Speculations about Rowan Williams’ Recent References to Rhythm

My colleague and I had the pleasure this week of taking some students to hear Marilynne Robinson and Rowan Williams speak at the Wheaton Theology Conference. The two of them (as well as the presentation by Tiffany Kreiner in particular) gave beautiful and inspiring presentations which will take me some time to digest, but I was particularly struck by the fact that Rowan Williams referred to rhythm a couple of times in his formal conversation with Robinson.

As far as I know, Williams does not treat the subject of rhythm in any of his books in any direct way or in any detail, although it has been very difficult for me to keep up with his publishing speed lately (if somebody knows of a place in his corpus where he does deal with rhythm, please let me know!). Nevertheless, he made rhythm a central dimension of his response to two different questions: Continue reading “Speculations about Rowan Williams’ Recent References to Rhythm”


The Spiritual Rhythms of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Sermons

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is not the only example of an African American preacher who intentionally relies on rhythmic devices for spiritual purposes, but he is an example of someone who does so very effectively. The rhythms of Dr. King’s sermons involve, firstly, the rhetorical dimensions of the speech itself. This includes his use of repetition, patterns of pausing, the rise and fall of tempo, and alliteration. He regularly repeats words or phrases, but he also sets up a relatively regular repetition of syllable-stress that is not dependent on the sense of the words themselves,[1] a style more typical of poetry than prose. He pauses after every 3-5 beats such that his lines of speech are more akin to the lines of a poem than to straight prose. In this way, he sets up something like a beat, which carries the listeners along. According to Richard Lischer – a scholar of King’s sermonic style – this is called the “soundtrack.” It is the non-discursive dimension of the sermon more available to emotion than reason. King’s congregation did not always know what he was saying, but they were always able to connect to his rhythm.[2] Continue reading “The Spiritual Rhythms of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Sermons”

What are congregants really doing when they complain about church music?

In the churches of which I have been a part – the Protestant, free-church, evangelical variety with little formal liturgy – form is often treated as irrelevant. This attitude typically appears when someone has a complaint related to music, and the approach that leadership takes to such complaints is often to simply suggest that they should not be made at all. What matters is doctrine and beyond doctrine what matters is relationship, community, and unity. Issues of form are matters of preference only and are therefore debates into which only the “immature” enter. Arguments over form are not arguments over doctrine and are therefore mere threats to unity. We should therefore strive not to critique or enter into conversations about form at all. Certainly not everyone feels this way and I don’t know that everyone who gets frustrated with such arguments would express it in this way, but I frequently hear a variation of “there are more important things to talk about” in response to such critiques. Continue reading “What are congregants really doing when they complain about church music?”

Using Rhythm to Move Beyond Text in the Study of Christian Spirituality

A preview of my proposed paper for this year’s AAR Christian Spirituality unit:

Several recent pieces of research attempt to move beyond text as the default form of spirituality and religion in academic philosophy and theology. A particular recurring strategy in this endeavor is the analysis of non-discursive artistic expressions of spirituality. Examples include Kimerer Lamothe’s books Between Writing and Dancing and Why We Dance on why dance is vital for spirituality and why philosophy and theology struggle to take this non-discursive form seriously, and Jason C. Bivins’s recent Spirits Rejoice! on what jazz, as a non-discursive form, reveals about American religion. My interest lies in the form behind these forms. Is there something that aesthetic forms like music, dance, and visual art have in common that make them particularly suited to a more-than-textual expression of spirituality? If so, what does this form reveal about the nature of spirituality? Continue reading “Using Rhythm to Move Beyond Text in the Study of Christian Spirituality”