Recently, one of my heroes among historical theologians, Timothy George, invited me to discuss the value of listening to the works of J. S. Bach in conjunction with the seasons and celebrations that Christians observe throughout the year, such as Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. This conversation stemmed from a short piece I wrote in April, “Welcoming Bach Among the Theologians”.
You can listen to the podcast at the link below as well as read the transcript provided by Beeson Divinity School.
“Bach Among the Theologians” – Beeson Podcast
Timothy George & Jason G. Duesing
December 19, 2017
Beeson Podcast Transcript, Episode 371
December 19, 2017
Announcer: Welcome to the Beeson podcast, coming to you from Beeson Divinity School on the campus of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. Now your host, Timothy George.
Timothy George: Welcome to today’s Beeson podcast. The year was 1685. The place was Germany, and there was a new baby boy in town. His name, Johann Sebastian Bach. Undoubtedly, in my humble but accurate opinion, as my friend Charles Carter says, the greatest composer in the history of music. We’re going to listen to some Bach today, as well as talk about Bach with a very special guest I’ll introduce in just a moment. Right now, let’s go to Johann Sebastian Bach. Whatever you’re doing, if you’re driving down the road, maybe you’re at home, you just mowed the lawn. Whatever you’re doing, take a few minutes off and listen to this great, great music by Bach.
Wow. Wasn’t that great? Well, you can hear all kinds of great Bach music in many different forms. We’re going to talk about Bach today. Bach is, of course, a wonderful composer, one of the great leading lights in the history of music and musicology. Our focus today is Bach among the theologians. I got the idea for this podcast by reading an article by a friend of mine, Dr. Jason Duesing. Dr. Duesing, Jason, is the provost of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, which is in Kansas City, Missouri. He’s written a very interesting post, or blog, called, “As a new semester begins: Welcoming Bach among the theologians.” It got me thinking, “Wow. We need to do a Beeson podcast episode connecting Bach and theology.” Who better to introduce it to us than Jason Duesing, who has felt so deeply about this himself? So, Jason, welcome to the Beeson podcast.
Jason Duesing: Thank you so much for having me. It’s truly a joy to be here and to talk about these things.
Timothy George: Now, in your article, what really grabbed my attention was a little autobiographical vignette you had there about when you were a graduate student, how you used to listen to Bach and how that actually helped you in some ways in your studies, as you were deep into important ideas. I might tell people, by the way, that you’re a church historian by training, written a wonderful biography, biographical theological study of Henry Jessey, one of the most important of the early English Baptist pastors and theologians. That was your field. As you were working on Jessey and other things, I suppose, you were listening to Bach. Let me ask you this question. Why Bach?
Jason Duesing: To continue the autobiographical strain, we all go through journeys in our Christian life, and of course, while our minds are renewed, once we place our faith in Christ and have the Holy Spirit indwell us, but lots of our personality and other interests are renewed and changed as well. I grew up in the suburbs of Houston, Texas, as a pretty typical Generation X kid and had no interest much in music, much less this type of music, the type of music my own children call the kind without words. I didn’t have much … if you’d had said I would one day be here talking about this, I would have been most surprised. Over the years I just grew to have a fascination with, and especially the personalities behind the music, namely Bach himself, his theology and some of these things. Once you learn more about the man it causes you to appreciate the music itself.
I found him to be a very helpful companion through years of intense academic study. As I, then, continuing in the academic profession even now, academic ministry, he is a regular constant companion. Dr. George, I’m a night person, not a morning person, and so often in the wee hours of the night it’s me and Bach sitting there working and writing and things like this. I discovered a few years ago a wonderful program that you can access online. Anyone around the world can. It’s a part of the BBC Radio 3. They have an episode called “Through the Night.” It’s six hours of uninterrupted music, the time that we’re talking. Bach is regularly featured there. Oftentimes, in the evenings, that was my path as I was, as you say, working on dissertation and other academic endeavors.
Timothy George: That’s a wonderful recommendation: “Through the Night.” I know Billy Graham used to have a program called “Songs in the Night,” and that was probably a little different kind of music, but “Through the Night” is made available through the British Broadcasting Company. I guess it’s available online, right?
Jason Duesing: It is, and you don’t have to listen to it at 1:00 a.m. if you don’t want to. You can listen to it at any point in time. One of the most beautiful things about it is there are no commercials. It’s six hours of straight, the type of music that’s helpful to really think to and work through and things like this.
Timothy George: Those British know how to do great music and great programming on radio. I listen to some of it myself. You’re a Baptist theologian as I am, and I don’t know exactly what kind of church experience you had growing up. I grew up in a Southern Baptist church. Actually a Southern Baptist/Independent Baptist church. We were kind of borderline. We listened to a lot of music, but it was not Bach. It was Stamps Baxter, it was … and below that, if you can think of it. It was great music in its own way, and I still love some of that music today, but it was a very different genre. However, I know that Bach is often played in music, in churches, as a part of the music. What was your experience growing up in the church and Bach?
Jason Duesing: In the suburbs of North Houston, I’m sure I heard some Bach as we were … I was reared Episcopalian and mainline Episcopalian all through my teenage and high school years. In that setting it was far more theologically liberal and therefore, sadly, I don’t recall ever hearing the good news about Jesus in terms of how it related to me personally in any way. I didn’t trust Christ. I wouldn’t mark my conversion until my freshman year in college. In many ways you could say that I had a very silent upbringing in regards to sacred music or church music, especially the likes of Bach, but really any of the delightful pieces that you mentioned that you enjoyed. I had to actually relearn hymnody for the first time as a college, and really not until seminary did I really even learn the great hymns of the faith.
Timothy George: Yes. That’s one of the passions that I have, is hymnody. It seems to me that we’ve lost a lot of that in the church. Of course, Bach wrote hymns. He wrote musical pieces that have been made into hymns. We still sing some of those in the church today, and a lot of other great hymns. I’m not against praise choruses. I’m not against contemporary music if it’s done well and it has content. The Lord can use it and be glorified by it, but we lose something when we cut ourselves off from that great musical tradition of which Bach is maybe the greatest representative.
Jason Duesing: Along the way, one of the things I came across was … and part of the field in which we work, historical theology and church history, I had heard of the great historical theologian Jaroslav Pelikan, and had read many of his works just through the course of my studies and own interest, the great Yale scholar. I stumbled across a book that he wrote in 1986 called, “Bach among the Theologians.” Pelikan, of course, as you know and know much better than I, was a Lutheran before he made the journey to orthodoxy, so he had an interest in Bach and wrote a wonderful little book called, “Bach among the Theologians” that’s just full of all kinds of treasures and things. It was through the reading of that book really that sort of inspired me to put some simple thoughts down in this blog article.
Timothy George: I’m glad you mentioned that book. I’m holding it in my hands right now. “Bach among the Theologians” by Jaroslav Pelikan, published by Fortress Press. I don’t know if it’s still in print. Probably not, but maybe you can get it somehow in out of print books or something. It’s a wonderful little book. One of the points he makes in that book is a comparison of Bach and Vivaldi. Vivaldi was, of course, a contemporary, a little older contemporary of Bach, and Bach learned a great deal, according to Pelikan, from Vivaldi in terms of style and form. The point of comparison that Pelikan makes in his book is “The Four Seasons,” the most famous, maybe, of Vivaldi’s compositions. He wrote many. He compares that to Bach’s “Four Seasons,” and they’re very different. For Vivaldi it’s summer, fall, winter, spring, the seasons of the year, whereas for Bach, it’s the seasons of the Christian year. Advent, Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost. He says his whole life and his musical formation was geared around following Jesus Christ throughout the year, through the liturgical seasons of the year. What do you think about that?
Jason Duesing: I think it’s a real instructive way and a really helpful way, almost catechetical in the sense that it’s helping us to appreciate the music along with a liturgical format so that we can understand the pieces in which he composed and how they might align up with some of these celebrations, whether it be Christmas and Advent, or Easter, along those lines. I remember reading … That’s right. Early in the book, I remember reading that chapter and it was very instructive for me, again, helping to kind of piece together some things.
Timothy George: Now, we are both theologians. We spend a lot of our time talking and bantering about ideas and doctrines and teachings of the church and of the Scriptures as they’ve informed the church. How has theology, Bach’s music in particular, shaped your theology?
Jason Duesing: Well, one of the pieces that was recommended to me early, it’s certainly highlighted in this book by Pelikan, I remember coming across, in other articles it being recommended, is Bach’s Mass in B Minor. It’s, of course, a beautiful piece to listen to, but even listening to it and understanding why he composed it the way he did, again, I’m not a musicologist or even really can even carry a tune, so I’m well in over my head in a lot of this discussion, but as a layman, if you will, working through this, it helped me to, as he’s crafting or composing this music to come alongside worship. I would say more than anything, it’s really helped in my doxology as much as my theology, in terms of shaping, stirring my heart and things like this.
Pelikan in the book, he even mentions it one time, he said that talking about Bach, the highest activity of the human spirit was the praise of God, that such praise involved the total activity of the spirit. For Bach, clearly his music was worship. It really helped me find another way in which to worship God through listening to some of these things.
Timothy George: Pelikan quotes a scholar named Jacob Spitta and I want to disagree with Spitta as he is quoted by Pelikan, saying that Bach’s work captures the bold spirit of native vigor which called the German Reformation into being. I don’t think that’s Pelikan speaking. He’s quoting Jacob Spitta there. When I think about the music of Bach, I would not say it’s the bold spirit of native vigor that called the German Reformation into being. If that were the case then we would be worshiping Thor and Wuotan, not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It was the gospel that Luther recovered in the Reformation and that Bach gave such great musical setting to in his work. Of course there’s vigor, there’s dynamism in this music, but it’s something deeper than that. There is a content involved here. It’s the gospel of Jesus Christ. I wouldn’t want to give a presentation of Bach that kind of sidelined that the way this scholar seems to do.
Jason Duesing: Yes. I couldn’t agree more. Pelikan, of course, doesn’t dwell there that much anyway as he stays somewhere else. He really moves on to even categorizing a lot of what Bach composes, especially even that Mass in B Minor is something he calls evangelical Catholicity. I think there, in that term, you get more to the root of this celebration of the gospel. Later in the book he does even go at lengths to define what he means by that term. He talks about it in terms of using the phrase the re-discovery of the gospel in the Reformation and the renewal of the church and things that follow the Reformation itself on into Bach’s own era.
Timothy George: You know, we could talk about our favorite Bach pieces probably longer than we have time to on the Beeson podcast, but I think his St. John’s Passion is just tremendous. You’ve mentioned the Mass in B Minor. That’s also, some say, the greatest piece of music in the world. Then there’s this wonderful Magnificat, the Christmas setting.
He was a Christmas and Easter kind of composer, just like Luther was a Christmas and Easter kind of theologian, I believe.
Jason Duesing: I agree completely. Among Bach devotees, I think there’s a greater number of us among theologians than perhaps we realize. Perhaps we should start our own sort of … I don’t know what you do these days. A Facebook group or something.
Timothy George: I could hear a new session of the Evangelical Theological Society being born right here on the Beeson podcast. Dr. Duesing has called for a new association of theologians who love Bach. Count me as member number two after you.
Jason Duesing: Among my friends that are this way, periodically going back to the Four Seasons throughout the year, we’ll sort of remind each other of what we’re listening to, trying to listen to some of these Bach compositions at the time of the liturgical calendar in which he wrote them. At Christmastime, listening to certain pieces, or Easter, and things like that. That’s another thing I recommend in terms of an annual participation and appreciation of Bach’s music, listening to them at the time of year he intended for them to be played.
Timothy George: You know, so much of this music is, as you were pointing out with your reference to the “Through the Night” program on BBC, it’s widely available. You can just go to YouTube and put in J.S. Bach and you’ll get hundreds of possibilities of varying quality, yes, in terms of the music, but powerful, powerful music that’s easily available to listen to as you work, as you were doing as a student, as you drive down the road, or whatever it is you’re doing, and you’re listening to this kind of music. It will shape your life. It’s not just entertainment. It’s formative in a significant way.
Jason Duesing: One question I wanted to ask you, if I could, was I was curious if you had a favorite cellist, one of those who, many of the cellists, it’s a rite of passage to perform the works of Bach, particularly the Cello Suites. I didn’t know if you had a particular favorite.
Timothy George: Yes, I do. That’s not a hard question. Yo-Yo Ma.
There are many other great ones, but I don’t know any greater than him who are living today. There are some in the past that might rank up there. I would say Yo-Yo Ma. What about yourself?
Jason Duesing: Well, I like Yo-Yo Ma, and again, I don’t know that I could honestly tell you the difference, but the one that I prefer to listen to is Mstislav Rostropovich.
Timothy George: Oh, wow. He’s a classic.
Jason Duesing: Yes. You know, Russian cellist.
It’s a little bit off track, but I think the reason why I’m drawn to him is you may have heard Rostropovich was tasked with playing, actually not Bach, but a piece by Dvorak, the Czech composer, in 1968 as a part of the BBC Proms. He was asked, this is a Russian cellist playing a Czech piece, and he was asked actually to play it on the day that the Russians were invading Prague. As the story goes, he’s playing this piece, and he plays it through tears almost the whole piece, crying, because of what’s happening between the two countries. I remember coming across that story and digging deeper, and realizing and seeing him playing all these Bach pieces. Any time I can hear Rostropovich play anything of Bach, you’ve got a ready listener.
Timothy George: And it shows how Bach touches us in the very depths of our experiences as human beings, as believers in Christ. You’re in a moment of national and even civilizational crisis, he’s being played and speaking into that.
Now, we’re almost out of time, Jason, but you bring this out in your article, that Bach routinely ended his musical compositions with two different abbreviations, two different sets of abbreviations. One, J.J., and the other, S.D.G. You often see these just written in abbreviations on Bach’s scores. J.J., S.D.G. Tell us what those letters stand for and what they mean.
Jason Duesing: This in particular was what really prompted me to see the listening of Bach as almost a devotional exercise, in that as Pelikan says, and there’s a few others that pick up on this as well, is that throughout Bach’s handwritten compositions, you’ll see that J.J. usually at the top of a piece, and then S.D.G. near the end. The J.J. stands for Jesus help, or “Jesu, juva”. He’d start each piece in a posture of submission before the Lord asking for the help of Christ Jesus, almost in the sense of John 15, apart from you I can do nothing. Then the piece is composed and played, and then at the end the S.D.G. is of course the famous, really imprint of the Reformation, “Soli Deo Gloria”, to the glory of God, and so alone. That piece sort of concludes his work. It’s this statement of whatever I’ve done here, as much as man may say this is brilliant, I’ve done it in submission to Christ, relying upon his help and anything that is good that comes from it is to God’s glory. I thought what a fitting exercise, even for thinking about our own lives and days, that we start each morning “Jesu, juva” and we end each day, “Soli Deo Gloria,” much like as Bach did with his own pieces.
Timothy George: Beautiful. Jesus help, to God alone be the glory. A prayer and a confession. That roots us right back into the great faith of the Reformation that we’re celebrating this year in 2017 in lots of different ways. One more question, and we’ve covered this, but I wonder if you want to add anything else. You’re speaking now to pastors, to students, to lay persons all across the world, really, that listen on this internet. What would you say to folks like this, in general, about Bach and his importance as a great musician of the Christian faith?
Jason Duesing: He, as I say, I think the primary importance for anyone who is not a regular listener to him is that it can be a very stretching and helpful exercise to increase your devotion to God and allow you to, as you’re listening, truly to worship and appreciate. Even on a greater level, you’re talking about, as you say at the beginning, one of the greatest composers and musical geniuses of all time. To see this great world renowned work of art done in service to God is truly an act of worship and something from which we can all benefit and grow from. Even if you were, or are, like I was, not really fond of music without words, perhaps starting with Bach and moving in a journey of greater appreciation of this great composer.
Timothy George: My guest today on the Beeson podcast has been Dr. Jason Duesing. He is the provost of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. A fine church historian, a scholar whose work has enriched our understanding of the Baptist tradition and the Christian tradition. Today we’ve been talking not about church history in general, but about Johann Sebastian Bach, the great composer who was born in 1685 and died in 1750. He music is living still. It can enrich your life. We’re going to listen to some of it right now. We’re going to listen to this chorale on “Ein feste Burg,” Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” Thank you, Jason, for this wonderful conversation.
Jason Duesing: Thank you.
Announcer: You’ve been listening to the Beeson podcast with host Timothy George. You can subscribe to the Beeson podcast at our website, beesondivinity.com. Beeson Divinity School is an interdenominational evangelical divinity school training men and women in the service of Jesus Christ. We pray that this podcast will aid and encourage your work, and we hope you will listen to each upcoming edition of the Beeson podcast.