The music of Bach “is a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being”-Casals
This fall I am teaching a Seminary course on Christianity and the Arts in which we will determine how a Christian view of beauty and truth meets form and content within the arts. One of the texts we will examine is Resound Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music by Jeremy S. Begbie.
On the first page, Begbie asks “Can you imagine a day without music”? No, I cannot. Even though I do not play an instrument or have a trained voice, I can play a mean Mid-Century Symphonic Hi Fi! My vinyl collection is quite eclectic including: Bach Suites played by Yo Yo Ma, Vivaldi, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Andre Previn, Camelot, the original Beatles Albums, Carly Simon, Andy Williams, Mary Poppins, Chicago, CSN&Y, Amy Grant, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Coldplay and many others! And yes, I also have the modern Spotify account, thanks to my daughter JJ, with more contemporary tunes. I love, love music!!
Begbie states that “music is one of the most powerful media humans have at their disposal…it is pervasive in our culture”(14). Even if we don’t choose our own music via playlists or Itunes, it surrounds us in airports, doctor’s offices, on hold, hairdresser’s salons,etc. These tunes, and more importantly, lyrics stay in our conscious and unconscious thoughts all day long. Have you ever tried to get an annoying jingle out of your head? That is how powerful music is.
On the other hand, music can also be a great blessing and tool for healing in our lives; especially Praise and Worship music: 10,000 Reasons, Word of God Speak, Spoken For, Good, Good Father, God With Us, Great is Thy Faithfulness, Holy, Holy, Holy are my go-to songs of worship that bring peace, healing and joy to my life. To worship through music in a congregation each Sunday also brings great respite to my soul.
In Resounding Truth, Begbie aims to help Christians gain theological discernment about music with a view to active engagement: “the renewal of our minds as a part of an integrated lifestyle in which all of a person’s capacities have been liberated by the Holy Spirit to find their true role in relation to God and one another in the world”(20).
Begbie focuses on the way music is practiced in Western Culture and on Scripture references to music, on the historical themes of music, and on “ecology” which is “the basic patterns of beliefs that give the gospel its coherence and the doctrine of creation”(25). For my purposes in this blog, I will focus on Chapter 5 “Wise Beyond Words” of Johann Sebastian Bach, my favorite composer.
Prior to teaching this course, I did not know that Bach was my favorite composer even though I have been listening to his Suites and Cantatas for many years through Classical Music playlists. When I am grading, studying, writing blogs, lulling my grandchildren to sleep, I use a Classical music playlist which I have compiled from movie soundtracks and concerts and recordings- YoYo Ma- the cello is my favorite classical instrument. After browsing this playlist, I realized that the majority of songs were composed by Bach: Cantata, BWV 156; Cello Solo No1, G Major BWV 1007; Strings and Continuo No 5 in F Minor, BWV 1056; Suite No. 3 in D; **BWV 1068 (Air on G String)-my favorite!; Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, Cantata BWV 140:4; Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, Cantata BWV 147: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.
Pablo Casals states that he played Bach every day as a benediction on the house. “’It is a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being…each day is something new, fantastic and unbelievable’”(119). Begbie devotes a whole chapter to Bach as his music is intriguing and provides to the Christian gospel and the created world as perceived through the lens of that gospel”(121).
To prove this, Begbie points to two examples of Bach’s “theology of sound”: Jesus, der du meine Seele and Es ist Vollbracht. In Jesus, Bach interweaves “grammar, musical structure, and theology…’incorporating the elements of the secular as well as the sacred ”(125, 126).
In Vollbracht, Bach incorporates John’s Gospel (19:30) in which “God’s strength is revealed in weakness, his wisdom in apparent folly”(127). Bach links music to language. His music provokes us to think about how “music might be linked to the order of God-given world as well as the order of the human word”(138). Bach incorporates the elements of the sacred and the secular, the instrumental as well as the vocal in this piece. Bach focused his attention less on the nature of sound and more on what music can do to us and in us (131). Begbie’s observations give me a new context in order to listen to Bach now.
Listening and singing (loudly!!) to music will always be a big part of my life. Reading Begbie’s book was a good exercise in evaluating what music is, how it works, what it might be doing to me and what I might do with it! Now, to complete my blog post and enjoy a cello suite!
Begbie, Jeremy S. (2007) Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music. Grand Rapids MI: Baker Publishing.
Copyright 2020 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)