Divine Glory and Human Suffering
Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion was first heard during the Good Friday Vespers service at the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig on April 7, 1724. It was thus composed to be experienced in a liturgical setting, within a Christian congregation at worship. Today, it is much more likely heard in concert or on recordings.
In deference to the origins of the work, the 2013 recording featuring the Dunedin Consort, conducted by John Butt, presented a reconstruction of the liturgical experience of the original performance, complete with congregational singing, liturgical chant, and the reading of a sermon (in German) originally given by Erdmann Neumeister and published in 1720. In 2017, John Butt conducted a performance of the St. John Passion at a BBC Proms concerts, in which the audience at the Royal Albert Hall sang with the choir the same Lutheran chorales that were sung during the original 1724 service. (The YouTube recording of this concert provides English subtitles for the text being sung throughout the work, a helpful addition for listeners without adequate German.)
Just last week (March 23, 2018), the Netherlands Bach Society released a video recording of their performance of the St. John Passion. It is one of many fine performances on their remarkable website, allofbach.com. In addition to the performance, the website offers interviews with the conductor, Jos van Veldhoven, a soloist, and a member of the orchestra discussing musical and theological aspects of the work.
It is better to listen to Bach’s St. John Passion than to read about it. But the books and articles listed below might help enrich the experience of listening for you.
Jaroslav Pelikan, Bach among the Theologians (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986)
A learned theologian and Church historian situates Bach’s sacred choral music in several contexts, including the rhythm of the Church year, the musical heritage of the Reformation, and the cultural revolution of the Enlightenment. Of special interest is his essay on the Christological and soteriological emphases in the St. John Passion.
Markus Rathey, Bach’s Major Vocal Works: Music, Drama, Liturgy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016)
A guest on volume 135 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, Dr. Rathey includes a chapter in his book on the St. John Passion, along with discussions of the St. Matthew Passion, the Magnificat, the Christmas, Easter, and Ascension oratorios, and the B-minor Mass.
Calvin Stapert, “Christus Victor: Bach’s St. John Passion," The Reformed Journal, March 1989.
Similar in emphasis to Pelikan’s essay in Bach among the Theologians, Dr. Stapert discusses in detail how the St. John Passion emphasizes the themes in John’s Gospel of the power and glory of Jesus the King.
Michael Steinberg, “The Passion of Saint John, BWV 245,” posted on the Bach Cantatas Website.
This brief essay is adapted from Steinberg’s Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). In it, Steinberg offers a brief historical background to Bach’s composition of the St. John Passion, as well as some helpful points in understanding how the structure of the work establishes its meaning.
The following texts are more specialized and scholarly:
John Butt, Bach’s Dialogue with Modernity: Perspectives on the Passions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)
A discussion by a prominent Bach scholar and conductor of how the two extant settings of the Passion story by Bach illustrate an interplay between traditional and modern mentalities and sensibilities.
Eric Chafe, J. S. Bach’s Johannine Theology: The St. John Passion and the Cantatas for Spring 1725 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014)
A detailed study of how the distinctive theological concerns of the Gospel of St. John are reflected in the structure of the St. John Passion.
Robin Leaver, “The mature vocal works and their theological and liturgical context,” The Cambridge Companion to Bach, edited by John Butt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
This scholarly article includes a long section on the St. John Passion, which concludes: “Here is Bach the preacher in sound, whose purpose is not simply to relate in musical terms the great dramatic story, as if he had written a religious opera, but rather to draw the worshipper at Good Friday Vespers into the story itself and to find within it a contemporary significance.”
Michael Marissen, Bach and God (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016)
Dr. Marissen discussed this book on volume 137 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal.
Michael Marissen, Bach’s Oratorios: The Parallel German-English Texts with Annotations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)
The literal translations of the German texts for these major works (including the St. John Passion) are explicated with citations from the Luther Bible of Bach’s own day, as well as extensive footnotes discussing theological themes addressed in the text.
Michael Marissen, Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach’s St. John Passion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998)
Dr. Marissen discussed this book on volume 37 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal.
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Former poet laureate, Richard Wilbur, died on October 14, 2017. Known for his technical skill and subtle complexity, Wilbur focused his poems in compact forms and with modest themes. Among his contemporaries, Wilbur stood out as unusually cheerful, a quality due as much to his Christian conviction in the goodness of things as to his general disposition.
In honor of Richard Wilbur, MARS HILL AUDIO has made available an interview from Volume 46 on which Wilbur discusses his 2000 collection of poems entitled Mayflies. Click here for more information about the life and work of Richard Wilbur and to access the archive recording.
Wilbur also appears as the subject of an essay by David Lyle Jeffrey entitled “God’s Patient Stet.” This essay originally appeared in First Things and was recorded and republished as an Audio Reprint by MARS HILL AUDIO.
One of the greatest living theologians, and in the opinion of many the greatest American theologian, Robert W. Jenson, died on September 5, 2017. Jenson was the author of numerous books and articles, including Story and Promise: A Brief Theology of the Gospel about Jesus, Essays in Theology of Culture, and his two-volume magnum opus Systematic Theology.
Known as a fearless and compelling theologian, Jenson was the sort of thinker with whom it was worth struggling even if in the end you disagreed with nearly everything he said. By way of tribute to Jenson’s life and work, MARS HILL AUDIO is releasing an archive interview with Robert Jenson from volume 20 of the Journal on why the life of the mind matters to the Church.
Click here to read more about the work of Robert Jenson and to listen to the full interview.
Oliver O’Donovan on how authority and language connect us with reality and thus sustain community
In his magisterial primer on what makes Christian ethics Christian, Resurrection and Moral Order (Eerdmans, 1988), moral philosopher Oliver O’Donovan presented a thorough and compelling account of the nature of authority. Authority, O’Donovan argued, “is what we encounter in the world which makes it meaningful for us to act. An authority, we may say, is something which, by virtue of its kind, constitutes an immediate and sufficient ground for acting.” Authority is that which authorizes our actions, because it informs us about what really is the case, and thus reliably guides us in the way that we should go. Such authorization assumes that reality itself is the work of an Author, who has given the world an intelligible and good order in which our actions can be meaningful.
In his 2013 Self, World, and Time, O’Donovan briefly revisits the question of authority in the context of discussing the social nature of moral reflection, what was traditionally designated practical reasoning. In a chapter titled “Moral Communication,” he examines the giving of advice, the obeying of authority, and the teaching of moral principles as three forms of communication in which our role as moral actors in community is made evident.
“Authority,” he writes, “is a focused disclosure of reality, one that demands we turn our attention away from everything else and concentrate it in this one place.” When authority speaks, those under authority do well to attend. But authority doesn’t always explain or justify every word spoken. “‘There are good reasons for this, which I dimly perceive but do not fully comprehend!’ — that is the characteristic form of recognition we accord to any authoritative utterance. That is the best reason available to us in the circumstances. Faith in things unseen is always an element in practical reasonableness. The communicative framework of our practical reasoning does not allow us to take in the complete picture straight off. . . . Truth is mediated in successive moments, giving directions step by step when and as we need it. So while every authority presents reasons to act thus and not otherwise, it presents these reasons without their being wholly conspicuous. They are implicit, only partially disclosed; we must act according to a truth we have only imperfectly grasped.”
Modern societies prefer to speak of “leadership” rather than “authority,” because the latter suggests both hierarchy and a pre-existing order of things to which we should all conform our lives. But suspicion of authority is destructive of community, and its degenerative consequences are becoming more evident by the day. As O’Donovan writes, “Authority penetrates social existence and gives it cohesion. Discomfort with authority in general (as opposed to discomfort with this or that exercise of it) is discomfort with society itself. Liberal and egalitarian philosophy is perfectly clear-sighted in distrusting authority, for authority undermines the presumption that society is a contractual relation among equally self-possessed adults, a presumption which screens out, in Martha Nussbaum’s apt phrase, ‘all the times of asymmetrical or unusual dependency . . . through which all citizens pass.’”
O’Donovan notes that submission to authority in society is not an act of blind and mindless obedience. In our experience, “one exercise of authority may disclose a more extensive view than another, and it is this that makes the difference. Those whose power of speech — explaining, clarifying, making the mysterious plain — commands our believing adherence exercise ‘intellectual authority,’ the authority of wisdom. The teacher who first opens the disciple’s eyes gestures towards a wide horizon.”
And then comes a paragraph that connects with many of the motives, means, and manners of MARS HILL AUDIO. I will leave it to readers and listeners to make the connections:
“Communication is the key. Knowledge uncommunicated, however great, is socially unfruitful. (There is, it must be confessed, a slightly desperate air about the great libraries of the Western world, so full of books unread from century to century; but at least the books are there, and encourage us to hope that we may, one day, get round to reading more of them. More desperate by far are the unread bibliographies of our scholarly writings and the databases of our online bookstores, where so much intellectual labor is reduced to a minuscule electronic note!) Intellectual authority is connected with speech used to good effect, the ability to deploy language powerfully and clearly. ‘The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools poor out folly’ (Prov. 15:2). The relentless output of gabble never compensates for loss of articulate control. Acquired skill in the resources of language, its vocabulary, linguistic structures, and rhetorical organization, is essential to framing and focusing the nuanced discernment of reality. It sustains authority, and when it falls into decay, authority falls with it. Linguistic impoverishment in a community causes the most urgent expressions of concern to be dismissed as subjective opinion, and drives the structures of its government away from subtle discernment back upon the crude manipulations of power. Such is our age, which congratulates itself that language evolves, while forgetting that it devolves. Such are our great enterprises with their large budgets and tiny dictionaries, and such is our public discourse, where a leader’s incapacity to construct the simplest sentence is seen as a strong political selling point.”
— From Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology: An Induction (Eerdmans, 2013)
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