There is a theologian that your non-Christian friends probably know better and love more than you do. He died 270 years ago but is still sharing the whole counsel of God in places around the world, including those that remain hostile to the Gospel. Many mainstream radio hosts claim that his abilities and influence on culture and individuals are unsurpassed. Have you heard of him?
Perhaps there is no better example of a theologian at the workplace than the musician and composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Music students study him; modern harmony is largely indebted to him; his music (which is often explicitly Christian) is performed in the most prestigious venues around the world; CBC Radio and Radio-Canada hosts repeatedly claim he is the best musician that ever lived. Do you know him as well as your non-Christian friends do?
Bach the Musician
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) was a fifth-generation German musician and Lutheran. He served as a church musician throughout his entire career while also doing commission work for secular and royal audiences. Regardless of the occasion, Bach often inscribed the acronym “SDG” for “Soli Deo Gloria” (meaning, “to God alone the glory”) on his compositions. Being Lutheran his entire life, Bach may have come across Luther’s famous quote: “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.” Like Luther’s shoemaker, Bach’s work wasn’t merely marked with a Christian inscription; it worshiped God through excellence.
Bach the Idol
While Bach wasn’t as praised in his own lifetime, many have and continue to idolize him. Beethoven called him “the immortal god of harmony.” Debussy declared him “a benevolent god to which all musicians should oﬀer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity.” Although it may seem extreme to make an idol of Bach, it is our human impulse to worship creatures (Rom. 1:18–23), especially when someone masters the natural world with great skill and power. It is no surprise then that people revere Bach when they hear his mastery over the natural world of music.
Even Canadians today claim “Bach’s music is heaven” (CBC), despite how Bach testified to the Bible’s version of heaven. Others “would argue that there is no better cure for depression or indifference” than Bach’s cantatas (choral and orchestral music written for weekly liturgical worship in the church). While we can’t condone idolatry, opportunities to provide the final cadence to people’s religious impulses—Jesus, in whom all things hold together (Acts 17:16–31, Col. 1:16–17)—often arise in such places.
Bach the Christian
Revisionists and critics claim Bach “had no choice but to write music to the glory of God” (BBC). After all, he lived in the Lutheran-dominated town of Eisenach, Germany, where he was catechized and educated in theology as a school boy. However, the inventory of his belongings after his death included 80 theological volumes, such as Calov’s Bible, Luther’s complete works, commentaries, sermons, and Lutheran apologetic works. Moreover, Bach often underlined and wrote in the margins of those works in a way that demonstrated theological ability. Bach was passionate about theology, and he translated and infused the theological abstractions he learned in the books into concrete musical compositions.
Bach and the Creation Mandate
With masterpieces imbued with musical rhetoric that reflected his theology, Bach clearly saw the end goal of his vocation as bringing glory to God. Although he might not have articulated it as “doing the creation mandate,” his work as a musician demonstrated what it means to be a human living in this natural world under God. He worked the typological “ground” (i.e., music) as a gift from God (1 Tim. 4:4-5) by developing its potential and guarding the centrality of God’s Word in his vocational endeavors (Gen. 2:15). While he clearly devoted himself to church music, his devotion to God did not cease when he worked on “secular” music. He did not fall for the dubious idea of matter versus spirit (i.e., separating his vocational life and his Christian life) but pursued musical excellence as worship to God in every season and sphere of life.
In addition to his church music which beautifully and vividly showcases the Word of God, he sought out the rich potential of music that God concealed in the natural order (Prov. 25:2). He innovated with harmony and melodic persuasion (making us feel certain emotions through the design of the melodic line), as with symmetry and repetitions. His masterful use of numerology can be identified (listen for 3, 6, 7, or 12, important numbers in the Bible) in repetitions, significant harmonic sequences, fermatas, instrument groupings, and in other creative ways. In all his creative work, Bach sought to communicate the greatness and wisdom of God to people because he saw “the aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” He used his vocation to point people and the physical world to the liberation that the Lord will bring in the final cadence of history (Rom. 8:19).
Active and Persuasive Theology in Vocation
The Hungarian composer György Kurtág spoke of Bach’s rhetorical force when it comes to belief in God: “Consciously, I am certainly an atheist, but I do not say it out loud, because if I look at Bach, I cannot be an atheist. Then I have to accept the way he believed” (The Guardian).
British cultural critic Clemency Burton-Hill claims that Bach’s “instinctive understanding of human nature, his rhetorical skills and his innate skill as a dramatist are second to none. Living from 1685 to 1750, he had no choice but to write music to the glory of God – and yet everything that it is to be human – to love, to lose, to laugh, to be betrayed, to betray, to be torn into little pieces or to feel so whole you could fly, is here. Conflict, friendship, despair, joy, his music encompasses what I can only describe as ‘the everything-ness of everything’” (BBC).
Can this be said of us as ambassadors of Christ in our workplaces? Does being a child in our Father’s garden create a joy and zeal for our work that draws others to want what we have? Does our quest for excellence in work and relations show the shalom that we anticipate in the new creation so that others will ask of the hope that so invigorates us?
Johann Sebastian Bach was by no means a perfect man. He was at the very least a sinner saved by grace. His workmanship, however, most certainly transpired from his relationship with the Triune God. His primary concern was God’s glory alone which he expressed not only through a frequent scribble of the pen (“SDG”) but in a lifelong dedication to musical excellence and innovation. Hopefully knowing Bach’s legacy will inspire us to search out God’s glory in our own vocations in a new and more biblical way. Perhaps knowing Bach’s music might also open opportunities for you to share Jesus, Bach’s Savior, Lord, and ultimate inspiration.