Jeremy Begbie Interview

At a recent lecture in Edinburgh Jeremy Begbie spoke about ‘Thinking in Sound’ and challenged our ‘visual’ ways of thinking about faith. Phill Mellstrom managed to speak to him briefly about his musical influences and how his own faith has been impacted by music.

PM:
So I suppose a good place to start would be explaining in your own words who you are and what you do. Just to give people a flavour of that.
JB:
Well, I’m a teacher at heart. I teach theology at Duke University and in Cambridge, which means I see myself as someone who is exploring and passing on good news. Although I’m basically a systematic theologian, I’m fascinated in the links between theology and the arts – music in particular – and in what theology and the arts have to say to each other.
PM:
Tonight you have been talking about how we think and perceive things, and how sound, specifically music, influences that dynamic. It would be nice to hear a bit about your influences - perhaps starting with some background about who inspires you. (So maybe favourite artist, favourite albums or something that just makes you tick musically.)
JB:
I’m pretty wide-ranging in my musical tastes. I’m classically trained so that’s where my heart is, I suppose. But I’m interested in most kinds of music. In popular music, I try to find out about singers and bands who I believe are breaking new ground, doing something a little bit out of the ordinary. I still admire what U2 have done and are doing. I think Sufjan Stevens is a songwriter worth taking very seriously.
JB:
Sigur Rós, the Icelandic band, are doing some fascinating things as well. What makes them really intriguing is that they are using classical instruments as well as the standard instruments of a band. They are hunting for new sounds. In terms of singers I love Michael Bublé’s voice, and Jamie Cullum is always entertaining.
JB:
I think James MacMillan the Scottish composer is probably the finest Christian composer alive - not just because of the music he writes, but because of the seriousness with which he reads scripture and knows the theological tradition. I’ve been privileged to get to know him well and work with him on a number of projects. Most important, he presents a vision of the gospel that doesn’t evade the cross. Sentimentalism or sentimentality is one of the biggest dangers facing the church at present, not least in its worship. And at the root of Christian sentimentality is the desire to make a premature grasp for Easter Sunday.
JB:
I admire John Bell as well, not least because he gets people singing without instruments, finding their voice again.
PM:
We have heard a little bit about MacMillan and Bell and people like that who are inspiring you now, but can we hear about early musical influences?
JB:
I had a wonderful piano teacher in Edinburgh in the 1970s: Colin Kingsley. The composer Kenneth Leighton, who was a Professor at the music department then, also had a big impact on me. As it happened they were both Christians: Colin, a Roman Catholic and Kenneth Leighton an Anglican. Something that particularly impressed me about Colin was that he combined an exceptionally keen intellect with a phenomenal technical ability, and he also possessed great warmth. He was a highly integrated human being, and that stuck with me.
JB:
The person who has influenced me more than anybody else as a teacher was not a Christian at all: the American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein was an incredible communicator. When he taught, he took you on a journey of learning: he discovered things with you, and thus taught you how to learn. And he did it in a way that wholly captured my imagination. He often used the piano, and his words were carefully carved with grace and humour. He is the finest educator I have ever witnessed.
PM:
How has music played a part in your faith?
JB:
I came to faith at about age 19. I was already a musician and it was in worship that I first began to see how music and faith might have something to do with each other. But in those days there wasn’t much writing on theology and music, and very little on theology and the arts more generally. I had to do a lot of it myself.
PM:
So was it a very intuitive kind of journey?
JB:
Yes, that’s right. I knew that music and faith belonged together but I didn’t really know quite why or how: and that’s one of the things I’ve been exploring ever since. What is it about music that makes it so well suited to being a vehicle of Christian faith? Why is it used in churches? Why do people sing? Why do Christians assume they need music in worship? I believe that music has certain features, ways of working, that make it especially apt as a medium of Christian truth..