Robin Phillips at Salvo Mag writes about the profound influence of the composer who has been called the Fifth Evangelist:
“In April 2009, British atheist A.N. Wilson shocked the world by announcing that he was returning to the Christian faith. When asked later in an interview what was the worst thing about being faithless, the writer and newspaper columnist replied:
When I thought I was an atheist I would listen to the music of Bach and realize that his perception of life was deeper, wiser, more rounded than my own. . . . The Resurrection, which proclaims that matter and spirit are mysteriously conjoined, is the ultimate key to who we are. It confronts us with an extraordinarily haunting story. J. S. Bach believed the story, and set it to music.
In his Introduction to the book Does God Exist? Peter Kreeft noted that he personally knows three ex-atheists who were swayed by the argument, “There is the music of Bach, therefore there must be a God.” Of these, Kreeft informed his readers, two are now philosophy professors and one is a monk.
Even the God-hater Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), upon hearing a performance of the St. Matthew Passion, was compelled to admit that “one who has completely forgotten Christianity truly hears it here as gospel.”
In Japan today, tens of thousands of a people who were once fiercely anti-Christian have been converted to Christianity by listening to the music of J. S. Bach, writes George Weigel:
“A famous scientist of secular persuasion once proposed that, if humanity wanted to put its best foot forward in trying to communicate with extraterrestrial life, we ought to broadcast all of Bach to the far corners of the universe. A bit closer to home, the man whom Swedish Lutheran archbishop Nathan Soederblom once called the “fifth evangelist” is having a remarkable impact on the new evangelization in a surprising place: Johann Sebastian Bach has begun to convert members of the traditionally anti-Christian Japanese elite to Christ.
Classical music fans sensed that something intriguing was afoot when a series of exceptionally high-quality CDs by an ensemble called the “Bach Collegium Japan” began to appear in the stores a few years ago. Under the direction of its founder, Maasaki Suzuki, the Bach Collegium is recording every one of the master’s cantatas. But why on earth would a Japanese choir be doing Bach’s religious works?
Writing in First Things, Uwe Siemon-Netto explores the religious sociology of the intense Japanese demand for Bach. Maasaki Suzuki thinks it’s due to his country’s demonstrable spiritual crisis. Its traditional religions, Shinto and Buddhism, have lost their credibility. Palm readers and pornography are flourishing, and suicides are on the rise. Sixty percent of the country tells pollsters that they feel “afraid” every day.
“What people need in this situation is hope in the Christian sense of the word,” says Maasaki Suzuki, “but hope is an alien idea” in Japan. The Japanese language doesn’t have a word for hope in the biblical sense: there is one word for desire and another for the unattainable, but no equivalent of “hope,” the theological virtue. According to Maestro Suzuki, non-Christians crowd his podium after Bach Collegium performances to talk about any number of taboo subjects in Japanese society, like death. “And then,” says Suzuki, “they inevitably ask me to explain to them what ‘hope’ means to Christians.”
Suzuki, a Christian convert and member of the Reformed Church, evangelizes his Collegium members, teaching them Scripture during rehearsals. He can’t say precisely how many of his musicians or how many in their growing audience have become Christians. But he is convinced that tens of thousands of Japanese have been baptized because of Bach.”
This may not be as surprising as it sounds, for the man whom many consider to be the greatest artistic genius who ever lived was well-versed in theology and Bible studies.
“When he was 48, Johann Sebastian Bach (who died 250 years ago today) acquired a copy of Luther’s three-volume translation of the Bible.
(Lila: This so-called “Bach Bible” was actually a massive six-volume, three-folio 17th-century version with translation and commentary by Luther, as well as by the orthodox Lutheran theologian, Abraham Calov or Calovius).
He(Bach) pored over it as if it were a long-lost treasure. He underlined passages, corrected errors in the text and commentary, inserted missing words, and made notes in the margins.
Near 1 Chronicles 25 (a listing of Davidic musicians) he wrote, “This chapter is the true foundation of all God-pleasing music.” At 2 Chronicles 5:13 (which speaks of temple musicians praising God), he noted, “At a reverent performance of music, God is always at hand with his gracious presence.”
As one scholar put it, Bach the musician was indeed “a Christian who lived with the Bible.” Besides being the baroque era’s greatest organist and composer, and one of the most productive geniuses in the history of Western music, Bach was also a theologian who just happened to work with a keyboard.”
But theology only informed a life that embodied the Gospel practically.
Despite a fierce temper that led him into conflict with his superiors and resignation from his job (once, when an unworthy individual was elevated above him), Bach was a devout man who fulfilled his family and social obligations in difficult circumstances and served his fellow-man with a humility rare, indeed unique, among men of his gigantic abilities and volatile temperament.
Bach said, “Music’s only purpose should be the glory of God and the recreation of the human spirit”…….
Bach’s own life was in complete accord with his beliefs.
Though he possessed a musical genius found perhaps once in a century, he chose to live an obscure life as a church musician. Only once in his 65 years did he actually take a job where his brilliance might bring him to the world’s notice. For a while, he worked as Kapellmeister of the court of Prince Leopold. But such surroundings were a distraction to him. He soon left to accept a lowly position as cantor at a church in Leipzig, where he would again be cloistered in his unacclaimed but beloved world of church music.”
This unimpeachable testimony of the spiritual power of Bach’s music is made even more impressive when one realizes that Bach’s “evangelism” took place during the dawn of the Enlightenment, when deists like Voltaire were denouncing the church and its dogmas as “infamy” and when Christian belief was struggling not just against the corruptions of the Roman papacy and newly formed Jesuit Counter-Reformation but against the zealous errors of the Reformation itself – with Pietism, on one hand, with its excessive emphasis on both emotion and austerity (downplaying the use of music in the service) and Rationalism on the other, with its “higher criticism” of the Bible and its excessive emphasis on the unaided intellect.
1. The Bible as the inspired and inerrant Word of God;
2. The Redemption of Christ – Salvation from the Death Penalty of the Law – as the central message of the Bible;
3. And the primacy of the Word (and the hearing of the Word) over every moral or intellectual effort (“works”).
Man was not brought to salvation by his good deeds, spiritual struggles, or inner emotions (as the Pietists believed).
Those were “Works,” not Faith.
Neither were men brought to salvation by reason, understanding, and intellectual argument (as the Rationalists believed).
Instead they came by faith, through hearing the Word of God.
It was Christ’s work, not a man’s, if he came to faith .
The centrality of the Word to faith made true doctrine the core of Lutheran orthodoxy.
Thus, Romans 10-17:
“Thus faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”
But this “hearing” is not the outward hearing of the ear. It is the inward hearing of the heart.