Music and Bach: Rethinking Spirit Led Worship

hands-music-musician-piano

I’ve been wondering about the musical mechanisms we have employed in Christian Evangelical circles. I’m thinking of the two very different modes of musical worship – one which hold’s thoughtful and systematic planning in high regard, and the other which hold’s spontaneity in high regard.

I’m trying to think this through objectively, though of course, as a critical realist, I never reach strict objectivity because I, we, can’t escape our context and the biases and presuppositions that come with them. So then, for me to be “critically realistic,” I must take into account my subjectivities and interpretive lenses that have formed my thinking.

I will say that as a musician involved in leading worship and playing drums, I’ve experienced both: spontaneous and planned.
I’ve heard it said, that strictly planned worship simply does not allow the work of the Spirit; unless there is room for spontaneity. I understand the concern. My question is: what assumptions are intrinsic to this thinking? Why is it that Christians in my tradition (not all of them of course, but many), have equated spontaneity with some higher work of the Spirit?

Yesterday, in Christian Though and Culture class @ Regent, we looked at The Enlightenment and its effects on Christendom. The lecture was titled: ‘Lord of Reason: The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative in the Modern Era’. What resulted from this self-explanatory title, was a fundamentalist escape from culture. The Fundamentalist movement, which Mark Noll describes as being “intellectually sterile,” had absolutely nothing valuable to say about or contribute to culture:

“As a result of following a theology that did not provide Christian guidance for the wider intellectual life, there has been, properly speaking, no fundamentalist philosophy, no fundamentalist history of science, no fundamentalist aesthetics, no fundamentalist novels or poetry, no fundamentalist jurisprudence, no fundamentalist literary criticism, and no fundamentalist sociology” (The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 137).

Thankfully, prior to the rise of Fundamentalism, there were leaders within the Evangelical movement that were quite different. Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and George Whitefield are those often mentioned, but the one who has stuck out to me, was Johann Sebastian Bach.

I am no expert on this man (or anything really… except maybe eating), but I do believe that those who have equated spontaneous, unplanned songs of worship with a greater move of the Spirit can learn a thing or two from Bach.

He is known for many things, he is known for his incredible ability to have very “rational” and mathematical music. More importantly, he was able to fuse this rationalism with his theology. This may seem normal for us today, but back then, rationalism and mathematics were seen as causes of “the eclipse of the biblical narrative” within society. His music, what I would like to point out, was far from spontaneous. But if something is Spirit empowered music, it’s his. He teaches us that, as James Macmillan has written, “abstract complexity and spiritual joy are not mutually exclusive.” He is sometimes called the “fifth evangelist,” and that for a reason.

Surely, most readers will not understand the latin in his music, but one must ask, what have we done with music?

I’m not trying to speak against spontaneous music, since many believe that in it, there are greater forms of art (which is probably also questionable).

To get back to the question, what assumptions are intrinsic to this thinking – the thinking that spontaneous music is more spiritual? Maybe we can’t answer that definitively, but we can at least re-think what really is “Spirit-led” music.

This brings up other questions: God has given us many gifts; Scripture, reason, art, experience, tradition. How are we using them? Is the idea that a spontaneous “letting go and letting God” mentality in music really a means of the Spirit of God being ‘allowed to flow’? Could that be just laziness? Could it be that with all the gifts that God has given us, and if we consider that since our fundamental calling is to be Human, and that as Human, we are called to Cultivate (essentially, to Create Culture), should we not be making the best of what we have with our God-given skills ? Would not these things bring greater glory to God? I think these are important questions that need evaluation.

Here’s one piece Called “Agnus Dei in G minor” – Paul Hofreiter sums this piece up:

“The most intense solo in the entire work is the Agnus Dei in G-minor. This angular music makes strong use of imitation between the alto voice and the violins, creating a bridge between humanity and divinity as Christ offers his body and blood for the salvation of humankind. The jagged and chromatic nature of the music in the aria demonstrates the profound reality that Christ has, indeed, participated in our humanity in all its anguish and death. There is no mistake for Bach in the understanding of the purpose and reason for Christ’s death.”

Also, for more info on this subject check out http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/tas3/musicon.html