Freedom and Faith

Robert Shaw, a perceptive sleuth of quality and one of the 20th century's finest conductors, said that J. S. Bach might be the “single greatest creative genius” in the “whole history of the Western world.” Mozart said of Bach's works, “Now there is music from which a [person] can learn something.” Brahms commented, “Study Bach: there you find everything.”

It isn't only experts who know that Bach stands high on the list of creative geniuses. Recordings of his music abound, books about him continue to be written, there are Bach festivals in places like Pennsylvania and Oregon, and he is popular not just in Germany but in Japan as well. His music is heard more often in the concert hall than in the church, though ironically most of it consists of cantatas written for worship. In the face of this concert-hall success, why should we 21st-century Christians listen to the music of a German Baroque composer who died in 1750? And given the church's impulse toward relevance and marketing, can we use his music at all in 2007? If so, how?


One of the graduates of the Master of Sacred Music degree program I direct says she is a Christian because of Bach. She is not the only person who has told me this. Bach's reputation as the “fifth evangelist” (after Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) still reverberates today.

Bach's cantatas proclaim the good news of God's mercy in Christ. They do not seek to manipulate or sell anything. They simply announce what God has done and does. By doing so, they extol God with “boundless freedom” that is paradoxically bound to form because of the Incarnation, to quote Jaroslav Pelikan. Bach's music lives out the church's presupposition that music is for the glory of God and the edification of one's neighbor.

Part of Bach's attraction, like the gospel itself, is the grace and shalom of such a perspective. Much of what passes for church music today assumes with the surrounding culture that music is a tool for selling things. The boundless freedom of Bach's music proclaims the freedom Christ brings and gives the lie to all deathly notions of manipulative control by music or any other means.

With this freedom come the major themes of the Christian faith. We don't have all the cantatas Bach composed for the church's Sunday services and festivals, but we have more than enough to hear him embody these themes musically as well as or better than any other composer in history.


Music takes time. It expresses an order between humanity and time by means of tonal relationships. Fine composers craft these relationships with delicious expectancy and surprise. Bach is a master of this craft. He calls us to hear with ever-new ears God's gift of music. This gift overwhelmed Martin Luther. He wanted composers to shape and develop its raw sonic material. Bach responded to the call. His music can be heard with complete integrity and joyful satisfaction purely as music.

Luther also knew that music was next to the Word of God. That means it comes “from the sphere of miraculous audible things—like the Gospel,” as Oskar Soehngen wrote. And that in turn reveals a remarkable reality: Words about the Word can be sung. Luther delighted in this relationship and in the “strange and wonderful” way that one voice can sing a melody while other voices dance around it “in a celestial roundelay.” Bach understood and worked out Luther's implications. He used a rich interplay of voices and instruments to underscore and magnify the meaning of texts. His music always gives us a fresh way to listen to the new song of God in Christ.

Bach wrote a huge range of music, from simple instructional pieces to complex ones that fall in the category of musical math. His cantatas stand between these extremes for normal human beings who lived in 18th-century Leipzig or who live in the 21st century anywhere. One way to introduce yourself to this music is to listen to a recording that allows you to hear the music for a service on Epiphany as it might have been heard in St. Thomas Church in Leipzig around 1740 (Bach, Epiphany Mass, Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort & Players, Deutsche Grammophon, 457 631-2). Read the booklet of notes that goes with the recording if you want to, or simply listen. If you don't want to begin at the beginning with the ringing of church bells, start with the Gloria in excelsis. It's cut six on the first disk and one of history's best musical expressions of glory to God.


Can Bach's cantatas be used in the church's worship today? Not all churches have the resources for them, certainly, but there are more possibilities than one may think. First, worship leaders need to choose carefully from Bach's compositions. The resources and teachers are available to help us choose and perform these pieces, and responsible music directors can search them out.

Second, a church needs good musicians and singers, but they don't have to be professionals. Amateurs can learn to sing and play Bach if they are willing to practice. There are more singers and players in churches and their surrounding communities who care about Bach than we are aware of. They can be augmented if necessary by paying some instrumentalists. Even in small churches with limited resources, people are invariably grateful for the opportunity to sing, play, and hear this music. A high school band director's story is typical. He gave his band a transcription of a Bach fugue. The players at first resisted the hard work required to learn the music. After they learned the piece, however, they were not as interested in the music they played for the rest of the year because these other pieces lacked the musical substance they had found in Bach.

One obvious challenge to using Bach's choral music in church is the language barrier. Should the choir sing the music in the original German while the audience reads a written translation? Or should the choir sing an English translation that is at best only an approximation? There is no single or simple solution, and context is critical. The important thing is that, if the music is to be a proclamation of the gospel as Bach intended, the congregation needs to be able to understand what is being sung.

Another consideration is the cantata's place within the worship service. Any church that relies on the Word and Communion sequence of the church's historic Sunday worship pattern, and any church that embraces choirs, would seem to find Bach's cantatas ready-made. As part of the proclamation of the Word, they should work very well. The problem, however, is that Bach wrote 15- to 30-minute cantatas for weekly services that were three to four hours long. Our modern services last about an hour.

We would benefit by allowing our worship to take whatever time it needs, but respect for our neighbor includes respecting cultural restraints on time. If a cantata is chosen for Sunday morning, the sermon has to be very brief and incisive, leaving the cantata to bear the primary weight of proclamation. Extraneous elements such as announcements have to be cut or shortened. Bach calls us to focus on what is central, the Word of God with the music that proclaims it. For most churches, using a cantata could not and should not be a regular Sunday morning occurrence, but it could happen on festive occasions. It can also happen in the evening from time to time, or in a series—preferably as worship services rather than as concerts. Parts of cantatas, not only complete ones, can also be used at worship. In all cases, take care not to turn things into a show, and believe with Bach that the congregation's singing underlies the choir's.

Going beyond the familiar

Music from the past can seem archaic. Christian worship is not a museum. It uses archaic and esoteric words from the Bible and from the church's history, to be sure, but with the promise that God will break them open so that we will hear them as the Word of God for us today. Worship leaders often use contemporary musical styles in the belief that the gospel can be more easily communicated to worshipers through music that is familiar.

But the gospel is not only about the familiar. It also brings a message that is profoundly unfamiliar, countercultural, and different from anything we can imagine. No style of music, historic or contemporary, can completely encompass this countercultural reality. Music from the past, however, helps to protect us from ourselves, keeps us from being overly insular, and gives us insights our period cannot supply. A healthy church employs the music of its own time as well as music from the past. J. S. Bach composed some of the best music of all time, much of it for the worship of the church. Why avoid such a treasure?

By Paul Westermeyer

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #95 in 2007]

Paul Westermeyer is professor of church music at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.
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