‘The Extravagance of Music’ Revisited

The year 2018 saw the publication of a book jointly written by David Brown and Gavin Hopps, The Extravagance of Music (London: Palgrave Macmilllan). It would be reasonable to expect that this book would receive a range of reviews, but as it so happened, the work of these two authors was also given attention in a panel discussion at the 2019 AAR meeting in San Diego. The book’s authors are of course well known in the University of St Andrews Divinity School. David Brown FBA, FRSE retired as Wardlaw Professor of Theology, Aesthetics and Culture in 2015. [1] Gavin Hopps is Director of the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA), and it was he who originally suggested to David Brown that they co-operate on what emerged as a substantial publication. Another major contributor to the discussion was Professor Christoph Schwöbel, who has held three chairs in German universities, joined St Andrews in 2018 as Professor of Systematic Theology, and has a profound interest in the music of J. S. Bach. Awet Andemicael (Yale University) chaired the panel discussion. (See awetandemicael.com for more details of her career as a professional singer). Her interest in the connections between theology and music prompted her initiative in establishing the panel discussion at the AAR conference and to chair it most graciously.

It must be rare indeed to have three members of the same Divinity School involved in the inter-disciplinary discussion of a book written by two of them, let alone to have their reflections on the panel discussion re-written so as to reach a yet wider audience in the form of an entire number of the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church (20, no. 1, 2020) thanks to their enterprising Editor-in-Chief, Dr Christine Hall (University of Uppsala). In addition, this number of the Journal includes responses by Heidi Epstein (University of Saskatchewan), Antonio Eduardo Alonso (Emory University) and Kutter Callaway (Fuller Theological Seminary). The Journal is available online through the University of St Andrews Library (login required).

As readers will see, the roots of the discussion lie in the exceptional stimulus given to the discussion of the nature of the interplay between music and theology in effect established by musician and theologian Jeremy Begbie, University of Cambridge, co-founder of ITIA with the Revd Professor Trevor Hart, and now primarily associated with a named professorship at Duke Divinity School. As David Brown puts it in his introduction to this edition of the IJSCC, Professor Begbie ‘has been wary of conceding any role for music in communicating the divine outside firm controls from Christian revelation’. [2] Yet, as Gavin Hopps indicates, what counts as a strict adherence to Scripture is adherence to an interpretation of Scripture, excluding some of the other ways in which God discloses Himself in the Bible. [3] (Both Brown and Hopps expect to attend to theological criteria for evaluating the sense of transcendence, but do not expect an initial experience of such transcendence itself to exhibit ‘a Christological or Trinitarian particularity’- in order to be considered legitimate or valuable. [4]

In contrast with Begbie, Frank Burch Brown (Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis), himself a composer as well as a published author, argues for the possibility of divine ‘speech’ to any and every one through the arts however conceived. Thus, any discussion of the music/theology interplay has to take notice of his position as well as that of Begbie, as indeed is the case in the IJSCC, not least in the contributions specifically from St Andrews. These include David Brown’s introductory ‘Music, Theology, and Religious Experience’ (pp. 4-7); Christoph Schwöbel, ‘Mutual Resonances: Remarks on the Relationship between Music and Theology’ (pp. 8-22); David Brown, ‘Extravagance Defended’ (pp. 63-78); and Gavin Hopps, ‘Negative Capability and Religious Experience’ (pp. 79-94).

So far as the Divinity School is concerned, Professor Schwöbel’s contribution was likely to be relatively unfamiliar, coming as it did from someone new to the conversation between David Brown and Gavin Hopps. A very generous introduction to his reflections on this ‘milestone’ of a book is followed by an invaluable two-page exposition of keywords and key theses of the book; a statement of ‘an ontology of communicative relationship’; a most illuminating explanation of Martin Luther’s understanding of music, the ‘transformation of the heart’ (i.e. the primacy of ‘the affective dimension of human experience’ in relation to the experience of the transcendence of God); and the reasons why it is imperative to take seriously the work of Bach as an outstanding example of the ‘mutual resonances’ between music and theology. Schwöbel offers a possible ‘rule’ for evaluation of someone’s view here: ‘Show me your understanding of redemption and I will tell you which understanding of transcendence is operative in your theology and your music’. [5] Moreover, he is sure that becoming attentive to resonances (consonances or dissonances) in theology and music in Christianity will makes us more attentive to those in conversations not only between ‘Christians, Jews and Muslims’ but also between ‘other faiths and world views’. [6]

Further insights emerge from the three additional contributors: Heidi Epstein, ‘Hypo-allergenic Musicologies: Brown and Hopps’ Unsung Liberationist Allies’ (pp. 23-37); Antonio Eduardo Alonso, ‘Embracing Extravagance, Abandoning Limits’ (pp. 38-50); and Kutter Callaway, ’Experimental Psychology and the Generosity of Spirit’ (pp. 51-62). Each of them splendidly commends his or her own particular perspectives and cumulatively provide a mind-blowing bibliography. They are aided and abetted as it were by David Brown’s appreciation of their work in turn, and their mutual evaluations of his and one another’s work.

In a series of books from 1999 onwards (now themselves the subject of inter-disciplinary discussion), David Brown has honed his argument which embraces music but goes beyond any one art form. Thus in his contributions to this volume of the IJSCC he explains ‘why theology and the arts are natural allies’, ‘the influence of the arts upon theology’, and ‘Christian experience and the vision of God’. [7] His final point in respect to his joint publication with Gavin Hopps is that ‘divine generosity is as extravagant as the music itself: in short, available at whatever level of subtlety listeners are prepared to admit to their ears and hearts’. [8]

Finally, since Gavin Hopps was unable to attend the actual panel discussion in San Diego, he seized the opportunity in his ‘Negative capability and religious experience’ both to get to grips with the preceding essays by setting them in conversation with one another, and to clarify his own position in light of what he makes of them. He proposes that what is needed is something akin to ‘daring but discerning hospitality to mystery … the willingness to dwell in vulnerable openness with indeterminacy’. [9] Further, he provides a refreshing perspective on the whole discussion by attending to the listener, the performance, differences between listeners, and ‘pragmatic pastoral considerations’ – a whole ‘methodological reversal’, pointing up how the context of reception honours ‘the inflections of lived experience’. [10]



[1] No stranger to meetings of the AAR, some of David Brown’s publications were discussed by panels in 2012, 2013, and 2018.

[2] David Brown, ‘Music, Theology, and Religious Experience’, International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 20, no. 1 (2020): 4.

[3] Gavin Hopps, ‘Negative Theology and Religious Experience’, International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 20, no. 1 (2020): 82n17.

[4] Ibid., 82-83.

[5] Christoph Schwöbel, ‘Mutual Resonances: Remarks on the Relationship between Music and Theology’, International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 20, no. 1 (2020): 20.

[6] Ibid., 21.

[7] David Brown, ‘Extravagance Defended’, International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 20, no. 1 (2020): 70-76.

[8] Ibid., 76.

[9] Hopps, ‘Negative Capability’, 83.

[10] Ibid., 84-86.


  • Ann Loades CBE is Professor Emerita of Divinity, University of Durham UK and Honorary Professor in the School of Divinity, University of St Andrews UK.

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