The Music of the Prophets

During the past few months, I've been immersed in the study of comparative religions. Because of this, my already-marathon reading habits have reached mythic proportions. For the past year and a half, it's been my habit to arrive home from the day's activities, plop down in a semi-recumbent study position, and arise only to search for a sharpened pencil or to shuffle off to bed.

As I swiftly approach the end of this parenthetical period in my life and begin to analyze the experience, I've come to the realization that I owe a debt of gratitude to the following study aids:

1. Coffee
2. Various forms of cheese and cheese-flavored products
3. Pandora Radio

Due to my upstairs neighbor's overwhelming tendency either to play his favorite girl-band music at full blast (on repeat!) or begin an all-night foray into a first-person-shooter game precisely when I reach a pivotal stage in study and/or paper-writing, I have developed the habit of snapping on Pandora whenever possible during my home study sessions. 

If you're anything like me, you will probably admit to having musical cravings and obsessions which come and go in a similar fashion to food cravings. (I'll also admit to book cravings that are similar to food cravings, but that's another post entirely.) You know what I'm talking about: certain moods affect the type of music we listen to at any given period.

The past few months have taught me that certain music styles even lend themselves to facilitating certain types of theological study.

For instance, about a week ago I noticed an eerie symbiosis between the music of Philip Glass and the reading of the Qur'an. If you know nothing either about the composer or the holy book of Islam, this statement most likely means nothing to you. In that case, allow me to expound.

The music of Philip Glass is often described as minimalist. From the composer's website:
Glass himself never liked the term and preferred to speak of himself as a composer of “music with repetitive structures.” Much of his early work was based on the extended reiteration of brief, elegant melodic fragments that wove in and out of an aural tapestry. Or, to put it another way, it immersed a listener in a sort of sonic weather that twists, turns, surrounds, develops.
Anyone who has read the Qur'an, (or, as I have, a translation of the Qur'an) would agree that it's a a curiously non-narrative interweaving of distinct prophecies and repetitive admonitions all working together to develop the underpinning theme of monotheism.  As such, Glass's minimalist style is a perfect complement.

Take for example the 2nd Movement of Glass's violin concerto. The underlying gloomy minor chord progressions, paired with a flurry of shifting rhythms, match perfectly with the Qur'an's oft-repeated promises of impending judgement for the unbelievers, while the occasional bursts of brilliant tones complement the promises of reward in the garden of paradise.

But that's only the beginning.

After analyzing the near perfect paring of Glass and the Qur'an, I thought back and realized that a few weeks ago while I had been studying the theology of Mormonism (both LDS and Fundamentalism), I had been on a Mendelssohn kick.

With its plurality of scriptures, often confusing and circumlocutory apologetics, and abundance of theological conundrums, Mormonism often seems the religious equivalent of a really complicated musical fugue. Fugues start out simple, but gradually become increasingly complicated to the point that the listener finds that he can no longer follow all of the individual paths that the melodies have begun to take. He either has to sit back and accept the entirety without attempting to analyze it in too much detail or go mad in trying to following all of the diverging musical paths. (At least, that's my reaction to fugues.) This is especially true for choral fugues, during which one cannot discern the words of all of the fugue patterns at once, and is able to do so only in careful and detailed studying of the score.

Here's a good example of a Bach fugue:

As a lifetime follower of Christ and student of the Bible, I have as yet to discover its musical match. If anything strikes you, please do let me know.

Special note: 

For true musicians and followers of either religion reading this post, I want to say that I am an expert in none of these areas. I am only a lifetime student in continual search of the connections that facilitate learning and understanding. If you've found connections between musical styles and various areas of research which you've pursued, please feel free to share them with me! I would love to hear your impressions.


  1. Ruth- this is interesting, but I have to admit, my brain can't follow you too deeply down this path.

  2. That's okay. As I was tying it, I got the feeling that it might make me sound a little bit crazy.

  3. I think it makes perfect sense.

  4. It's more a reflection of my stressed out brain than you being crazy!


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