To Sing a Song Without the Tune

Ursula K. Leguin, in The Telling, writes,

“One of the historians of Darranda said: To learn a belief without belief is to sing a song without the tune.  A yielding, an obedience, a willingness to accept these notes as the right notes, this pattern as the true pattern, is the essential gesture of performance, translation, and understanding.”

My friend Shawn has said this in a different way when talking about music.  We attend the same church, and when someone played a song that I had written, and did it differently than when I introduced it, he said, “They didn’t play it the right way”.  It was as if to say there was a right way to play a song.

And, I think we get that when we think about music.  We hear a song, wherever we first hear it, and we believe that to be the right way, the way it was intended to be played and performed.  If a favorite band plays a favorite song in a live performance in a way other than the way it was recorded, they didn’t play it the right way, whether they wrote it or not.  This is why I can say I appreciated the performance given by The Head and The Heart in Chicago last month.  They played the songs the right way, the way they were introduced, the way they were intended to be played.  No changes.  No need for me to suspend my own understanding (or their own understanding for that matter) and to accept a new rendering of an old tune.  Just pure, unadulterated, and true.

You can’t learn a song without the tune, right?  If I am simply given a bunch of words on a page with some chords written over the top, no matter how hard I try, I can’t play the tune.  It’s technically impossible.  You can’t play a song the way it was intended without having the tune first.  This is precisely why bands record the songs that they write – so they can cement the intended way of playing/singing the song in time and space.  It can be learned, listened to, and appreciated.

What I’m more concerned with, after reading the above quotation, is whether this is the same with belief.  I think it is.  You can’t simply learn a belief, whether its a belief in love or God or gravity or existence, without first believing it yourself.  Learning a belief presupposes belief itself, much like learning a song presupposes a tune.

You can learn about the Bible, but it isn’t Scripture unless you believe it is so.  That’s the challenge of the first half of this book I am reading for school (which technically started today) called Seized By Truth: Reading the Bible As Scripture by Joel B. Green.  Its also a concept that I was first introduced to by Karl Barth (not personally), in his understanding that the Word of God is what happens between the reader and the page.  In other words, the Bible isn’t the Word of God in and of itself.  It’s simply words on a page.  According to the above quotation, to synthesize this a bit, the Word of God-ness of the Bible happens when a combination of mystery and belief coalesce in a moment of reading.  One can read the Bible and not read it as Scripture, or as the Word of God (in Barth’s language).

The only way to learn belief is to start with the presupposition of belief.  It’s an understanding that we come at the book with, or the song with, that this is the right way, the true pattern, that allows us to really read and understand and be transformed by it.  I guess the question is whether or not the book is reading you the way you are reading the book, at least when it comes to the Bible as Scripture.  Is there a mutual interchange happening, or are you simply reading words on a page that bear no significance or life?  That is the crux for many of us.  Do we actually believe that there is a potentially divine-mysterious interchange awaiting when we crack open that book?

I generally don’t.  Perhaps that is why I don’t often feel transformed in the reading.


7 thoughts on “To Sing a Song Without the Tune

  1. I don’t know that I agree. With either end of the analogy, really.

    I didn’t grow up religious, but now I am. But I did grow up in America, so maybe my cultural presuppositions just took a while to sink in?

    This is true of a lot of my other beliefs too. (Evolution, race, sex, etc.) My beliefs have changed a lot.

    In the same way, music can get better than what you know. I’m not a big NIN fan, but I was familiar with ‘Hurt.’ Nine Inch Nails did a pretty good job, but Johnny Cash perfected it.

      1. Of course not, but how does relate to your larger point here? According to your original line of thinking, Cash was doing it “wrong.” The way we do hymns is also “wrong.”
        Just to be clear, I don’t think that Reznor got it wrong either, just that the song didn’t reach its full potential when sung by him.
        In the same way, I think we as the church are making improvements on the ideas and practices (and music) of those that came before us. Sometimes we get it wrong, but sometimes doing it wrong is still an improvement.

        Someday somebody might take your songs and sing them to a new tune. A better tune. Honestly, I think that’s the best thing you can hope for regarding something you create. If the creator of content gets to forever decide the right way to use that content, then it dies with them.

    1. So, I went back and read what I wrote, and I understand your point. That’s what I meant by the mutual interchange between us and the Scriptures. At least, that’s what I meant to mean. The quote at the outset got me thinking about how we relate to music, but it doesn’t really get at what I was trying to say toward the end. There isn’t a ‘correct’ way to read and understand Scripture, like there might be to sing a song (or might not be, depending on your opinion). The real point is that there is a fundamental difference between seeing the Bible as a book or an ancient text full of interesting and somewhat good things, and seeing it as Scripture. Believing a book is Scripture, I think, indicates that something is sacred, mysterious, and dangerous to our way of being in the world. It means that the book can read us as much as we read it. If I could write this blog again, I would delete the first half and focus on that point right there. What do you think about that?

      1. I wouldn’t delete any of it, it’s fine as is. It sounds like you have enough content in this reply for a whole separate blog post however.
        I particularly like the idea that treating the Bible as scripture doesn’t make it more tame, but more dangerous- especially to the security we surround ourselves with.

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