Millennial Music

Richard Landes, Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University

Millennialism, despite the mellifluous sound of the word, has a bad reputation. Linked to the catastrophic destruction of apocalypse, and the revolutionary turmoil of those who would "perfect" the world no matter what the cost, millennialism very early earned the scorn and fear of conservative Church Fathers. They, under the brilliant guidance of Augustine, banned it from the official theology of the Church. And yet, banned ideas do not necessarily disappear; nor do those who ban represent the beliefs they hate fairly. And millennialism the belief that at some point in the future this world will be radically transformed into a place of peace, fellowship, and abundance has continued to flourish, despite every effort of the official arbiters of culture to destroy it, and despite every excess it has inspired in some of its more ardent disciples.


Millennialism may constitute the most tantalizing, paradoxical, and volatile belief ever dreamed. On the one hand it gives voice to the deepest desires of the human heart for loving-kindness and mutual understanding; on the other, it nourishes the most violent realms of the human imagination, the rage of the wronged, the lust for vengeance, the megalomanic certainty that God is truly with we who bring his kingdom to fruition. When Pascal said, "Man is neither angel nor beast, and unfortunately, the more he seeks to be an angel, the more he becomes a beast," he described the millennial paradox.

Listen to the earliest clear recording of the millennial vision (ca. 6th century BCE):

And it shall come to pass at the end of days
That the mountain of the Lord's house
Shall be established as the top of the mountains,
And it shall be exalted above the hills;
And peoples shall flow onto it.

And many nations shall go and say:
Come ye and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
And to the house of the God of Jacob;
And he will teach us His ways,
And we will walk in His paths;
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

And he shall judge between many peoples,
And shall arbitrate between many nations;
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares
And the spears into pruning hooks.
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

Neither shall they study war any more."
But they shall sit, every man
Under his vine and under his fig tree;
And none shall make them afraid...

Micah 4:1-4; cf. Isaiah 2:1-3.

Here we have a vision of a world in which true justice brings an end to warfare, where the weapons of aristocratic dominance are transformed into the tools of agricultural labor, where commoners work and enjoy the fruits of their labor in peace, where nations continue to have their own identity without needing to subordinate or annihilate the "other." In some senses this is the imperfectly realized goal of modern, liberal, civil society, and, quite appropriately these words have been engraved at Isaiah Plaza near the UN in Manhattan. Such a dream has inspired soaring hearts to great feats of love and creativity. A closer look at many of the greatest thinkers in the Western tradition – religious, scientific, social, artistic – shows that, at some significant stage their lives, these people sincerely believed that they stood at the brink of the great revelation (Apocalypse), the great transformation. Millennialism is a form of social mysticism. It seeks to marry the love of God and the love of living beings on a grand scale, it seeks not the transformation of the self, but that of the body social.

And, on the rare occasions when people believed that they were on the verge of this great transformation, one of the most important expressions of this collective mysticism springs forth in song. The earliest millennial hopes in Judaism speak of the "new day" and the "new song" (Shir Chadash) that will be sung that day, a song that, until the moment come, we do not know. In the book of Revelation we find the 144,000 blessed singing a song "like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder… the sound of harpers playing on their harps and they sing a new song before the throne…" (Rev. 14:2-3). In 351 a sign appeared over the city of Jerusalem, a cross seen stretching from Golgotha to the Mount of Olives, which provoked a massive exodus of people (Christian and pagan) from their houses, gathering together in wonder. "All of them as with one mouth raised in a hymn of praise to Christ our Lord." (Cyril of Jerusalem, letter to the Emperor Constantius II).

It makes sense that song is the millennial art, par excellence. Song is at once that which activates the deepest recesses of the human soul, and brings everyone together in a common bond of participation and experience. If humans ever approach the mystical body social in reality, it is in this song. Thus many of the great millennial traditions have produced some of the great music of the world. From the songs of the Franciscans, those clowns of the Lord, to the shape-note singing of the Great Awakening, the most joyous sounds of humanity arise in the collective enthusiasm of a sense of the dawning age of peace, fellowship and understanding. Schiller’s "Ode to Joy" put to music by Beethoven sounds the great millennial theme: "All men are true brothers where thy (Joy’s) wings are widespread."

Of course, such dreams have been, in every case so far, destined to fail. Every apocalyptic believer, who announced the great day in his or her own day, got it wrong. The world has continued in violence, suffering, injustice and oppression. The real issue, then, lies in how any given individual or group has dealt with dashed hopes, how they have handled the headlong dive from the heights of inspired and infinite potential of apocalyptic time back into the limited and tragic confines of normal time. To destroy this wicked world? Or to change it more slowly. Here again, song at once preserves that uncanny sense of coming so close, and inspires us with hope that, the next time, even if we cannot, ever, break through to the other side, we can bring enough back to quietly, gently, transform this world. Among the millennial arts, before and after the apocalyptic (anti-)climax, none holds a more exalted place than music.

There is no necessary connection between a millennial dream and a chronological millennium such as we are now greeting. Millennial movements can flourish in any year. But since the earliest Christian centuries, the idea of the sabbatical millennium – the world will travail for 6000 years and then will come the messianic sabbath for the final 1000 years – has meant that the end of the current millennium has brought with it widespread hopes and fears of the coming of the Lord’s Day, the judgment of sinners and the justification of the saints. In the year 1000, such hopes brought with them the first great peace movement in the history of civilization, the Peace of God. What it will bring in our own day, only time will tell. But as long as we can sing, and learn to sing, there is hope.

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