Ten Turning Points: Dissonance In Heaven? You Bet!

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From the series, Ten Turning Points That Make All the Difference

One of the great puzzles about our future state in heaven is, won’t we be bored? I know there will be lots and lots of joy and love and worship. I’m not worried about heaven being bland and stale; surely God loves us more than to let that happen! It’s just that I can’t imagine how it will be. Specifically, if there’s no danger, no difficulty, and if we always know the outcome will be good, then where’s the interest or excitement? Where’s the challenge?

A couple nights ago I was listening to Saint-Säens’ Third Symphony, the Organ Symphony. As a trombonist I fell in love with this music in college: it’s loud and brassy in all the right places, but it also calls on the trombone for one of the sweetest soft melodies in all classical music. I’ve heard this symphony often. I know what’s coming next, all the way through it. There will be no surprises in it for me ever again, except (I hope) the kind of new discovery that comes from catching some inner part I’ve never noticed before.

What’s your favorite song or composition? I’m hoping you can think of something longer and stronger than the typical rock, pop, or country songs, because the longer and better the piece is, the more likely it will illustrate what I’m saying here. Pat Metheny’s First Circle is a great jazz example.

Whatever your favorites might be,

  • Have you ever noticed how time stops during great music—even as it flows onward?
  • Have you ever felt the conflict of discord in it?[1. Discord or dissonance, in most music (not all) can be described non-technically as the sense that this is not a good place to land; that the music needs to go somewhere yet, because to stay here would be uncomfortable. It is a central feature of virtually all Western music since the Renaissance, and most music from all around the world. Some Buddhist and Hindu music avoids it, as did Gregorian chant.]
  • Have you ever felt the anticipation of your favorite part coming up soon? There’s desire there, a strong wanting, yet you know it’s right that it take its time coming. Even the wanting is good.
  • Have you ever felt the satisfaction of the music reaching its goal in the end?

These are all part of the universal experience of music. And they happen while everything is exactly the way it should be. Amazing, isn’t it: perfection can include discord, anticipation, conflict, and resolution! These are the very things that keep interest alive in the life that’s familiar to us.

Further, we might wonder whether there will be any challenge and any personal growth in heaven. I think there will be. The Bible says there will be no more sin there, and no more crying. It does not say there will be no more trying. I’m speculating of course, but I won’t be at all surprised if musicians make mistakes there. To have trouble with a difficult passage is not sin. Some of my favorite hours on earth have been spent struggling my way through a tough passage to play it better than before. These struggles have been good, not bad.

Not all of those struggles, by the way, have been about getting the notes right. I’ve tried many times to play Bach’s Cello Suite in D Minor. It lays fairly well on the trombone (not like it does on the cello, but close enough for a trombonist’s purposes). The notes are not the problem. I can get through them easily enough (or I could when I was practicing more often). But there’s music in there to which I’ve never attained. Bach’s genius is beyond me. It might just take forever to get to it. Nevertheless, trying to reach it has always been terribly satisfying. It’s always been a labor of love and delight, even as far as I have been from the goal. I think I could be that way for a long, long, long time.

What will heaven be like? I still don’t know. But the lesson of music assures me that perfection really can include conflict, anticipation, dissonance, resolution, challenge, even failure, and continuing growth. Knowing that such things are possible in the midst of perfection, I am sure the way they will manifest in heaven will be deeper, richer, more involving and interesting than we can imagine.

It won’t be boring there.

Also at First Things: Evangel

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16 Responses to “ Ten Turning Points: Dissonance In Heaven? You Bet! ”

  1. It does not say there will be no more trying. I’m speculating of course, but I won’t be at all surprised if musicians make mistakes there. To have trouble with a difficult passage is not sin.

    I have never thought of this before, but I think you may be correct. But dang it, that means I’m going to have to struggle to run a 2:30 marathon in heaven. 🙂

  2. My husband has often said that since there is no danger or challenge or risk in Heaven, it sounds boring. Thanks for the post–it gives me a new perspective that I can present to him.

  3. @SteveK
    Yes, but at least you won’t get injured doing it 🙂

    I am so looking forward to my resurrection body.

  4. Mathematics is literally infinite. If you ever get bored, some mathematician can find you work to do.

    Seriously, this is another of those “objections” that I simply do not get it. One’s mind must be very small and ill-furnished if the prospect of ever getting bored is a real threat looming over the horizon.

  5. heaven is almost certainly going to be much more like my “adventurous” childhood than the “sanitized, ultra-safe” childhood of my children.

  6. Victoria,

    Yes, but at least you won’t get injured doing it.

    I’m on the ragged edge of that now. Curse you calf muscles!

  7. Think of all the people we will get to know, to share stories with.

    I can think of one young couple I know from our church who have someone they never got a chance to know here, but are looking forward to meeting him in heaven – the newborn baby they just had yesterday – little Caleb had a known development issue, in that he would not be able to survive once he was born and removed from the umbilical cord. Too many problems, so God brought him home to spare him and his parents from even more heartache. Sigh, the curse of living in a fallen world. I’m so glad that God sees things from an eternal perspective and knows the end from the beginning, and even if the side of the tapestry we see most often is messy and doesn’t seem to make sense, the other side is really beautiful beyond description

  8. @SteveK
    Yeah, I know what you mean…I’m good to go for a fall marathon…training begins in earnest now, with a couple of 10milers and a half marathon along the way. I have a better training plan this time around, to integrate more strength training and flexibility training into it, rather than run 6 days/week (which usually means 60-90kms weekly mileage – can’t do that anymore at my age 🙂 )

  9. I’ve not ever thought about it like that. As someone who spent their life in choir, my earliest thought of heaven was standing on the ole’ rafters and singing amazing grace….for all of eternity.

    My wife and I have had many discussions about what heaven will be like once both of us reach home. For a God who is so relational, it would seem that our earthly relationships would come to full fruition in heaven…IMHO.

  10. I once had the privilege of playing Barber’s Symphony No. 1 with an amateur orchestra a few years ago. During a rehearsal, I had one of those glimpses of heaven, like what you describe here, although mine centered around a different aspect of heavenly experience. C.S. Lewis once said something like “In heaven, we will be able to admire another’s work as if it were our own; and we will be able to appreciate our own work as if it were done by someone else” (to anyone who knows the actual quote, I apologize for the crude paraphrase).

    The third movement of that symphony always makes me think of crossing a vast desert at dawn–for most of the piece, the oboe carries on a plodding, almost forlorn melody while rolling strings give an underlying sense of urgency and tension. There comes a moment, though, when the brass swell up out of nothing, like the sunrise cresting a sand dune, and simply obliterate the oboe melody in a majestic wave of sound.

    The first time we rehearsed the piece, this brass crescendo took me completely by surprise, and for a moment, I had something similar to an out-of-body experience. I was still playing my cello (I was part of that rolling undercurrent of strings that was still going), but I absolutely could not hear myself because of the brass–and that was exactly the point. I didn’t want to hear myself. I was still a participant in the music, but it so overshadowed and transcended me that I lost all the self-consciousness that typically accompanies me when I play the cello. For once, I was not at all concerned with my individual contribution, but was just swept away in the experience of, for lack of a better term, the corporate worship of the orchestra (the term does not quit fit, because it was not actually a Christian orchestra, but it remains one of the best examples I’ve ever experienced of what corporate worship should be like).

    In short, I was simultaneously able to feel like a part of the beauty and yet able to admire it without even a hint of pride or really even any self-awareness. I came away from that rehearsal with a renewed longing to worship God in the Spirit and in truth, and excitement at the prospect of perfecting that worship in eternity.

  11. Nice stuff, everyone.
    BillT, there is a reference to humility in The Screwtape Letters like what you are talking about.

    “The Enemy [God] wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour’s talents–or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall.”

  12. Tom –

    Imagine each of us having perfect pitch! 😉

    (My dad used to say this re: the choirs he was looking forward to singing in…)

  13. All that is great, beautiful, and lovable on earth–or in fact in the entire domain of the corporeal universe–is only a shadow, a reflection of the realities in the spsiritual world upon which these depend. There is no common measure.

  14. Sibelius, Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47. If you really want to hear how it’s done, find the Isaac Stern version.

    My one-year-old daughter can walk in a circle for an hour, giggling, because she thinks it’s funny to stomp her left foot. Every child responds to something they like the same way: “do it again”!

    I can understand pure joy resisting boredom, so regardless of what exactly we’re doing in heaven, I don’t think monotony is going to be a concern.

  15. @ Bill R, G Rodriguez

    Wonderful story, Bill. Music is truly one of our universal languages. It occurred to me, after G said it, that if math can be an exercise in the infinite…. well, music is, too! It then occurred to me that music, math, and love are all universal languages, and they are all infinite. It’s a very empowering thought to consider our possibilities endless and infinite.

    When I began to question myself and my faith in my early years, the question of what we’d actually *do* in heaven was one that I wondered on quite a bit. If “the lamb will lie down with the lion”, and peace will reign, and conflict will disappear, then growth will, too – we must be challenged, we must face opposition or inadequacies or our own lackings before we can become more than what we are. What is the point of becoming something perfect and unchanging? BOOORRRING!

    Without trying to go too much on a tangent, the pastor at the church that I run sound for asked me almost a year ago a question that has been on my mind ever since – if I could be healed of my manic-depression (I am a type II bipolar) would I accept it?

    My answer to him was “no”. Even though I have suffered greatly because of it (it is something that I would wish I on no man), it has made every success I have had that much more meaningful – I’ve had to fight for equilibrium, I’ve had to fight to stay stable, I’ve had to fight to be happy, and I’ve had to fight for my life. Mental illness is no joke, my friends…

    I look at the world around me, and there is conflict and competition everywhere – animals fighting for resources, capitalism (about the same thing, really), our adversarial justice system, etc. Without challenges, without conflict, I don’t see the potential for meaning and growth. If that is what heaven is all about… then I want no part of it. I want to grow, to know that I don’t know everything, to discover new things.

    One of my favorite authors, Frank Herbert, has a recurring theme in his work – that of omniscience (prescience, specifically) entailing boredom, and the greatest gift you can give someone like that is a surprise. That resonates with me.

    Anyways, to return to the OP, I haven’t really connected with a lot of classical music… but I have been moved deeply by singers like Sarah Brightman, Andrea Bocelli, Vince Gill, the group Masters of Chant (even though I normally listen to hard rock, metal, punk, and techno). I really like vocal harmonies – 3/4ths of why I run sound is because the singers can create such beautiful harmonies. A few minutes of beautiful vocal harmony is worth the hours of work that I put in to setting up the system, debugging it, etc.

  16. @Sault:

    The type of response you posted usually comes from people who do not suffer any considerable, limiting disability, and ponder the matter in a purely theoretical manner without the aid of the correctives that actual experience affords. This does not seem to be your case, and that is why I will bother to type an extensive response instead of a curt dismissal finished off by an insult (probably, you would have preferred the latter — oh well).

    It occurred to me, after G said it, that if math can be an exercise in the infinite…. well, music is, too!

    Small, pedantic correction: mathematics is not an exercise in the infinite, although, depending on how you construe the sentence it is that also, but rather its subject matter is infinite and cannot be exhausted by a finite mind.

    If “the lamb will lie down with the lion”, and peace will reign, and conflict will disappear, then growth will, too – we must be challenged, we must face opposition or inadequacies or our own lackings before we can become more than what we are. What is the point of becoming something perfect and unchanging?

    Several mistakes packed in this paragraph. Your first sentence is a non-sequitur: the fact that “peace will reign” does not imply that our “growth” (however you construe that) will be stifled. Perfection in human beings does not imply unchangeability as it does, for example in God, since human beings even in the Beatific Vision are still compounds of act and potency — but how this exactly plays out is a subject I cannot, and do not want to, go into. All it suffices to say here, is that even in a state of perfection, we will experience growth and all the joys and challenges of real, satisfying work.

    Without trying to go too much on a tangent, the pastor at the church that I run sound for asked me almost a year ago a question that has been on my mind ever since – if I could be healed of my manic-depression (I am a type II bipolar) would I accept it?

    My answer to him was “no”. Even though I have suffered greatly because of it (it is something that I would wish I on no man), it has made every success I have had that much more meaningful – I’ve had to fight for equilibrium, I’ve had to fight to stay stable, I’ve had to fight to be happy, and I’ve had to fight for my life. Mental illness is no joke, my friends…

    I am sorry, but I do not believe you. Either that or you are insane. You have a debilitating illness that imposes not only immense suffering but also an *extra* burden. Sure, you can look back and ponder on your successes with a pride of sorts, but the *objective* fact still remains that depression is an illness, and thus a privation. In virtue of your illness not only are some tasks harder, *unnecessarily* harder in addition to the intrinsic difficulty of the task, which of itself is all that is needed to pose a challenge, but there are also things you *cannot* do. Just recall one of your periods of most intense depression to see the truth of what I am saying. In other words, any task poses a challenge to a finite mind. The challenge becomes greater when said mind is hampered and weighed down by sin, illness and privation, but this difference is not a difference that itself brings joy or fulfillment, but only suffering and extraneous difficulty that have nothing to do with the particular task at hand.

    The opinion you voice here is a distant reflection of the Romantic cliché that genius and madness walk hand in hand. This is a view that has been thoroughly discredited by historical criticism, psychology, etc. so I will not bother to attack it myself.

    I have been moved deeply by singers like Sarah Brightman, Andrea Bocelli, Vince Gill, the group Masters of Chant

    Ouch.

    even though I normally listen to hard rock, metal, punk, and techno

    Yikes.

    Well in my distant youth, I did like some punk and some techno. I remember especially The Dead Kennedys, but when discussing musical preferences (something that I have stopped doing a long time ago, judging it a completely futile activity) I always asserted that I much preferred listening to the Sex Pistols than any of the nauseating progressive rock groups. But I always hated heavy metal and the vast majority of hard rock — even though some musicians like John Zorn, Bill Laswell or the Young Gods could grab the heavy metal cliches and do something worthwhile with them.