Archives For Bach

How should Christians relate to modern culture? Should they try to identify with culture so they are indistinguishable from their secular peers? Or, would it be better for them to stand aloof from a society espousing a worldview diametrically opposed to their own?

C.S. Lewis would recommend a different course. He would be saddened by Christians who felt compelled to pander to the ideals of contemporary culture. At the same time, he would be offended by disciples of Jesus who deemed themselves too enlightened—or, God forbid, holy—to stoop to engage with modern civilization.

In his essay “Christianity and Culture,”* Lewis begins by pointing out that the omnipresence of culture makes us unconscious of its independence from our religious worldview.

At an early age I came to believe that the life of culture (that is, of intellectual and aesthetic activity) was very good for its own sake, or even that it was good for man. After my conversion, which occurred in my later twenties, I continued to hold this belief without consciously asking how it could be reconciled with my new belief that the end of human life was salvation in Christ and the glorifying of God.

After this epiphany, Lewis began to consciously explore the proper relationship a believer should have with culture. And, his conclusion rejected both of the aforementioned extremes.

Culture has been on my mind since reading the 2019-20 schedule of the Fellowship of Performing Arts. I have written about two of the Lewis-related plays presented by this wonderful theatrical community in the past. The Great Divorce and C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert were both superb. I’m hoping that The Screwtape Letters will return to Seattle soon. All of their work is deeply inspiring.

The founder of FPA, Max McLean, affirms how their mission—producing quality “theatre from a Christian worldview meant to engage a diverse audience”—continues to guide their efforts. This includes a new rendition of Paradise Lost which will debut on Theater Row in New York in January. You won’t get to see the new play outside of New York City, but check this site for a list of their touring casts to see what wondrous performances may be available near you.

McLean writes, “In the arts world, Christians are seen as cultural critics, not culture makers. Mainstream opinion is that Christianity is a regressive idea that has nothing to add to the cultural conversation.”

McLean, like C.S. Lewis, encourages us to challenge this misinterpretation. After all, even if some Christian communions have retreated from the modern Areopagus, most of the great cultural accomplishments of the Western world owe a great deal to Christianity. And that is a debt of gratitude we can increase when we choose.

Culture is Not Our Enemy

Lewis posed an interesting contrast in “Christianity and Culture.” Speaking of the positive aspects of culture (for there are assuredly many shortcomings), he writes:

Culture is a storehouse of the best (sub-Christian) values. These values are in themselves of the soul, not the spirit. But God created the soul. Its values may be expected, therefore, to contain some reflection or antepast of the spiritual values. They will save no man. They resemble the regenerate life only as affection resembles charity, or honour resembles virtue, or the moon the sun.

But though “like is not the same,” it is better than unlike. Imitation may pass into initiation. For some it is a good beginning. For others it is not; culture is not everyone’s road into Jerusalem, and for some it is a road out.

This final observation—that immersion in culture can lead one on a path away from Life—is profound. I have witnessed this in the action of some who make cultural sophistication an end in itself.

In a far different essay, “Learning in War-Time,” C.S. Lewis elucidates how culture is a given. Even the most earnest prayers of the eremites can dispel it. No cloister has walls so impenetrable that they make culture irrelevant.

In the context, then, of education, Lewis describes the necessity of Christians engaging deeply with culture.

If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen.

Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether.

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age. The learned life then is, for some, a duty.

And so, just as the “learned life” is a duty for some, so too is an “artistic life.” It is a good thing, perhaps even an excellent thing, when Christians excel at the arts and talents esteemed by one’s local culture.

What might change if Christians decided to forego their identity as mere cultural critics and strove to become cultural leaders? Now that’s a question worth pondering.


* T.S. Eliot wrote a book with the same title. Published seventy years ago, he assessed a cultural conflict that has only grown more acute.

The problem of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society is now very present to us, and it is a very different problem from that of the accommodation between an Established Church and dissenters. It is not merely the problem of a minority in a society of individuals holding an alien belief.

It is the problem constituted by our implication in a network of institutions from which we cannot dissociate ourselves: institutions the operation of which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian. And as for the Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma—and he is in the majority—he is becoming more and more de-Christianized by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space.

Trivial Finale

December 16, 2015 — 9 Comments

catechicAll good things must draw to an end . . . and so it is that we wrap up our running review of interesting trivia questions from Catéchic, “the Catholic trivia game” by Tyco®.

Today we move beyond the miscellaneous historical and ecclesiastical subjects we have thus far considered. Prepare yourself for some serious literary and theological matters.

There were a fair number of questions asked about literary matters. Most related to authors (religious and secular) I have never read. However, some were of greater interest to me.

Who wrote the religious sonnet “Death Be Not Proud?”

John Donne

I hadn’t read that classic poem for years, and I’m grateful to the game for encouraging me to pause to reread it. If you are unfamiliar with this timeless verse, you can read it here.

Was the Gutenberg Bible the first book to be printed?

No. (Printing already existed in China.)

Actually, printing via woodblocks existed in various places. The great breakthrough came in the development of moveable type, and it did indeed exist in China before Gutenberg refined it in the West.

Was the first Bible printed in the New World in the English language?

No. (Algonquian, the predominant language of Northeastern Native Americans)

Now there is an edifying fact which reminds us of the importance of sharing the Good News with all people

Which alphabet is named after a saint?

The Cyrillic alphabet, developed by St. Cyril

And, ironically, used most prominently in the formerly atheistic republics of the Soviet Union.

A triad of questions about Roman Catholic periodicals.

What newspaper is generally thought of as the most liberal American Catholic weekly?

The National Catholic Reporter

Something I believe they are quite proud of. They offer online news here.

What newspaper is generally thought of as the most conservative American Catholic weekly?

The Wanderer

I had never heard of this lay publication, but you can read it online here.

How much does an issue of The Catholic Worker cost?

One cent

Amazing. I disagree with most of its political positions, but I have to admire the statement they make in continuing this practice.

The Catholic Worker newspaper is not online. Subscription or copy requests must be sent by regular mail . . . The newspaper was started by Dorothy Day herself in New York City in the 1930s. The price has been and will remain a penny a copy, excluding mailing costs. It is issued seven times per year and a year’s subscription is available for 25 cents (30 cents for foreign subscriptions) . . .

When the game addresses Roman Catholic history and dogma, it stays close to doctrinal boundaries. However, when it addresses interfaith and “Protestant” subject matter, it raises some issues which require comment.

Saint Olaf is the patron saint of which country?

Norway

I had to include this because my own heritage is half Norwegian. This despite the fact that dear Olaf was free in his use of the sword as an instrument for converting the Norse heathen. My hometown is Poulsbo, Washington, and its nickname is “Little Norway.” It is no surprise Poulsbo’s Roman Catholic parish is named in honor of Saint Olaf.

As far as we know, who erected the first Christian cross in the New World?

Christopher Columbus

Perhaps, but the first Christians setting foot in the so-called New World were likely Leif Erikson and those who accompanied him on the voyage from Greenland.

Name the politically influential American Catholic family sometimes known as “America’s Royal Family?”

The Kennedys

Although sadly some prominent Kennedys have not lived and served in a manner consistent with their religious profession.

As a Lutheran Christian, I was particularly eager to discover what sort of questions dealt with so-called “Protestant” matters. Here are a couple, with my personal observations added:

Before the Protestant Reformation, how many Christian Churches were there?

Two, Catholic and Orthodox

Sorry, only one. Both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communions confess a belief that there is only “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” It’s true that there was a schism* between the two, but there remains only one Christian Church, comprised of all who “believe and are baptized.”

During the 19th century, what Protestant group played a key role in settling the American West?

Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints (The Mormons)

The LDS Church is a distinct religion in and of itself. They would not regard themselves as “Protestant,” nor would Trinitarian Protestant traditions regard the LDS religion as belonging under that admittedly stretched label.

What is a member of any of the various Protestant groups characterized by their rejection of military service called?

A Mennonite

Hmmm . . . it’s a bit more complicated than that. Various Christian denominations (e.g. Quakers) discourage military service, along with non-Christian religions (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses). They, along with other individuals from more traditional church bodies whose consciences prevent them from serving in the armed forces, are more accurately called “pacifists.”

What was condemned as heresy at The Council of Trent?

The teachings of Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther.

And then there are those who would consider the Council of Trent itself to be a fount of heresy . . .

For which institution did Johann Sebastian Bach write his magnificent cantatas?

The Lutheran Church in Leipzig.

A gracious (ecumenical) acknowledgment of a musical genius who composed his works “soli Deo gloria.”

It will surprise no regular readers of Mere Inkling to see that we are closing with another reference to our favorite Inkling.

Which British author of children’s fantasies wrote an allegory about the Devil called The Screwtape Letters?

C.S. Lewis

One of C.S. Lewis’ masterpieces. I have blogged on them in the past, as the search bar to the right will reveal. Here is one column I’m particularly proud of, since it contributes a new piece of correspondence to the Screwtape corpus.

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* Schism is one of the most mispronounced words in the English language. Although “skizuh m” has become so commonplace that it is now “accepted,” the proper pronunciation is “sizuh m.” Of course, if you say it correctly everyone will think you are wrong . . . just like when you leave the “s” off of the biblical book of Revelation or properly pronounce psalm without the “l” (“sahm” instead of “salhm”).

If you missed the first two columns dealing with Roman Catholic trivia, you can check them out here: A Trivial Windstorm and Curious Christian Trivia.

Bach’s Deathbed Hymn

April 28, 2015 — 13 Comments

jsbBlind and restricted to his deathbed, Johann Sebastian Bach asked a fellow organist to play one of his own hymns. Bach then did what any brilliant composer would have done.

No, he did not criticize his colleague for the way he interpreted it musically. Bach, in his final hours, revised his own composition, making a number of musical improvements.

And the genius did not rest there, he retitled the work and modified its strains in a manner which perfectly addressed his circumstances. Anticipating his imminent encounter with his Creator, he changed the name to Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit (Before Your Throne I Now Appear). The first and last verses of the hymn are as follows.

Before your throne I now appear,

O God, and beg you humbly

Turn not your gracious face

From me, a poor sinner.

Confer on me a blessed end,

On the last day waken me Lord,

That I may see you eternally:

Amen, amen, hear me.

As a Lutheran, Bach was well acquainted with his sinful nature and utter dependence on the grace of God. He was a serious student of the Bible, and his annotated edition of Luther’s translation is held in the collection of Concordia Seminary. (Two of the three volumes are currently on loan to Leipzig.)

The medical missionary, Albert Schweitzer, was a renowned Bach scholar before he left a promising career in music performance to pursue medicine. Schweitzer wrote:

At heart Bach was neither pietistic nor orthodox: he was a mystic thinker. Mysticism was the living spring from which sprang his piety. There are certain chorales and certain cantatas which make us feel more than elsewhere that the master has poured into them his soul. These are precisely the mystical chorales and cantatas.

Like all the mystics, Bach, one may say, was obsessed by religious pessimism. This robust and healthy man, who lived surrounded by the affection of a great family, this man who was embodied energy and activity, who even had a pronounced taste for the frankly burlesque, felt at the bottom of his soul an intense desire, a Sehnsucht, for eternal rest. (Albert Schweitzer, The Life and Character of Bach).

During his lifetime, Bach’s international renown arose from his performance skills. It was nearly a century later that the gifted Felix Mendelssohn reintroduced Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion and the world grew to admire Bach as the brilliant composer he was. Referring to his partnership with a playwright in the effort, Mendelssohn said, “To think that it took an actor and a Jew’s son to revive the greatest Christian music for the world!”

Bach remains quite popular, although not everyone shares an appreciation of organ music. In 1956, C.S. Lewis provided insight into his own preferences in the following correspondence.

Concerning hymn singing and organ playing: if they have been helpful and edified anyone, then the fact that they set my teeth on edge is infinitely unimportant. One must first distinguish the effect which music has on people like me who are musically illiterate and get only the emotional effect, and that which it has on real musical scholars who perceive the structure and get an intellectual satisfaction as well.

Either of these effects is, I think, ambivalent from the religious point of view: i.e. each can be a preparation for or even a medium for meeting God but can also be a distraction and impediment.

In that respect music is not different from a good many other things, human relations, landscape, poetry, philosophy. The most relevant one is wine which can be used sacramentally or for getting drunk or neutrally. I think every natural thing which is not in itself sinful can become the servant of the spiritual life, but none is automatically so

When it is not, it becomes either just trivial (as music is to millions of people) or a dangerous idol. The emotional effect of music may be not only a distraction (to some people at some times) but a delusion: i.e. feeling certain emotions in church they mistake them for religious emotions when they may be wholly natural.

That means that even genuinely religious emotion is only a servant. No soul is saved by having it or damned by lacking it. The love we are commanded to have for God and our neighbour is a state of the will, not of the affections (though if they ever also play their part so much the better).

So that the test of music or religion or even visions if one has them is always the same– do they make one more obedient, more God-centred, and neighbour-centred and less self-centred? ‘Though I speak with the tongues of Bach and Palestrina and have not charity etc.’!

Fortunately, even the “musically illiterate” can be blessed by the anointed ministry of Bach. Lewis is correct that musical brilliance, without a gracious component, is empty. Fortunately, in the case of J.S. Bach we encounter a man who truly lived by the words he appended to much of his music: Soli Deo Gloria, to Glory to God Alone.

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You can listen to Bach’s music for this chorale here. This performance is from the church in Leipzig where Bach himself performed.

Bach’s Lost Classics

November 20, 2014 — 11 Comments

csl bach

 

Were you aware that scholars believe half of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music has been lost to the world due to the carelessness of his relatives?

I was unaware of that sad fact until recently.

J.S. Bach was the preeminent prodigy of a gifted musical family. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was the leader of the musicians in their German city. All of his uncles were professional musicians. Two of Bach’s sons also became noteworthy composers.

Bach (1685-1750) held a number of important posts. These included serving the courts of Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen and Augustus III, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania.

It is not uncommon for gifted men and women to remain unrecognized during their lifetimes. In such cases, it is not surprising that many of their works would be lost.

Bach, on the other hand, was appreciated during his own lifetime. Despite that fact, many of his creations would pass into oblivion. Why?

Amazing, only a single early cantata was published during his lifetime.

Upon his death, all of his precious musical manuscripts—chorales, motets, arias, sonatas, suites, fugues, concertos, canons and more—were divided among his family. Some of the manuscripts were sold, and others presumably were saved and eventually lost to time. Perhaps someday more pieces will be rediscovered, but that remains to be seen.

Bach was a devout Christian (of Lutheran persuasion). While the Cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig he wrote more than 300 cantatas inspired by the Gospel readings for Sundays and church festivals. One hundred of these musical gems have not survived.

C.S. Lewis enjoyed Bach. In An Experiment in Criticism, he uses the composer’s music as an example of something so profound that it continues to satisfy.

Many people enjoy popular music in a way which is compatible with humming the tune, stamping in time, talking, and eating. And when the popular tune has once gone out of fashion they enjoy it no more. Those who enjoy Bach react quite differently.

In his Diary, Lewis’ brother Warnie describes the inauguration of a new record player in 1933. “This after my long expected new gramophone arrived . . . I am delighted with it . . . After supper Jack, Minto and I sat cozily in the study and I played them the Pastoral Symphony and a sonata of Bach.”

In our modern world, the increase in leisure time has allowed many people to pursue their creative dreams. Some write, others paint, and a smaller number compose music.

Bach’s tale makes one wonder what will happen to their labors of love once they are gone. Will our family or friends divide them among themselves? Will they ever be read?

Rather than be depressed by these questions, let me encourage you to share your work with others now. Perhaps a blog would be a suitable avenue for publishing your thoughts? There are also a number of options for publishing ebooks, including some that do so at no cost.

Of course, not everything we write merits publication. We should strive to write something worthwhile, and edit it to the point where we can be suitably “proud” of our literary offspring. No doubt Bach spent many hours revising his compositions until they sounded perfect to his own ear.

And, for those of us who share the faith of Bach, it is worth noting the words he wrote at the close of each of his religious works (and many of his secular pieces): Soli Deo Gloria . . . Glory to God Alone.