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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.
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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Oliver O’Donovan on the difficult but essential task of reading our times
In preparing to interview moral philosopher Oliver O’Donovan about his most recent book, Entering into Rest, I have been re-reading the two earlier volumes with which the new book forms a trilogy. The series is called Ethics as Theology, and in these three books O’Donovan describes how Christian Ethics is “done” — how theologically informed thought becomes action.
In the first book, Self, World, and Time (which he designates as An Induction, paving the way for further explorations), O’Donovan examines the nature of moral agency (what it means to be an ethical self), the nature of the world in which we act morally, and the temporal trajectories (both past and future, involving memory and hope) in which ethical decisions made in our present moment are situated. In the book’s Preface, O’Donovan summarizes the challenges we face when we try (as we must) to understand the characteristics of our cultural moment. Given the editorial mission of MARS HILL AUDIO, this paragraph especially caught my attention:
“That ‘late modernity’ in which we are given to live and act can never be taken as self-evident; it is a philosophical task in itself to understand it. There is a style of dealing with modernity all too knowingly. Modern ‘social conditions’ are comprised, we are told, of individualism, egalitarianism, technology, and capitalist enterprise; these are the terms on which mankind today lives, and we must either acknowledge them sensibly or be doomed to be forever criticizing them nostalgically — end of discussion! Alas, it is the doom of modernity to be bound up in an ever over-simple knowingness about itself! Our own age is the hardest of all ages to understand. It is composed of a mass of popular ideas and perceptions, often difficult to document though they are as familiar as the air we breathe, which acknowledge no duty to be consistent with each other. They may be derived from the thoughts of great thinkers, but when they are, they have lost most of what subtlety and discrimination they once had. They ration and restrict our access to thought about life and action in ways we must look hard in order to recognize. (It is not easy to think in a disciplined way through any social question outside the constraints of a would-be economic calculus which scarcely deserves the serious philosophical name of ‘utilitarianism.’) Even more cramping, they determine the way we describe the material objects of our thought, so that there are decent and gullible souls, for example, who think it ‘unscientific’ to refer to the child in the womb as ‘a person.’ Sophistry treads hard, as it has always trodden, on the heels of Ethics, but never harder than in a world of intense and overheated communications. The tramp of its boot must be heard before we can step to one side and free ourselves, recognizing where we have come and what decisions we must take. Such coming to recognition of our place and time is the condition for doing, or indeed being, anything.”
— From Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology: An Induction (Eerdmans, 2013)
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Michael Hanby on the nihilism that drives the quest for spectacle
In my conversation with R. J. Snell about his book Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire (on volume 129 of the MHA Journal), he explained how his thinking on the subject of acedia had been initially inspired by Michael Hanby’s essay, “The Culture of Death, the Ontology of Boredom, and the Resistance of Joy” (in Communio 31, Summer 2004). Snell said it was one of the best journal articles he had ever read. I share Snell’s enthusiasm, and recently found an occasion to re-read Hanby’s bracing diagnosis of how the modern understanding of freedom presupposes a meaningless universe (and meaningless selves), the terror of which gives rise to a restless and relentless drive to distraction. Here is a key passage:
“[I]f one considers many of the more garish artifacts of this culture — Las Vegas, Disneyworld, gnostic, digitalized forms of community and sexuality, a virtual arms race of violent spectacle and vulgar celebrity expressionism — or even the increasingly isolated character of entertainment through ever more personalized electronic devices, they seem less the expression of a celebration of the self, the pleasure principle or a will to power than the expression of an opposed and more fundamental pathology: boredom.
“The advent of this concept of boredom coincides, tellingly, with the rise of bourgeois society and the triumph of industrialization. There is no etymological record of the word or the concept prior to the eighteenth century. Boredom differs in important ways from such antecedents as ennui or acedia. The diagnosis of these maladies traditionally contained within them a moral judgment of the subject, whose melancholy was understood as a moral and spiritual affront to a true and meaningful order of things. Boredom, by contrast, names a twofold failure of an altogether different kind: a failure of the world to be compelling to a subject ostensibly entitled to such an expectation and a failure or incapacity on the part of the subject to be compelled. In this, boredom is closely aligned with hopelessness, and there may indeed be a more profound relation between the excesses of consumer society and the sense of helplessness that leads an increasing number of citizens of that same society to despair of social and political involvement. It is this double nullity of both subject and world, I contend, that underlies entertainment culture and the numbing array of cultural choices produced by it. The very notion of entertainment presumes the state of boredom as the norm, which means that a culture increasingly fueled by this notion assumes that our lives are innately and intrinsically meaningless without the constant stream of ‘stimulation’ and distraction, a stream inevitably subject to the law of diminishing returns. This nullity on the side of the subject is matched by a similar noughting in the world, for latent in this assumption is a corollary denial of form, objective beauty, or a true order of goods that naturally and of themselves compels our interest. As a consequence, according to this cultural logic, all such choices can only be indifferently related to one another. None is intrinsically good or bad, and indeed no good approaches that of choice itself. Hence most citizens of the modern West, almost of necessity, live lives of profound fragmentation and internal contradiction, and yet these contradictions too frequently make no real competing claims on lives and loyalties and cause little pain or anguish to those who are subject to them. Yet the effect of many of these choices is less to please than to stupefy, anesthetize or distract us from the failed festivals, broken communities, and otherwise empty existence imposed by a formless goalless world. Long before the advent of tasteless fast food, fat free cream, and an array of other products offering endless consumption without much discernible pleasure, Eric Gill foresaw these developments in his criticism of the Leisure State, which incarnates ‘at best, an impossible angelism, and at worst, an impossible aestheticism, the worship of the pleasure of sensation.’
People won’t really love the “good things” they enjoy in such plenty. They won’t love them in the sense that they will see them and use them as holy things, things in which and by which God is manifest. In reality they will despise everything. Things will be made only for passing enjoyment, to be scrapped when no longer enjoyable.”
— From Michael Hanby, The Culture of Death, the Ontology of Boredom, and the Resistance of Joy, Communio 31, Summer 2004
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On our most current issue, Volume 131 of the Journal, we featured an interview with historian, Peter Harrison, on his book The Territories of Science and Religion. If you would like to read an excellent summary of Harrison's book, or if you need a little more incentive to listen to the interview, we encourage you to read Peter Leithart's review of Harrison's book "Not Religion v. Science," published on October 6, 2016 on the First Things website.