Music, Faith, and Skepticism

Using the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams as a starting point, Terry Teachout asks, “How can skeptics make convincing works of art?” His answer? Of Vaughan Williams’ work he writes:

an artist need not be an orthodox believer—or, indeed, any kind of believer—to be inspired by the eloquence of scripture and the transforming power of faith. You can, I suppose, dismiss that message as purest Victorian hypocrisy, but to listen to the G-Minor Mass and the Fifth Symphony is to know that the greathearted genius who made them was the truest of believers in the power of art to uplift and ennoble the souls of his fellow men. We should all be such hypocrites.

Vaughan Williams is an interesting case, because of the popularity of his hymns among Anglicans (and, indeed, English-speaking Christianity). How many people have come to faith, or had their faith strengthened, by “For all the Saints” (Sine Nomine) or “Come Down, O Love Divine” (Down Ampney)?

Jeff Warren is exploring the relationship between music and religious faith from a slightly different perspective in a series of essays on BioLogos, specifically, with reference to human evolution. In the first essay, he writes:

considering music as culturally embedded lets us recognize something quite different from the arguments that musical meaning is either subjective or encoded within the music itself. Music does allow for subjective response, but not truly autonomous response—our experience of music occurs within the bounds of cultural norms.

The tendency in Western thinking about music to conceive composition as creation from nothing (creatio ex nihilo), not only seems to put the composer on the same level as God the Creator, but it also seems to deny the importance of community and relationship.

In the second essay, he looks more closely at what neuroscience is learning about music. According to Warren, neuroscience also points to the importance of cultural appropriation. Working with the ideas of Eric Clarke:

Clarke – an Oxford scholar trained as a psychologist and musicologist – offers an ecological theory of listening that examines organisms listening in their environment. He argues that “we all have the potential to hear different things in the same music – but the fact that we don’t (or at least not all the time) is an indication of the degree to which we share a common environment, and experience common perceptual learning or adaptation”.5 This runs contrary to at least the popularized versions of the neuroscience of music — which attempt to unlock a singular biofunctional “key” to understanding music — and moves us back toward the essential idea that music, for all its neurological components, is also a cultural phenomenon that must be examined in terms of human relationships.

In the third essay, Warren draws on the work of Ian Cross, who

Cross asks if music might have been the most important thing we ever did.2 The key to his argument is that music’s “floating intentionality” allows for a kind of mutual participation among different individuals that he calls “entrainment,” opening the possibility of shared emotional states that may have been critical to the evolution of culture.

From this brief survey, he concludes:

I have approached various topics relating to music and science to show that encountering other people is foundational to musical experience. If music is fundamentally inter-relational, then all musical experience has ethical implications, and that needs to be considered in any scientific investigation. But how might this understanding contribute to the charged discussions on the role of music in worship services?

Or to put it another way, “musical encounters can and should be enactments of loving your neighbour.”

This puts the “worship wars” in a completely different perspective.

My heart is swimming in blood

Corrie and I made our first visit to the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival yesterday afternoon. What a delight! It’s a lovely setting; we were surprised to find the festival barn air-conditioned and we enjoyed the free wine and nibbles at intermission. But the music was the reason we went and we were wowed.

The Harbisons, along with some local musicians joined members of Emmanuel Bach Musicians from Boston for an all Bach concert. The main piece was the cantata “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut” BWV #199. The text and translation is here.

The key passages are these:

6. Chorale S
Ich, dein betrübtes Kind,
Werf alle meine Sünd,
So viel ihr in mir stecken
Und mich so heftig schrecken,
In deine tiefen Wunden,
Da ich stets Heil gefunden.
(“Wo soll ich fliehen hin,” verse 3)
6. Chorale S
I, Your troubled child,
cast all my sins,
as many as hide within me
and frighten me so greatly,
into Your deep wounds,
where I have always found salvation.
7. Rezitativ S
Ich lege mich in diese Wunden
Als in den rechten Felsenstein;
Die sollen meine Ruhstatt sein.
In diese will ich mich im Glauben schwingen
Und drauf vergnügt und fröhlich singen:
7. Recitative S
I lay myself on these wounds
as though upon a true rock;
they shall be my resting place.
Upon them will I soar in faith
and therefore contented and happily sing:
8. Arie S
Wie freudig ist mein Herz,
Da Gott versöhnet ist
Und mir auf Reu und Leid
Nicht mehr die Seligkeit
Noch auch sein Herz verschließt.
8. Aria S
How joyful is my heart,
for God is appeased
and for my regret and sorrow
no longer from bliss
nor from His heart excludes me.

The chorale is the 3rd verse of a hymn by Johannes Hermann and it clearly provides the anchor point for the whole cantata.

The language of “throwing all of one’s sins in the deep wounds” of Jesus Christ seems stranger coming in a seventeenth-century Lutheran hymn than it would from an eighteenth-century cantata influenced by Pietism. But the imagery harkens back much further to late-Medieval piety that had as a devotional focus the wounds of Jesus Christ, especially the side wound. The translation copied above seems incorrect in the recitative, which translates the German preposition “in” as “on.” John Harbison’s notes on the piece are here. Here, as so often, Bach is able to transform a text that is rather over the top religiously into something sublime.

In any case, it was a lovely performance by soprano Kendra Colton.

I’m looking forward to next year’s series.


A new, mass-marketed “Christian” movie

At least it’s not “The Passion of the Christ.”


  • From America.
  • From Christianity Today: Money Quote:
    Some of the blame must be put on the screenplay, which does manage to nicely honor Bethany’s own real-life hard-won resolutions, but hits some clunky stretches getting there. Oddly, the writing seems to have fallen not only to director Sean McNamara, but to a large team of collaborators whose chief collective credits are Hawaiian Baywatch episodes. This story deserved a better brain trust.
  • From Patheos.

But to secular reviewers, the movie doesn’t seem to stand up; nor do “Christian” movies in general. Andrew O’Hehir asks, “Why are Christian movies so awful?”

There’s a larger question here. O’Hehir is right to point out that:

But when we use the buzzword “Christian” in contemporary American society, we’re talking about a distinctively modern cultural and demographic phenomenon that has almost no connection to the spiritual and intellectual tradition that fueled Dante and Milton and Leonardo and Bach.

It’s also a question asked by James Davidson Hunter in To Change the World, where he argues that contemporary Christians have largely abandoned the arts.

This phenomenon struck me as I was reading an article by Alex Ross on Bach in The New Yorker. Writing about John Eliot Gardiner’s massive project to record all 200 of Bach’s sacred cantatas, he concludes:

There is no way to tell from the sound itself that “Christ lag in Todesbanden” is being played in the Georgenkirche, in Eisenach, next to the font where Bach was baptized, in 1685. Once you know it, though, you cannot forget it. A sense of occasion, of ritual time, is sustained throughout. Gardiner adds layers of significance in his spirited liner notes, which are based on a tour diary: he speaks of visiting Buchenwald, outside Weimar; of a Leipzig pastor’s resistance to East German oppression; of French soccer fans blasting their car horns moments after one performance ended; of a spooky old cleric congratulating the musicians on having administered a good beating to the Devil. Most of all, this mammoth project—an act of devotion worthy of Bach himself—lays bare what is most human in the composer’s enterprise. Listening to “Christ lag,” I pictured Bach’s parents looking on at the baptism of the infant and wondering whether he would live. They had no idea.

At one point, he says, he listened to 50 of the cantatas during a lengthy ride through Australia and says,  “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.”

The arts created by Christians should have the power to evoke that response in anyone.

Bach Revelations

The Madison Bach Musicians, under the direction of Trevor Stevenson, gave two concerts at Grace this past weekend. The program consisted of three cantatas. It was a wonderful concert and I am sorry I was unable to attend the pre-concert lecture.

I was especially moved by BWV 106: “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbester Zeit.” The text (German and English) is here. It’s a remarkable piece of music and profound theologically. From the earliest period of Bach’s work, it was probably composed for a funeral. As such, it is a meditation on the universality of death and the Christian hope of the resurrection. Weaving together scripture with chorale verses, Bach elicits a wide range of emotions in the listener and inspires reflection.

It begins with a statement of faith in the transcendence of God:

God’s time is the best of all times.
In Him we live, move and are, as long as He wills.
In Him we die at the appointed time, when He wills.

Then come a series of quotations from the Hebrew Bible that emphasize the finality and inevitability of death. Message and tone change abruptly as the soprano sings “Yes, Come, Lord Jesus.”

After that, another series of quotations, this time from the New Testament. In the Sunday performance, an Alto sang two quotations from Jesus’ last words on the cross, “Into your hands I commend my spirit;” and “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” In the first, Jesus is addressing his Father, at the moment of death returning from whence he had come. In the second, Jesus is addressing one of the two bandits with whom he was crucified and responding to the request “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”

In the mouth of the alto, both become statements of faith; the first is a confession that God is merciful, the second expresses the belief that death is not the end.

The cantata concludes with two chorale stanzas. The first is from Luther

With peace and joy I depart
in God’s will,
My heart and mind are comforted,
calm, and quiet.
As God had promised me:
death has become my sleep.

Apparently, it’s a paraphrase of the Nunc Dimittis, the words Simeon sang when he encountered the newborn Jesus Christ. The second is a hymn praise to the glory and majesty of God.

What a revelation! In a few minutes, Bach takes the listener through the gamut of emotions and at the same time expresses a deep understanding of the Christian faith. The performance was magnificent. Wow! It was great to be able to host this event at Grace. Good crowds at both performances, and the acoustics were perfect for the ensemble.

Who are these like stars appearing?

We sang this hymn yesterday on All Saints’ Sunday. I suppose I’ve sung it many times before, but as with so many hymns, I didn’t pay particular attention to the text. Then, a parishioner drew my attention to verse 4:

These are they whose hearts were riven,
sore with woe and anguish tried,
who in prayer full oft have striven
with the God they glorified;
now, their painful conflict o’er,
God has bid them weep no more.

The first two verses of the hymn are a description of the saints arrayed before God’s throne, asking the question: who are they? Verse three begins to answer the question. So verse four is an answer to the question of who are the saints?

What’s wonderful about verse four is that it describes people who do not simply submit to God’s will:

“who in prayer full oft have striven with the God they glorified.”

In other words, their prayer has often been an intense struggle with God. It’s a powerful description of one aspect of a devout Christian life.

The text is a translation by Frances Elizabeth Cox of a hymn written by Theobald Heinrich Schenck (1656-1727). I tried to learn more about the author. He was German, educated at Giessen University (in Hesse) taught in the high school (Gymnasium) there and then became a pastor. It’s the only hymn he wrote that was published. His other publications are several funeral sermons (a popular genre of edifying literature in the early modern period). Giessen was a hotbed of Pietism in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, but whether Schenck belonged to that reform movement is not mentioned in the material I found.

I was also unable to find the original German text of the hymn. No doubt I’ve got it in a hymnal somewhere, but apparently the Germans aren’t as quick to put stuff like that on the internet. I’d be curious to see what it reads like in the original. There are a total of fifteen verses in the original.

Madison Early Music Festival

I’ve been enjoying Madison’s musical riches this summer. First there was the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. This week, it’s the Madison Early Music Festival. We attended the concert on Tuesday evening by Liber. The program was entitled Flyleaves and focused on music found in random manuscript pages. Much of the music was transcendent and there were several surprises. There were the usual Marian hymns but also a hymn to the Trinity, and others in praise of Ss. Catherine and Barbara.

The concert ended with an Ite Missa Est from the chapel of King Edward III, c. 1350-1360. It was remarkable and left me wondering if other sections of that mass setting survived.

Last night we heard Benjamin Bagby perform Beowulf. What a delight! It’s been over a decade since I taught the text in Humanities. To be honest, I always found it difficult to get a handle on. Bagby’s performance accompanied by a replica early-medieval harp, was transfixing. Translations just don’t convey the beauty of the language and to hear it, with supertitles above, is to experience something of the otherness of the world of Beowulf. Part of its inaccessibility to me was that it seemed to take place in a world very different than the early medieval world with which I was familiar. Of course that’s because the early medieval world I know is literate, Christian, and Latinate.

The other interesting thing for me last night was discovering how religious and how biblical the text is. Commentators are quick to point out that the poem does not articulate a particularly “Christian” perspective, that it seems careful to reference stories from the early chapters of Genesis, and its God seems shaped by those chapters. The Biblical imagery at times seems to lie lightly on the text as a whole. But there are also clear moments where the author is critical of his characters for their paganism and alludes to the thorny question for later generations of Christians whether their ancestors were damned.

Now my tongue the mystery telling

Now, my tongue, the mystery telling,
Of the glorious body sing,
And the blood, all price excelling,
Which all mankind’s Lord and King,
In a virgin’s womb once dwelling,
Shed for this world’s ransoming.

Given for us and condescending
To be born for us below,
He, with men in converse blending,
Dwelt the seed of truth to sow,
Till He closed with wondrous ending
His most patient life below.

That last night, at supper lying
’Mid the twelve, His chosen band,
Jesus, with the law complying,
Keeps the feast its rites demand;
Then, more precious food supplying,
Gives Himself with His own hand.

Word made flesh, true bread He maketh
By His word His flesh to be;
Wine His Blood: which whoso taketh
Must from carnal thoughts be free;
Faith alone, though sight forsaketh
Shows true hearts the mystery.

Therefore we, before Him bending,
This great sacrament revere;
Types and shadows have their ending,
For the newer rite is here;
Faith, our outward sense befriending,
Makes our inward vision clear.

Glory let us give, and blessing,
To the Father and the Son;
Honor, might and praise addressing
While eternal ages run,
Ever, too, His love confessing,
Who from Both with Both is One.

Music to accompany writing a sermon on the Fifth Sunday of Lent

Two pieces of music have been running through my head today. First, the beautiful hymn by Isaac Watts, “When I survey the wondrous cross.” It will figure in my sermon tomorrow, but not in the obvious way. Watts quotes Paul’s statement in Philippians, tomorrow’s epistle reading, “My richest gain I count but loss.” Perhaps it’s the sheer familiarity of Watts that brings him to mind so often: “O God our help in ages past” is perhaps his best known. Watts is probably the most important hymn-writer in the English language, if only because he was the first person to write a significant number of them.

The second piece is one of the movements of the Brahms Requiem, which uses a text from Psalm 126:6-7. I won’t work with it in my sermon, although the beginning of the Psalm appears.

At a previous transition point in my life, I said that one of my goals in life was to sing the Brahms Requiem. Well, I did it, in Spartanburg, some years ago, and it was a deeply moving experience for me.

“Welcome, Wanderer, Welcome”

If you’ve followed my blog, or my sermons, you may have gathered that hymns are an important part of my spirituality. I’ve been surrounded by them all my life and they have helped to shape the way I experience the love of God in Jesus Christ, and fellowship in the body of Christ.

As I’ve been working on my sermon today, the gospel being the parable of the prodigal son, fragments of an old gospel song have kept coming back to me. The refrain is

Welcome, wand’rer, welcome!
Welcome back to home!
Thou hast wandered far away:
Come home! Come home!

I’m not sure how often we sang it when I was growing up, but for some reason it touched me deeply. Looking at the text after thirty years, it’s a little bit maudlin, and definitely evangelical, and focuses one’s attention on the parable in question toward areas I don’t find particularly interesting. Still, there’s something about it.

The tune I know  it sung to was written by Ira Sankey, who wrote hundreds of hymn tunes, working closely with Dwight Moody. That much I remembered. I was surprised to find out that the text was written by Horatio Bonar. Bonar was a prolific hymn writer and several of his works are in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, including “Here, O My Lord, I see Thee face to face”–one of the great Eucharistic hymns.

More about Horatio Bonar, including many of his hymns, is here: and more about Sankey here:

What a Day!

I hope you had as much fun at St. James today as I did. The energy at the 10:00 service was palpable and the fun afterwards was great. I went back to the church this afternoon to check on the progress and it is amazing. You can tell what the organ is going to look like. They’ve got the frame put together. It is going to be beautiful, and yes, it is going to fill the hole in the front. Lots of people were taking pictures.

Update! Indeed, there are lots of pictures posted both from Sunday and from today, Labor Day. If you look at the photos, you will probably see people you don’t recognize. Some of them are visitors, at St. James yesterday because a pipe organ was being delivered. But many are also visitors, or people who have just begun attending our church. If there’s a face you don’t recognize, you might want to remember it, and if you see them in church next Sunday, introduce yourself and tell them they are already on our website!

There was a great deal of excitement yesterday, and it was a wonderful day. But besides the arrival of the pipe organ, what impressed me the most was that a wide variety of parishioners were working together on a project. We didn’t just unload a pipe organ, we also worked at building community.