The Centrality of the Gospel


Part 1: Introduction

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is arguably the greatest composer ever produced by Western civilization. He was also a profoundly devout Christian who would frequently invoke the help of his Lord atop his scores with the letters “J. J.” (Jesu Juva, Latin for “Jesus, help”) and conclude his manuscripts with the letters “S. D. G.” (Soli Deo Gloria, Latin for “glory to God alone”). When not composing breathtakingly sublime and intricate music at an alarming rate, or exhibiting his famous virtuosity on the organ (he was proficient on both keyboard and string instruments), or performing various duties at church or court, or coaching university students in singing and ensemble playing, or teaching emerging young composers, or tending to his rather enormous family (10 of his 20 children survived infancy), Bach could be found pursuing his love of the Word of God and its elaboration in theology, as his thoughtfully annotated Bible and the content of his personal library attest.[1]

Bach was not a “Sunday Christian.” He did compose a great deal of church music. He also composed a great deal of “secular” music, most of which is instrumental. But what is remarkable about Bach is that the two are not compartmentalized: his “secular” music is widely documented to contain much demonstrably religious symbolism; and moreover, the tone and character of his music—“secular” as well as “sacred”—has seldom failed to convey a sense of spirituality to listeners. In other words, for Bach, “the sacred” is not confined to some sort of religious institution: his music vividly demonstrates the majesty of a God who is sovereign over all and whose kingdom is at work like yeast in the dough of human society and culture.

But it goes the other way as well: Bach’s church music prominently includes elements of dance forms, which were considered “secular.” And this has theological implications as well. On the one hand, dance music was associated with the commonplace, with dance musicians being distinctly on the lower end of the totem pole compared to those working in the church or court. Perhaps Bach is reminding us that the great wedding banquet in the Kingdom of God will be attended not by the rich, the wise, and the important, but by “the poor and crippled and blind and lame” (Luke 14:21). A second fact that Bach seems to be drawing attention to is that the designation of dance music as “secular” (da camera, or “for the chamber,” in distinction to da chiesa, or “for the church”) is itself merely a product of his particular culture. Following a technique of Jesus himself, Bach makes his point not by simple declaration but by means of a statement that causes his audience to call into question their own assumptions and thus reach the desired conclusion themselves (since it’s a sad fact of our race that we tend to listen to ourselves far better than we listen to others). In incorporating elements of dance into his sacred music, Bach is forcing his audience to confront the question of whether they find something as common and physical as dance to be “unspiritual;” and, if so, to further compel them to investigate the foundation of their assumption, since King David’s “leaping and dancing before the LORD” in 2 Samuel 6:16 certainly could not be seen as “unspiritual.” In short, Bach is drawing our attention to a problem that has beset the covenant community of God from the very beginning: placing the traditions of men above the Word of God. Specifically, Bach seems to be acutely discerning and rebutting the Platonist dichotomy between mind/spirit-as-good and flesh-as-evil that has informed much of Christian thought over the centuries.[2] Nowhere, perhaps, has this been better illustrated than in the approach to Bach taken by mid-20th-century performance practice, which by and large sought to “spiritualize” his music by divorcing it from the supposed frivolities of dance, favoring staid tempi, thick textures, and utter evenness (some might say “monotony”) of articulation. The result was a wide-spread stereotype that Bach is a cold intellectual who can be appreciated only by “trained musicians.” In other words, when the flesh was asphyxiated, the spirit failed to be communicated.   Bach upholds the Biblical teaching that body and soul are alike originally good (albeit now equally fallen) creations of God; and in so doing, he manifests a more fundamental passion for the purity of God’s revealed Word uncorrupted by the philosophies of men.

[1] Roger Wibberly notes that the contents of Bach’s library were mostly theological and contained “at least two” costly editions of the complete writings of Martin Luther. [Roger Wibberly, “J. S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E Flat (BWV 552, 1/2): An Inspiration of the Heart?” The Online Journal of the Society for Music Theory 4, no. 5 (January 9, 1998),]

[2] It is true that Paul sometimes frames his theological points in terms that his Plato-steeped readership could relate to (e.g. Romans 7:23-25), doubtless in part to give them an access point to the gospel (cf. Acts 17:28, 1 Corinthians 9:20-22). Nor should we assume that Platonist philosophy bears no resemblance to the truth of the gospel: indeed, often the most dangerous falsehoods are those which deviate only slightly from the truth. But suffice it to say that Paul himself makes it very clear that Christianity is not merely Judaized Platonism. Among the more striking examples are 1 Corinthians 6:15 and 19, and Colossians 1:21-22: the latter explicitly subverts the Platonist assumption of the respective values of mind and body.

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