Learning in a Musical Key: A Review

James McCullough reviews Lisa M. Hess's book Learning in a Musical Key: Insight for Theology in Performative Mode (Pickwick, 2011).

Lisa M. Hess, Learning in a Musical Key: Insight for Theology in Performative Mode (Pickwick, 2011), 236 pp.

Lisa Hess is on a mission. Currently the Associate Professor of Practical Theology and Contextual Ministries at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Hess addresses the disconnection too often characteristic of Christian theological education and formation with the resources of classic and contemporary Christian spirituality. Her agenda is to reconnect the head, the heart and the will within a matrix of what she calls a “contemplative empiricism within an artisanal way.” For Hess, it is the way of retrieving wisdom for the practical theological project.

Hess advances this agenda in her latest book about theology in a “performative-mode,” a term which she borrows from Jeremy Begbie’s work on music and theology. Whereas Begbie’s emphasis lies in constructive theology, Hess’s expertise lies in practical theology and Christian education. Hess advocates a practical theology which, in a postmodern manner, “shepherd[s] the habitual mind back to its origins, its ‘I’ in context” (1) and issues in a self-implicating, embodied, and contextually enacted mode of rationality. Hess draws on the recent renewals of Trinitarian theology and feminist theology, as well as extensive readings in the literature of practical theology, literary theory, and music educational theory.

Hess pursues the relationship of music to theological formation by differentiating learning from music and learning in music. Although both are affirmed as legitimate modes of learning, learning from music represents a more objectivist, abstract, learner-distancing mode, while learning in music represents a self-implicating, involved, concrete and open-ended mode of enquiry. Taking cues from Begbie on music’s existence as multidimensionality-in-simultaneity, as well as music and literary theories that emphasize the aural and oral orientations inherent in musical phenomenon (in contrast to the literate, text-oriented modes of modern theoretical discourse), Hess sees in musical learning a key paradigm for new modes of theological reflection and formation. Learning in music leads the modern mind away from its objectivist-subjectivist dualities toward a performative mode of engagement that, in her words, is characterized by relationality, explicit embodiment, irreducible multidimensionality, and sustained indwelling. Because actual musical activity involves one’s voice and body, a generally corporate experience of “communication-in-relationality,” and the relinquishment of complete control over achievement and outcome, such a performative-mode of theology requires humility, which produces the kind of wisdom that lies at the heart of Hess’s entire project. “Singing our lives,” writes Hess, “argues music as a human practice and therefore as a primary means of enacting a living faith together within community” (126).

The overview drawn here hardly does justice to the subtlety of argument, the research culled in support of the thesis, or the wealth of intriguing topics contained both in this book and in her earlier Artisanal Theology: Intentional Formation in Radically Covenantal Companionship (Cascade Books, 2009). Among such topics are the prominent role stipulated for the body in learning and human experience, the legitimate place of the affective domain in the learning and formative process, and of the role of aesthesis – sense perception – in theological reflection. “Theological delight” is how Hess characterizes real engagement with the things of God, and in words that should resonate with anyone involved in arts theology she writes:

True delight is intimately related to a capacity for wonder, not self-deception; risked trust, not assured clarity. Delight balances an attentive discipline of wonder with accurate seeing that may discomfort. (Artisanal Theology, 14)

Such orthoaesthesis – a corrective “recovery of the senses” – along with orthodoxy and orthopraxis issues in a holistic experience of faith formation that addresses and unites the cognitive, affective and volitional domains of human learning and living. As such, Hess’s scholarship should be a welcomed presence within practical theology in general and within the arts theology movement in particular. Her insistent call to wisdom born of “contemplative wondering” and issuing in an “expressive theological delight able to companion the suffering of self and others” (188) should attune us all toward the inherently ministerial orientation of our research and academic activity. In fact, though Hess focuses on music, the trajectory of her work has equal implications for all the arts, and perhaps this could have been made more explicit. Narrowness of focus, in any case, provides space for depth of engagement.

Her work, however, does reflect some of the weaknesses encountered in the arts theology movement. Hess characterizes her work as “more witness and less argument,” and indeed too often assertions stand for arguments and descriptions for demonstrations. Disappointingly, for a book so focused on learning in a musical-performative manner, Hess provides few musical examples or concrete instantiations of music. In a book that argues against undue abstraction, much of her thesis remains in the abstract. One also becomes aware of a use of hyphenations that risks turning her writing into a caricature of certain types of discourse.

Nonetheless, Lisa Hess’s work is a rich resource for all interested in the recovery of the role of the senses within the disciplines of theological reflection, practical theological implementation, and spiritual formation. Her books deserve wide reading by all invested in the dynamics of “living into wisdom” within the realm of academic theology and Christian ministry.


Image credit: Wipf & Stock


  • James McCullough is a graduate of ITIA, completing a PhD in 2013 under the supervision of David Brown. He is the author of Sense and Spirituality: The Arts and Spiritual Formation (Cascade, 2015), and more recently, with Philip Krill, Life in the Trinity: The Mystery of God and Human Deification (Wipf & Stock, 2022). He currently teaches theology, literature and music appreciation in the Archdiocese of St Louis.

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