- Melting the Venusberg: A Feminist Theology of Music
Heidi Epstein's Melting the Venusberg expertly combines trenchant critiques of prominent Christian theologies with an excellent summary and extension of the past twenty years of feminist musicology. She suggests reconfiguring Christian theologizing about music from an emphasis on disembodied abstraction, mathematics, purity, and metaphysics to a more incarnational, sexual, and sensual focus on music's "messy fluidity and our innate porosity" (149, emphasis in the original). To illustrate her argument she provides concise sketches of significant women musicians from Hildegard of Bingen to Diamanda Galas. This book has much to recommend it to readers of this journal, and I will sing its praises in the feminist theology communities too.
That said, interdisciplinary work consistently runs the risk of addressing a fragmented audience: Who are the primary readers for Epstein's work? Much of what she writes presumes knowledge of Christian theology as well as familiarity with a wide range of music. Even as she makes a general argument for increased specificity, her own speculations and Christology are rather comprehensive. In order to help the reader from either of the two principal fields here to understand the skill with which Epstein addresses that with which they are unfamiliar, I will attempt to highlight each in turn. While she maintains from the first that her book is not primarily for musicologists but for the "ongoing conversation among religionists and theologians about music's sacred uses and meanings" (ix), I feel she sells her efforts short here. One of the main concerns of feminist musicological thinking has been understanding (pace ethnomusicology) how music serves ideological functions; Epstein outlines this process in male/masculinist Christianity over the past eighteen hundred years in the West and then offers valuable alternative models.
Epstein's writing often sparkles with both polemics and good humor: she is cosmopolitan and witty, and she understands the self-reflexive qualities of her ideas. For instance, having named "the patriarchal trajectory of Music-as-Problem" (24) in the earliest classical and Christian sources, she sees its extension by Kierkegaard as evidence of "the continued currency of suspicion toward both music and woman's [End Page 117] derailing powers over those who should transcend all things sensual for loftier existential gains" (45). Given the seriousness and the scope of what she studies, the writing makes her work an enjoyable reading experience as well as philosophically consistent with itself.
Epstein organizes the book into two parts. The first half surveys Christian theologies of music and their Greek antecedents. The second part suggests resources for a Christian feminist theology of music through the work of a few representative women musicians. For reasons well known to those who work in women's history, she cannot be as thorough here: men's theological writings have enjoyed more cultural approbation than women's musical work.
Part 1, entitled "Critique of Masculinist Theologies of Music," traces the continuity of sexism in Christian theologizing and how the tradition's treatment of music parallels and reinforces its gender bias. Epstein notes how "theologians' praise of music's powers for spiritual transport" and the "sublime musico-spiritual transcendence endemic" to theology are "swamped by its own gendered undertow" (1). Theology—a genre in which Christianity specializes—has two functions: an external one of explaining and defending the tradition to outsiders (aka apologetics) and an internal one of discussing the variable meanings of trying to live out/within the implications of a religious worldview. Even in a religion like Christianity that has often practiced dogmatism, theology still has to maintain the paradox between its divinity's infinitude and the finitude of those who theologize. As part of the internal conversation within Christianity Epstein has a specific theological agenda in this first section: to show how past theologians have fallen short of the totality of the Christian notion of incarnation, either for the divine (Jesus as Incarnation) or for human embodied subjects.
Despite this disciplinary theological task, more implied than declared, this first section will be quite informative to feminist musicologists (regardless of...