, each one acting out the unique person that God intended. And there are vivid colors and harmonic music – the sounds of singing, in praise and harmonic hymnody, that union of poetry and ordered sound. Heaven is play-grounded in music, in harmony.
Music connects us with God. It is a language he uses to speak to us and a language we use to speak to him. As a Christian novelist I am interested in this God-language. I am interested in that ordered river of sound that pours into my ears and leaves a library of song-memory in my mind. The great hymns we sing together in praise on a Sunday morning remain with me into the week, beautifying the days. As we approach the sacred season of Christmas we listen to the simple songs of Incarnation, when the glorious became humble, when God became man in a stable in Bethlehem. We listen to the song-stories, the carols that paint our memories with harmony.
Music. God. Mystery and miracle. Blades of grass and solar eclipses. The tiny and the grand, creatures great and small, bright and beautiful. Our natural world so infinitely small and so infinitely great.
Our natural world, bound by perfect numbers and ratios (harmonies), was called by Pythagoras (570-495 BC) the “harmony of the spheres.” He proposed that the sun, moon, and planets create sound – music – based on their own mathematical movements. Aristotle (384-322 BC) added that we are born with this harmony all around us, but we do not objectively hear it since it is always there (no contrast of silence). Boethius (480-524 AD) speaks of the three branches of music as being musica mundana (universe), musica humana (the human body), and musica quae in quibusdam constituta est instrumentis (sounds made by singers and instrumentalists). This ordered sound is harmonic, following a system of ratios. The Christian world sought to touch God through harmony, a relationship found throughout Creation.
The Greek word for ratio, this harmony of numbers, is logos, also meaning reason or word. Christians recognize this word as used by St. John in naming Christ… in the beginning was the Word (Logos). The Logos enters the world as this perfect harmony of the universe, of the planets, of reasoning through logic, language, of our bodies as seen in the elegance of science, most recently in the field of genetics. Ratios are perfect relationships. Just so we were meant to be in perfect relationship, with one another, and with God.
Music, mathematics, and astronomy were part of the Liberal Arts once the foundation of higher education, supplemented by grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These are all languages, ways in which we relate to one another, to the natural world around us, to the universe, to God. Humanity was meant to be ordered rather than disordered, accordant rather than discordant, tonal rather than atonal. For these relationships, these ratios, reflected God.
Music expressed this beauty satisfyingly in melody, harmony, and tempo for twenty-five hundred years until the last century when the music of the spheres was denied. As faith faded, atonality, dissonance, and a kind of anti-music was fashionable, reflecting a different metaphysical worldview. This radical break with our past, with belief, meant a radical break with harmonic music. For music became not ordered sound but disordered sound, a product of man’s increasing disorder, his disbelief in anything beyond himself. Man looked inward, his art and heart imploding.
Along with music, and its beauty, thanksgiving follows naturally. Giving thanks, counting blessings, has long been our old-fashioned remedy for depression. We observe the natural world and consider its spectacular logic, this creation of a Logos Creator, the rational ratios of life and living. Music reflects and contains these origins. The deep desire of our hearts to encounter the music of the spheres witnesses to the perfection of God’s harmony within us, inspiring us to give thanks and sing praises.
And so, as we write our Christian fiction, we sing in time to the music of our bodies and the harmony of the heavens. Our words and phrases and stories ring true, for they reflect an innate tempo and tune, just as the Christmas story rings true: the Son of God, the logical Logos, born on a starry night among his creation, surrounded by animals and angels, shepherds and magi, born to humble travelers, in a bed of hay, as the music of the spheres sings in perfect harmony.
Our origin, our creation, is in this Logos, this finite and infinite flesh born in time in history. On the pages of our fiction, we weave these amazing truths together into a linguistic concerto, a miracle of music that dances on pages and screens.
Christine Sunderland has authored six award-winning novels: Pilgrimage, set in Italy, Offerings, set in France, Inheritance, set in England, Hana-lani, set in Hawaii, The Magdalene Mystery, set in Rome and Provence (all Oaktara), and The Fire Trail (eLectio), set at UC Berkeley. She serves as Managing Editor for the American Church Union (www.AmericanChurchUnion.com). Visit Christine at www.ChristineSunderland.com (website and blog).