I picked up a great book at the airport in New York on my homeward trek from speaking on Paul Gerhardt this past October. The book is not that long; nor is it a difficult read, although it does require some concentration and reflection. That I'm still working my way through it three months later is due only to the fact that my life has been crazy and chaotic in the meantime. It's actually a fascinating book, and well-written, and I highly recommend it: This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, by Daniel J. Levitin (Plume, 2007).
I've been intrigued by music for as long as I can remember, and I have often puzzled over its power and mystery. I find it compelling, both emotionally and theologically; both as a medium of expression and as a topic of conversation. Especially as I have delved deeper into the significance of hymnody, and as I have contemplated the role of music in the liturgy, I have been increasingly interested in the nature and characteristics of music. In reading Robin Leaver's recent book on Luther's understanding and use of music, I have found it refreshing and helpful to consider music as part of God's good creation and one of His good gifts. That view prompts a positive, constructive and salutary approach to the topic. It also coincides with an opinion I have long held, though I haven't had the knowledge or wherewithal to demonstrate or argue it, that music has objective aspects and qualities that can be measured and evaluated, as to whether they are more or less in harmony with the Word of God.
This Is Your Brain on Music is just the sort of thing that I've been searching for, because it helpfully brings a novice like me into a working knowledge of the technicalities of music, and analyzes each of its facets with scientific objectivity. The author of the book assumes an evolutionary model, which is a shame, but I find his descriptions of the brain and its functions, and of music's natural phenomena, to be outstanding evidence of the Lord's creative genius and intricate design of the minutest details. All of this, in itself, would make for worthwhile reading. But I am especially grateful for a firmer grasp on the function and impact of music, the way it is heard and grasped and remembered; because all of this has the potential to serve and support the Word of the Lord, to assist in catechesis and confession, prayer, praise and thanksgiving.
On that note, I was particularly taken by the following few paragraphs, which have nothing specifically to do with "catechesis" per se, but which I find to be most apropros to that most comprehensive pastoral task:
"Anders Ericsson, at Florida State University, and his colleagues approach the topic of musical expertise as a general problem in cognitive psychology involving how humans become experts in general. In other words, he takes as a starting assumption that there are certain issues involved in becoming an expert at anything; that we can learn about musical expertise by studying expert writers, chess players, athletes, artists, mathematicians, in addition to musicians.
"First, what do we mean by 'expert'? Generally we mean that it is someone who has reached a high degree of accomplishment relative to other people. As such, expertise is a social judgment; we are making a statement about a few members of a society relative to a larger population. Also, the accomplishment is normally considered to be in a field that we care about. As Sloboda points out, I may become an expert at folding my arms or pronouncing my own name, but this isn't generally considered the same as becoming, say, an expert at chess, at repairing Porsches, or being able to steal the British crown jewels without being caught.
"The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or twenty hours a week, of practice over ten years. Of course, this doesn't address why some people don't seem to get anywhere when they practice, and why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others. But no one has yet found a case in which a true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.
"The ten-thousand-hours theory is consistent with what we know about how the brain learns. Learning requires the assimilation and consolidation of information in neural tissues. The more experience we have with something, the stronger the memory/learning trace for that experience becomes. Although people differ in how long it takes them to consolidate information neurally, it remains true that increased practice leads to a greater number of neural traces, which can combine to create a stronger memory representation. This is true whether you subscribe to multiple-trace theory or any number of variants of theories in the neuro-anatomy of memory: The strength of a memory is related to how many times the original stimulus has been experienced" (This Is Your Brain on Music, Levitin, pp. 196-197).
I'm not sure how appropriate it may be to speak of "expertise" in theology (the Word of God); though I suppose it is the case that a Christian ought to be such an "expert" relative to the populace of the world at large. Setting that aside, this "ten-thousand-hours theory" fits the rule that repetition is the mother of learning, as well as the catechetical approach of repeating key texts verbatim: not only to memorize them, to begin with, but then to continue praying and confessing them as the vocabulary of the Christian faith and life. We don't ever "master" the Word of God, but ten thousand hours of hearing and speaking His Word may well contribute to its "mastery" of us.
The Word of God, alive with His Spirit, is its own power and authority, unto repentance and faith, life and salvation. Yet, as the Word has become flesh, and Christ is both true God and perfect Man, so does His Word lay hold of us as finite creatures of flesh and blood and neural tissues. Our bodies are washed with water in order that we may be cleansed by His Word and Holy Spirit. Out bodies chew and swallow His Body and Blood, that we may be forgiven all our sins and granted His life and salvation, body and soul. As our eardrums reverberate with the very Word of Life, the Father's speaking of His Son and breathing of His Spirit, so do our brains receive and process and store that Word, that our hearts may believe unto righteousness and our mouths confess unto salvation. Catechetical pedagoy and memorization do not (and cannot) make anything more of this divine Word than it simply is. However, as God has determined to deal with us through the external Word and bodily means of grace, so is that Word of Christ temporally served and supported (or hindered and halted) by the methodology and process with which it is taught. Hearing it and repeating it, over and over again, makes a difference and helps the Christian to become an "expert" in the Word of God. That is a good thing.
Along with the pedagogy of repetition, music also aids and assists the assimilation of the Word of God in catechesis. That's another insight supported by Levitin's wonderful little book. Music engages the brain in multiples ways and at a variety of levels. It can bypass obstacles and damage that would hinder or prevent the comprehension and retention of speech. Of course, the Word of God that created all things out of nothing, which opens deaf ears and raises the dead out of their graves, does not need music to be efficacious and powerful unto salvation. For that matter, it need not be translated into the vernacular, nor explained to the catechumen, nor taught to anyone. Nevertheless, God speaks His Word to man, that man might hear and believe, confess and pray, and the Lord desire that all of this be done with heart and mind alike, with clarity and knowledge, with joy and delight. Thus, He translates the Gospel of His Son into the tongues of all the nations, and He encourages His people to sing His Word in Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.
Luther understood the benefits of music, and he put that to excellent catechetical use. His catechetical hymns were some of his earliest and best contributions, and they still serve the Church beautifully in our day. Ten thousand hours of singing the Catechism may not make one an "expert singer," but I warrant that it would produce an excellent catechumen. The repetition, the poetry and rhythm of the text, and the music itself all serve and support the reception and retention of the Word that is carried and confessed in such hymnody. The same is true, more broadly speaking, with any other hymn that confesses the Word of Christ.
A friend recently shared with me a pedagogical approach that she has found and appreciated, which basically says that you stick with the training and teaching of particular knowledge and skills until they are learned, even if it takes a thousand repetitions (or even ten thousand). It is worth it to have that kind of patience and persistence for the sake of reading, math and science, for the arts and athletics. All the more so is it worthwhile, meet, right and salutary, for the sake of the Christian faith and eternal life with God in Christ.
If it takes ten thousand hours of doing something to become an expert, then what is accomplished or achieved by the constant influx of novelty, ever-changing gimmickry, here-today-gone-tomorrow fluff 'n' stuff, and every other clever case of variety for its own sake? It leaves the "creative professionals" in charge as the only experts on the always shifting field, while consigning everyone else to remain novices and neophytes forever. By contrast, the stable and consistent use of the historic liturgy and solid hymns, catechizes each and every Christian to become an "expert" theologian (if one dare speak in such human terms and categories). Christians learn it by heart and speak it by faith, because the precious Word of God produces fruit in them after its own kind.