Inerrent, Infallible, Inspired... Interpreted?

I love Chopin. I love listening to his music, but I especially love playing his music. His Nocturnes in particular. There's something very satisfying about playing Chopin. He was a pianist, and every piece of music he wrote was for the piano, and so he "gets" what it's like to sit at a piano and wrestle with those 88 keys in front of you. He was a genius who knew how to get the most out of this instrument, and to challenge those who would want to call themselves a pianist (ever tried playing 12 notes at once with 10 fingers?). Perhaps what I like best, though, is the opportunity that playing Chopin gives me to really express myself through the music. It's like nothing else that I know and taps right into the depths of my emotions and indeed my soul. For me, it's very much a kind of prayer to play this music.

Anyone who plays a musical instrument well understands (or should understand) that it's so much more than just the notes on the page. In fact, the better one gets, the less it is about the notes on the page. Sure, they're important, like flour, eggs, water and oil are to a cake recipe. What's really important, though, is the way you put it all together. Get the mix wrong and it leaves a bitter taste. The way you actually play the notes, and emphasise one over against another, how you express the melody and tell the story of the music in a way that communicates to the listener, this is what's important when playing the piano and especially Chopin.

In my English speaking background we generally speak of someone "playing" a piece of music. This  emphasises the "notes on a page" approach; the composer has written the piece and now it's just a matter of the pianist hitting the right keys at the right time in order to produce the desired sound. Generally, this is what you get from someone in the early stages of learning. It's very difficult to add emotion and "story" when you're main concern is "what is that note on that third ledger line again?" As I understand it, though, in French one is said to "interpret" a piece of music. This includes hitting the right keys at the right time and in the right place, but it also recognises that the pianist is very much "involved" in the process. It takes skill and practice to get to the point where you can almost ignore what your fingers and hands are doing and then pour your soul into the piece, but once you can do it, it is immensely gratifying. Connecting with the music, with the composer, with those listening, with God and indeed yourself through the music. This is interpretation.

There's some useful parallels with the study of the Bible here. I often read and hear discussions about the "inerrancy" or "infallibility" of Scripture - that is, how did the texts we call the Bible come to get into our hands, and how reliable are they? I don't know of any Christian writer who would suggest that the Scriptures are not "inspired" by the Spirit, but some would like to suggest that this goes as far as "dictation", where others would want to allow for much more room for the author's involvement in the writing process. It becomes even more bizarre in my mind when people claim that the "original autographs" were inerrant. That's a convenient claim to make given that we don't have the original autographs! Discussions about the "writing" of Scripture need to be balanced, I suggest, with an equal weighting on the "reading" of Scripture. In the same way that a pianist should concern themselves with the time a piece was written, who wrote it, what was the occasion, the intended audience and so on PLUS, how am I going to play this piece? What am I going to emphasise here? Should that cadenza be played fast or slow, or with more rubato? Similar questions should concern us as we seek to interpret the Scriptures.

How do we approach the text? Are we concerned about the "words on the page", how they have been put together, or "what the author meant"? Or do we also need to consider what we do with those words on the page, how the apply to our lives (collective and individual) today, and, most importantly, what the Spirit is saying to the church through them now? Of course, the "words on the page" are important, and very necessary, and we should be concerned with what the author's original intention for the letter was. But the real music happens when we immerse our very selves into the God of those pages, when we seek to connect with the author and the Spirit who inspired that author (and indeed the editors and copiers), even over the span of thousands of years. We can share their same joys and sorrows, indeed we do share their joys and sorrows, as we encounter the same "stuff of life" and encounter the same God. The joy of ministry, of preaching, teaching, and studying the word of God comes through interpretation. As the Spirit of God speaks through this amazing text that he has spoken through for thousands of years into our lives, and through our lives into others.

What a joy! What a privilege! What Divine music!

To demonstrate some beautiful "interpretation" of Chopin, here's one of my personal favourites... enjoy!


  1. Good Work Adam... I appreciate your reflections on this controversial topic very much!

  2. Nice piece, its a sad fact that many people get so caught up in what the composer wrote thousands of years ago and struggling to follow those notes to the letter, that they forget that the composer is still there ready to support them, and encourage them.

    They try so hard to attach meaning to the piece by studying the time, culture and politics of when it was written, that they forget that they can still go to the composer and ask 'what does this piece mean in the modern world? How can we interpret it to make it relevant to modern society and playable with modern instruments?'

    The reading of Scripture is too often done in isolation from God - people read it looking for rules and regulations about how to live their lives (many times in order to point out how sinful someone else is). We as Christians need to remember when we are utilising this fantastic resource which God has given us that it is useless unless we seek out and communicate with the 'composer'. Scripture is a tool - a very important one - to aid us in understanding our creator, mankind's faltering relationship with Him, and His enduring love for us. We must remember however that our understanding of and relationship with God only begins with scripture, it is not confined by it.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

An Exercise in Self-Deception

Sermon: Matthew 13:1