Saturday, March 7, 2009

Lenten Voices: Music is the Logic of God

By John Sutherland

I grew up the son of a Lutheran pastor. Lutherans, as you may know, consider themselves among the theological heavyweights in Christendom. They don't just have dogma; they have argument, logic, explications. The admirable Doctor Luther wrote many, many volumes of every idea he had on God, the human race, and everything they had to do with one another. And these volumes spawned more volumes in the centuries that have passed since his life.

I grew up surrounded by these volumes, by these arguments, by this logic. But for me, the greatest Lutheran theologian, the one who gave me the deepest understanding of matters divine, was Johann Sebastian Bach.

I am not alone in this. Bach is sometimes referred to as "the fifth evangelist," after the authors of the fourth accepted gospels.

Luther, a fine musician himself, might have approved. And while I stand in awe of the bold audacity of his 95 theses, it's his "Ein feste burg" that hits me right in the heart.

Music is the logic of God.

I wake up to the elegant clarity of Bach's "Goldberg Variations" every morning, part of my attempt to create my new day.

I had the pleasure of playing the double bass in a production of Saint Matthew's Passion when I was in college, that bass part being the throbbing heartbeat of God that was the foundation of the entire work. That throbbing stays with me to this day.

I remember my Lutheran choir singing the cantata "Come, Sweet Death," and thinking, yes, even death makes sense to me now.

Music is the logic of God.

I've been listening to the other Bach Passion oratorio, Saint John's, this Lent. I feel it, carry it with me, even when I can't hear it. On my way out of the Ash Wednesday mass, Mother Melissa wished me a peaceful and holy Lent. Perhaps because I was having exactly what she wished for me, I just smiled soberly and nodded back to her, finding myself wordless.

But it's okay. At Saint Paul's, we live on music as part of the rich tapestry of worship. Music isn't merely pretty. It's the throbbing foundation of what we do when we reach out to God and to each other. It's how God explains God's self.

We all know how each liturgy seeks its own unity: it's common for the sermon, and then the communion motet, to reflect the day's Gospel text. And so often I have the experience of hearing the Gospel read (wonderfully), and the explicated in the homily (even better), and then sung. And it's in the singing that I really get it, down to my bones. Because music is the logic of God.

John Sutherland has been a member of St. Paul's for twenty years. He is sometimes a member of the choir, has done time on the Vestry, and generally tries to bake enough communion bread to keep his hands from idleness.

1 comment:

J. G. Hill said...

I had another revelation today about Bach. You know how it is with his music. But listening to a new recording of Richard Egarr playing the Goldbergs, I had a strong sense of the variations as family members, not superficially looking much like each other but each related by that deep "Goldbergian" DNA, that unstated bass line that weaves through each 32 bars. They each have their amazing gifts, their canons and inversions. They're like his own family with Bachs stretching back and forward in time, each adding their own voice to the chorus. The variations are like us, too. Related in a deep way, with hidden gifts and genius, and a kind of perfection that only reveals itself over time.
Thanks, John, for your witness.