A tin ear for religion

Last month, I highlighted media coverage of campaigns to get worshipers to confession. I needled the Miami Archdiocese a bit for using Bach's Prelude No. 1 in C Major to accompany their television advertisement. Johann Sebastian Bach is my favorite Lutheran composer, in a very crowded field. I was surprised that a couple of commenters didn't know he was Lutheran, on account of how well regarded he is as a musician, composer and theologian. Lutheran churches throughout the world offer Bach vesper services where the rigorous theological underpinnings of a given work are explained before they're performed by choirs, soloists and ensembles. When I attended my first of these, at a Lutheran church in Baltimore, I was shocked to learn that the different parts were written to express various theological concepts. Learning these things helps make the music even more sublime. You can get a taste of this from reading this brief explanation of the Trinitarian and Catechistic Connotations of the Clavier-Ubung III.

I mention all this because quite a few readers sent along a recent New Yorker review of Bach performances and releases. It's actually a lovely review from a very talented music critic. And being that it's a review of Bach's sacred music, it attempts to engage the religious throughout the piece. Here, for example:

More than half of the sacred cantatas were written between 1723 and 1726, when Bach was in the early years of his long, and often unrewarding, appointment as the cantor of the Thomaskirche, in Leipzig. For extended stretches of the liturgical year, he produced one cantata a week, and for the most part he refused to take the easy path of reworking older pieces, whether his own or others’. Instead, in what seems a kind of creative rage, he experimented with every aspect of the cantata form, which traditionally served as a musical meditation on the Scriptural readings of the week. There are intimidating fugal choruses, sublimely extended operatic arias, frenzied instrumental interludes, weird chords galore, episodes of almost irreverent dancing merriment. To hear the entire corpus is to be buffeted by the restless energy of Bach’s imagination. Recently, I listened to around fifty of the cantatas during a thousand-mile drive in inland Australia, and, far from getting too much of a good thing, I found myself regularly hitting the repeat button. Once or twice, I stopped on the side of the road in tears.

Readers also submitted the response to the New Yorker piece by Lutheran publisher Paul McCain, who found the review wanting. He describes what it's like to read secular media coverage of Bach's sacred works:

No matter how often one is disappointed by articles on Bach’s sacred music, published in secular periodicals, there is always hope that maybe, just maybe, the article will be objective enough actually to recognize that J.S. Bach was a committed orthodox Lutheran composer, no, make that a Kantor, a servant of the church, and…there are actually committed Christians who keep his sacred music alive, like Masaaki Suzuki, of the Bach Collegium of Japan, precisely as a way to witness to their Christian faith, but alas, the latest example of such an article is another disappointment. It simply boggles my mind that such a key ingredient in really understanding who Bach was and why he did what he did is so blithely ignored and overlooked, even when there are references to the specifically Christian content of his sacred music works. I suppose it should not be a disappointment, but alas, it is.

Here’s an example from the New Yorker article of a reporter, perhaps struggling valiantly, to grasp the meaning of the St. John Passion, but failing utterly, to come up with anything more than a recognition of morality and human helpfulness, which, I suppose, is the right place to start, but the glorious good news of the Passion of Jesus Christ, is missing entirely from the reporter’s view.

He goes on to quote a portion of the New Yorker review that focuses on one portion of the oratorio to the exclusion of the ultimate message. As soon as I read this critique, I realized that the review never even mentioned that Bach was Lutheran, much less anything about the Gospel message so many of his sacred works highlight and celebrate.

A commenter to McCain's critique wrote:

A Univ. of Michigan professor told us students years ago: "Bach was not only an organist and composer; he was a theologian, as well. To fully appreciate much of Bach’s work, you'd better learn some Lutheran theology, for he regularly put it to music.

The secular press, with all of its "sophistication", is ignorant of such words as "incarnation", "redemption", "resurrection", "sin", "expiation", and "justification" used theologically. Consequently, they see, and comment upon, only the "horizontal" (human) expressions in Bach's music, to the exclusion of the "vertical" (divine) ones. They hear his music with a "tin ear", for they hear only "art for art's sake" rather than "Soli Deo Gloria". And, as to the latter, they ask: "What's that?"

I wanted to highlight these responses not only because they explain so clearly what anyone who knows about Bach's theology finds lacking in a review such as this (again, as otherwise brilliant as it may be). But doesn't it seem like something similar could be said about so much coverage of religion news?

So many reporters and editors aren't even really familiar with the vocabulary of religious adherents, much less how one's theology informs day-to-day affairs. That ignorance leaves stories about religion and its adherents muddled, or at least less vibrant than they should be.

Please respect our Commenting Policy