The Hermeneutics of Music and Scripture

“There’s no right answer!” These were the words of Dieter Wulfhorst as he asked our faculty to respond and interpret a playful piece he and Susan Doering performed on Tuesday at the school’s caucus. Wulfhorst, on violoncello, and Doering, on violin, form the duo Musica Viva.

The couple’s mission is to bring music to places and groups that wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to hear classical music, but goes far beyond mere performance. As educators (both are professors at Fresno Pacific University), they seek to teach and inspire through their music, particularly in schools, community centers and churches in rural contexts.

Wulfhorst and Doering have been using music to spur people’s imaginations for 12 years. They are passionate about helping listeners creatively engage a genre of music that is often viewed as stuffy and sophisticated. They counter the notion that classical music is only for academics and professionals.

Before playing, they instructed the audience—all professors—to listen to the music, interpret the emotion and then imagine a story that might fit. “We’re not going to tell you the name of the movement,” Doering said, not wanting to bias the group. When finished, they invited the faculty to share they’re interpretations with the whole group. It was a marvelous experience, beneficial to seasoned academics as well as little children. Beautiful!

I wonder if Doering and Wulfhorst know how good their hermeneutic skills are. In theology and pastoral ministries, hermeneutics is the process of interpreting scripture and then preaching it in ways that are meaningful to a congregation. Musica Viva is doing the same thing, but they are using their interpretive skills in the arts.

The similarities are notable. And very Anabaptist. When I preach, I don’t do it in isolation, but rather in community. The goal is to help people—those who aren’t scholars or trained theologians—understand Scripture in ways they haven’t previously considered. As with Music Viva, this is especially fulfilling with children, youth and others who don’t normally or routinely have access to the Bible.

I’ve often said that I am a cultural translator. I, as a theologian/professor/pastor, want to help people understand the language of the Bible in ways that make it relatable to their daily lives. The Bible is not a mystical book that can only be interpreted by the elite, yet that’s the myth both parishioners and clergy often perpetuate. The end result of bad hermeneutic skills is a lifeless, unimaginative and boring reading of a 2000-year-old document. How sad!

Another similarity between biblical interpretation and Musica Viva’s approach: they provide the content, engage in discussion with a broader crowd of listeners and then continue to enhance the audience’s understanding with their own expertise, which in turn brings new awareness and understanding (i.e. better interpretations) to the gathering. Example: the duo would play a piece, ask the audience to creatively engage it with stories of their own, and then entertain questions, reveal details about the composer, offer comments about the title and the context of the movement, etc. Perfect! That’s the job of a preacher as well—present the Word, engage the community, then facilitate ongoing dialogue with tools, resources and other expressions of training and expertise.

Wulfhorst noted during the performance that he will often hear comments from listeners such as, “I don’t know anything about music, but here’s what I felt/heard/saw while you were playing….” That’s’ exactly what I want to hear when someone listens to my sermon, because it shows engagement and interaction with a living text, not a lifeless and archaic document.

Music Viva renewed my own passion for my art, reminding me that hermeneutics applies to all kinds of “texts.” Sometimes the texts are literal pages of words, but a text can also be a piece of music, a painting, a person’s story or a whole neighborhood community.

And Wulfhosrt’s pronouncement still rings in my ears, “There’s no right answer!” How true. We experience Scripture in different ways according to the context and culture in which we interpret it. That’s why five people in a Bible study will all have different interests, interpretations and applications of the same passage. If I can help bring clarity to that through the theological training I’ve received, then I’ve helped someone along on their faith journey.

I love this duo’s name: Musica Viva. Indeed their music (even the oldest composition) is alive! So, too, is Scripture. At least that’s what I want to convey when preaching it.