Deus Ex Musica is an ecumenical project that promotes the used of a scared music as a resource for learning, spiritual growth, and discipleship.
Listening and Discussion
Deus Ex Musica is founded on the belief that sacred music can be an extraordinary resource for Christians as they grow in knowledge, faith, and discipleship. For this to happen, Christians need to experience sacred music in new and different ways: not just by experiencing it within corporate worship, but also by engaging with it through processes of listening and discussion.
Challenges: Listening and Talking About Music
While it is common for a church to hold a discussion group based upon a film or book, it is rare for it to do so based on a piece of music.
Why? First of all, because using music as a springboard for discussion means that we have to really focus on it. And most of us don’t ever listen to music intently, We use music as a “soundtrack” to our daily lives, turning it on in order to enhance our mood, pass the time, or lend emotional color to our experiences. This is as true for us at the gym or at work as it is on Sunday morning. Like the proverbial flowers, if we don’t stop and listen to music, we miss out on much of its beauty and power - and its potential to teach us.
Second: most of us don’t really talk about music - at least, in ways that move beyond surface comments like “I like that song.” For many of us, music is personal and private, and we don’t feel the need (or desire) to share our experience of music with each other, let alone talk about it. But any piece of music that moves us deeply - be it a pop song or Handel’s “Messiah” - is worth considering carefully. Talking about music can allow us to enjoy it even more because it helps us discover elements of it that we didn’t notice before. And when we recognize the skill of the creator - that is, the conscious choices she or he had to make during every step of the creative process - we can come to a new appreciation of the ways the song communicates its message. For sacred music, the benefits of this process are obvious: it allows us to dive deeper than ever before into its spiritual dimensions. At that point, the music can help us not only experience God, but also grow in learning, faith, and wisdom.
Challenges in the Church
Stretching back over a millenium, the corpus of sacred music is one of the greatest glories of the Christian tradition. It is not surprising that most churches think that its value to the church is fully exhausted by its use in corporate worship. Music is so important to the life of any congregation that it hardly seems possible that it could even do “more!” Yet just like films or novels or paintings, works of sacred music can indeed teach us much if we attend to them carefully, with our hearts open to what they have to say.
But even if a pastor or church musician does recognize that sacred music can serve the congregation in these ways, several challenges still exist. One of the most important is that most people - whether they are pastors or lay Christians - think that, because they are not trained musicians, they don’t have the the ability to talk about music, let alone discuss they way it relates to the faith. At the same time, many church musicians, unless they are also experienced classroom teachers, also don’t feel comfortable leading groups of non-musicians in conversations about music, let alone issues related to religion. And even if these challenges were overcome, there exist precious few models few resources available to help pastors or musicians design and implement an effective music-based program,
Projects and Resources
Deus Ex Musica seeks to rectify these problems through a variety of projects and initiatives. At the time of our launch in 2019, these include a performing ensemble, composers’ project, a record label, blog, podcast, and database project.
Soon, the project will provide listening/discussion guides, curricula, and various online resources for use by all sorts of Christian communities: churches, Bible studies, and various educational institutions. Our hope is that resources will equip pastors, lay leaders, teachers, scholars, church musicians, and everyday Christians with tool and skills they can use to engage with sacred music in ways that contribute to their spiritual lives.
“Sacred Concert Music”
Since Deus Ex Musica promotes the engagement with the Christian tradition through guided listening and discussion, much of the music that forms its basis is what we call “sacred concert music.” It is music that was created principally to be listened to, not to be used within at worship context. This music comes primarily from the Western classical tradition - a tradition which, for complex historical and cultural reasons, has always emphasized listening over participation. It is music that was (and is) intended to be heard in the concert hall, not within a worship service, alongside other pieces like string quartets, symphonies, and art songs. The repertoire of sacred concert music includes, of course, the great oratorios and masses and requiems that we hear in concert halls today. It also includes pieces in many other genres that were never intended to be heard within church services.
Because these pieces are written without the “practical” constraints of liturgical use, sacred concert pieces are often profound and deeply personal statements of faith by their composers. They are an opportunity for their creators to engage with the texts and ideas that lay at the core of their being, and to share these responses with the general public. As such, these concert works - ranging from Haydn’s string quartet “The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross” to Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time”, provide faithful listeners with an extraordinary opportunity to experience the Christian tradition in powerful new ways. In the world of the sound-bite, the complex and rich musical statements created by these composers are the musical analog to Biblical paintings by Rembrandt: they provide us with new perspectives on the stories and ideas that are central to the lives of all Christians, and in doing so they challenge our assumptions and easy familiarity with our tradition.
Unfortunately, apart from a few of the great oratorios by Bach, Handel, or Mozart, most Christians do not know these pieces. There’s just no place in most church services for music other than choral anthems, organ preludes, or the occasional solo. (When was the last time you heard a string quartet in church that was not accompanying the choir?) And if we are lucky enough to hear these pieces, it is in the context of the public concert: a secular environment in which the spiritual substance of the work takes a back seat to its musical value. Thus, though these pieces comprise an extraordinarily rich resource for those who are interested in depending their faith, it is exceedingly rare for Christians to experience them in ways that allow them to benefit spiritually from the experience.
That is why a core of the Deus Ex Musica project is the production and performance of live concert events that integrate live performance of sacred concert music with opportunities for discussion and fellowship among Christians. By bringing sacred concert music into the life of the church, Deus Ex Musica hopes to introduce contemporary Christians to this remarkable and rich resource.
Contemporary Christian composers continue to engage the tradition in genres as diverse as symphony, opera, oratorio, chamber, and vocal music. These composers explore Scripture in ways that are new, vibrant, and relevant in to today’s Christians in ways that the music of Bach can never be. That is why a core goal of Deus Ex Musica is to support the creation, performance, recording, promotion, and use of sacred concert music made by living composers.
Central to Deus Ex Musica is the belief that artistic explorations of Scripture and the Christian tradition stand opposed to the parochialism and self-righteousness that has sadly divided Christians for centuries. Many of those divisions are the result of the attempt to find the “correct” interpretation of Scripture, and to articulate a theology based upon that interpretation. But music’s mode of communication invites listeners into a different relationship with Scripture, one which demands imagination and humility on the part of the listener. Indeed, the appropriate response to a choral setting of a Psalm is not to question whether it is “correct” in its interpretation, but rather to think about the ways it explores the complex web of meanings present in the Scripture. When Christians from various traditions come together to hear and discuss a powerful piece of sacred music, they do so within a context in which traditional divisions of the faith melt away. Thus, Deus Ex Musica hopes that our ecumenical events lead to increased understanding between Christians, as well as humility , peace, and love between members of the Body of Christ.