Scriptural Scordatura—Playing the Bible a Little Off Key

Scordatura refers to tuning patterns for the open strings of violins and cellos that differ from the normally accepted tuning pattern of the notes G, D, A, and E. In Italian the word means “mistuned” or “out of tune,” and the connotation is carried into English where these alternative tunings are sometimes described as “abnormal.” The musical notation and accompanying finger positions are just as they would be for the regular GDAE tuning, but because some strings are tuned higher or lower, the sound or pitch is changed.

With its “abnormal” tuning, scordatura makes for remarkable musical expression. It allows the playing of otherwise difficult or even impossible chords and passages. It changes the voice of the instrument, creating unusual tones that carry complex musical resonances. The nuances possible through scordatura tuning move from expressions of angst and agony to quirky representations of crickets and cicadas.

But while it is the sanctioned pattern (many violinists don’t even know that their instruments can be tuned in a variety of ways), GDAE is really only one of many possible – and musically legitimate – tuning patterns. Today scordatura is accepted as a creative deviation from standard GDAE tuning, but several centuries ago there was no agreement on—nor argument over—what the “right” tuning would, could, or should be.

Competing  interpretations of biblical writings are regularly pressed into service of  competing political positions, advocacy initiatives, and social critiques; lack  of accord on a single standard creates doubt and skepticism in the Bible’s authority or its capacity for revelation, truth, or moral guidance.

The same can be said of one of the more contested aspects of religious life today—and therefore a major challenge of 21st century ministry—the interpretation of the Bible. Competing interpretations of biblical writings are regularly pressed into service of competing political positions, advocacy initiatives, and social critiques; lack of accord on a single standard creates doubt and skepticism in the Bible’s authority or its capacity for revelation, truth, or moral guidance.

For instance, the recent scandal around the indictment of NFL player Adrian Peterson for negligent injury to his 4-year-old son has prompted intense discussion in the media about cultural differences in child disciplinary practices that are deeply rooted in complex understandings of what counts as good, right, and true interpretations of sacred texts.

But it is the contours of the media discussion that are especially instructive here, looking an awful lot like conversations in Christian theology where four sources of knowledge are all listened to and given attention. There’s reason in the varying statements of position by the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Notes of tradition are heard in the considerations of corporal punishment as a long held practice in the black and evangelical white Christian communities, but also in other collective convictions about non-violence. There are diverse interpretations of individual’s lived experience of having been physically disciplined as children. Throughout, scripture appears variously as both warrant and warning.

But, you see, the conversations are never about scripture alone.

The GDAE pattern became the standard tuning pattern for strings instruments because over time, in performance and in the practical assent of trained and sensitive ears, something like “agreement” emerged that it was the preferred tuning. Still, when what has come to be preferred is insufficient for impossible chords and difficult passages, the exploration of scordatura begins.

Street-Singer-in-Royal-Street

The Bible itself is a recording of pieces played according to many wildly different tuning patterns. The words of Ezra and Isaiah offered contradictory visions what life after exile should look like. Yet both are considered scripture. The Exodus is picked up by psalmist and prophet but is innovated for new circumstances by both. Yet all have their place in the canon. Job, hearing no beauty in the curse and blessing theology of Deuteronomy, tuned his writing to the new pattern of theodicy. All of these—Ezra, Isaiah, Job—are reverenced as sacred texts.

According to Matthew’s gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus plays the Law in scordatura, saying things that sound like, “You have heard it said that you can only play GDAE, but I say to you that you can sing like a cicada.” And still, Torah and Gospels together are part of the Christian Bible. Even God is known to change a long familiar pitch, saying, through Ezekiel, “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?’ As I live says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.”

So, which are to be considered GDAE—standard and preferred? Which are to be considered scordatura and either dismissed as a mistuning or embraced for how they help us hear something impossible and new?

The discussion among the faithful – scholars and pastors included – is not theoretical. It is not simply a matter of honoring diverse readings of complicated, multifaceted ancient texts. Scordatura in biblical interpretation, as in music, is hardly license for an each-to-their-own-reading free for all. How we read the Bible has profound consequences, both private and public.

The  demands of 21st century ministry require us to look critically at  the ways we both privilege and reject interpretations, to consider how and why  we determine what is standard and what is out of tune.

But what the biblical witness itself reveals is that all interpretations have, at one time or another, been considered both standard tuning and scordatura. What is most clearly recorded in the texts is the human tendency to declare something orthodox, but also and always the presence of those voices of resistance, playing outside the standard register.

We hear competing interpretations of the Bible in the news of the day. We will reject some as out of tune and sing along with those that sound of truth. But the demands of 21st century ministry require us to look critically at the ways we both privilege and reject interpretations, to consider how and why we determine what is standard and what is out of tune. The long history of biblical interpretation asks us to have conversations with each other, to make a practice of reading together, to make a place for scordatura in our renderings, and to play outside the standard register. It demands that we ask a critical question: do our standard tuning patterns still let us play justice, mercy, truth, and love in the difficult passages of our day and in the impossible chords we need to hear?

Photo credits:
Street Busker,” by Rob, 2006. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Desaturated from original.
Street Singer in Royal Street”, by Vinylmeister, 2010. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Pamela Shellberg

Dr. Pamela Shellberg is the Scholar-in-Residence at The BTS Center, crafting “Course Corrections,” a program for imaginatively responding to changes in the church and in life based on the biblical template of Paul’s life and writings. During the 2015-16 academic year, Pam was the visiting professor of New Testament studies at Andover Newton Theological School, jointly appointed by ANTS and The BTS Center. She is the author of Cleansed Lepers, Cleansed Hearts: Purity and Healing in Luke-Acts (Fortress Press, 2015). A teacher in schools for lay ministry in the Maine Conference of the UCC and the New England Synod of the ELCA, she thinks and writes about the metaphors in poetry, art, and music as lenses for bible reading and as tools for interpretation. Pam may be reached via e-mail.

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