A Review of The Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox Key by Vigen Guroian (Eerdmans, 2010)
In this book, Guroian presents his readers with a fresh look at Orthodox Christian faith. The description on the back cover of the book suggests that he engages with the basic elements of Orthodox belief through the metaphor of music, and so musical examples and metaphors along the lines of the things Jeremy Begbie does within the Protestant tradition was what I expected. This book, however, was not what I expected. First, the main musical metaphor is a more general reference to the various elements of the Christian story itself. Guroian organizes his book chapters according to different “movements” in Christian belief: Creation, Apocalypse, Divine Therapy, Mary the Mother of God, the Cross, and the Resurrection. This allusion to the Christian story as similar to a whole interconnected piece of music made up of different parts (the “melody of faith”) was interesting, but it was not fleshed out as I had expected. Second, while the author does engage with musical pieces (in particular, hymnody and liturgical music) throughout, he also, and I’m tempted to say more often, uses visual imagery to illustrate his theological points. Icons were a prominent center of focus for theological reflection, and in this regard, I found that the particular musical metaphor was not as necessary as one of a more general nature: that of human artistry as a means of thinking about and doing theology. But then again, I don’t believe the author would disagree. He says: “In Orthodox Christianity, iconography and hymnody are often mutually interpretive in a liturgical setting.” (125) Word and image, art and theology, speak to one another in many ways (and in many places), and the author brings this out throughout the book.
These initial expectations aside, The Melody of Faith proved to be refreshing in the attention it gave to basic Christian doctrine and belief from a particularly Orthodox perspective. This is not a highly academic theology book, but rather, reads much like a devotional at times. The beautiful thing about Christianity, and what Guroian shows us in this book, is that just because we’ve encountered something before doesn’t mean we can’t discover it again in a new light. This seemed to be the real purpose of the book: to help the reader (re)discover the beautiful aspects basic to Orthodox Christian belief. And what was most interesting about it is that he brought attention to these issues most often through engaging with the arts. He discusses the crucifixion in light of various styles of depicting Christ on the cross (triumphant vs. suffering), he addresses the concept of “blind faith” by giving attention to the Orthodox liturgical call and response that mimics the questioning of Mary to the angel Gabriel, and he brings attention to various pieces of music, poetry, and art that represent a proper theology of creation. Throughout the book, Guroian humbly presents Orthodox theology in a way that is honest and inviting to the newcomer as well as reanimated and beautifully simple to the veteran. It is a book that will strike a chord with those who believe that the arts can help us think about and further develop our theology.