answers or questions?
I believe in God, the father almighty…
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only son, our lord…
I believe in the Holy Spirit…
My commitment to those tenets and their complete manifestation in the Apostles Creed has wavered throughout my life. My understanding of how those truths should rule my life have changed. I worry I’ll never truly be ‘on fire’ for God or that I’ll let people down or that I’ll fail to perform or teach to the standards I want. I have grave doubts I will be able to spread the gospel with my thoughts, words, and deeds.
Through life, my one constant, physically present companion is the piano, and classical music generally. I have always primarily been a musician, but also a Christian only some of my life. The ideal is that all thoughts flow from and through God but a biological fact is that we cannot rewire our brains with the flip of a switch, no matter our motivation to do so. God understands this, he made us.
I’m no expert at being a Christian. Yet, I have earned something of an “expert” status in the field of music. I earned bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees in piano performance, and I have the absolute privilege of teaching music in higher education. Seeking God in life and work, I suppose it was inevitable that I would combine theology and music in my doctoral dissertation.
That said, there is a small and dedicated field of music for theology; Jeremy Begbie is perhaps its greatest intellectual. He illustrates the subject by showing how a simple musical chord manifests the truth of the trinity. How can God be three individuals, yet, one God? Mix 3 colors together and you get 1 new color; the 1 subsumes and erases the 3. Mix 3 notes together and yes you get 1 chord, but you still hear 3 individual tones. The 1 and the 3 coexist together, and individually.
My dissertation used the eschatological theology in Jurgen Moltmann’s book The Coming of God as an analytical tool for music. The broad concept didn’t originate with me (scholars established it in a volume edited by Begbie, Resonant Witness), but I extended the application to the vast atonal musical canvases of composer Morton Feldman. I posited that his composition For Philip Guston, some 4 hours in length, represented a relatively timeless God’s interaction with temporally-bound mankind in the eschaton. My dissertation provided a framework to see this huge composition as a metaphor: through it, we see how faith enacts redemption by equating the eternity of God with the linear and progressive time of earth. In listening, we are able to bring God’s new creation on earth: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
I more or less lost my faith two years ago. I could blame the COVID pandemic but the spark began in my late 20s. The church my then-fiance, now wife, and I attended mistreated our pastor and demonstrated an ambivalence to a deep, learned, love of God. I never quite forgave them. My wife and I moved on to a new church, but I always wanted what we had before. The pandemic gave us an excuse to not be involved with church, which I found too comfortable to give up. For a while I silently considered myself an agnostic atheist. God seemed so distant that he couldn’t possibly matter in my day to day life.
In February of this year, I brought this struggle to my counselor, himself a former pastor. His response: “what a great place to be”. Measured agnosticism, in order to discern truth, was better than going along to get along. He encouraged me to reject the empty certainty I hear in the general evangelical culture, and embrace the mystery I already felt. There are many things we can know for sure about God. His capacity for unending love is undoubtedly one; that he contains layers of mysteries we can only begin to comprehend surely is another.
Since then, I have explored reading the Bible without chapters and verses, I’ve prayed, and I’ve begun to visit some churches, not certain exactly what I’m looking for. I also reread my dissertation. Seeing the classical piano music I know and love deeply as a metaphor to experience God returned to me. As did the music of Bach.
Bach’s music is often associated with Christian faith. He is well known for writing corpuses of church music with spiritual texts and deep pathos. His secular music has the ambience of the deeply religious, capable of transmitting agony, reverence, and transcendence. He signed most of his compositions SDG, for soli deo gloria, or glory to God alone. There’s plenty that has been said about religious connections in Bach’s music, and I think there’s more to find. If prayer is the method by which we draw closer to God and listen for his direction, why not use Bach’s music as a meditative lens?
Praying with Bach, then, is an attempt to use prayer and music, interchangeably and together, to explore my faith. Much of the next 15 months I’ll be recording Bach’s six French Suites. I’ll present one movement a week, combined with a Psalm that I feel captures the mindset of the dance. You’ll hear my reading of the Psalm combined with evocative photographs, followed by my performance. My hope is that the combination of written and spoken word, and visual and musical art, will allow you, and myself, to experience and draw closer to God in the many ways the Psalms make him known.
I’ll release weekly videos for 3 or 4 weeks. In the 4th or 5th week, I’ll release an essay (this is Substack, a writing-focused platform!). Essays will explore Bach’s music in depth, and how Christian faith and theology can be brought to life through listening to and understanding this music. You can expect one of these two content pillars every Monday, beginning September 5th. Occasionally I will also write ‘journal entries’ to discuss my prayer journey and resources (books, podcasts, sermons) as I rediscover the mystery of faith and theology. Sometimes I’ll take you purely into Bach with discussions of his music and great pianists who perform it.
Thank-you for watching, listening, and reading, and soli deo gloria.