J. S. Bach

This is from Albert Schweitzer’s famous two-volume study of J. S. Bach, which lead the Bach renaissance of the early 20th century:

Some artists are subjective, some objective. The art of the former has its source in their personality; their work is almost independent of the epoch in which they live. A law unto themselves, they place themselves in opposition to their epoch and originate new forms for the expression of their ideas. Of this type was Richard Wagner.

Bach belongs to the order of objective artists. These are wholly of their own time, and work only with the forms and the ideas that their time proffers them. They exercise no criticism upon the media of artistic expression that they find lying ready to their hand, and feel no inner compulsion to open out new paths. Their art not coming solely from the stimulus of their outer experience, we need not seek the roots of their work in the fortunes of its creator. In them the artistic personality exists independently of the human, the latter remaining in the background as if it were something almost accidental. ….

The art of the objective artist is not impersonal, but superpersonal. It is as if he felt only one impulse, — to express again what he already finds in existence, but to express it definitively, in unique perfection. It is not he who lives, — it is the spirit of the time that lives in him. All the artistic endeavours, desires, creations, aspirations and errors of his own and of previous generations are concentrated and worked out to their conclusion in him. …

Whatever path we may traverse through the poetry and the music of the Middle Ages, we are always led to him.

The grandest creations of the chorale from the twelfth to the eighteenth century adorn his cantatas and Passions. Handel and the others make no use of the superb treasures of chorale-melody. They want to be free of the past. Bach feels otherwise; he makes the chorale the foundation of his work. …

This genius was not an individual, but a collective soul. Centuries and generations have laboured at this work, before the grandeur of which we halt in veneration.

Albert Schweitzer, J. S. Bach, vol. 1, trans. Ernest Newman (London: Breitkopf and Hartel, 1911), 1-4.

Schleiermacher series

March 9, 2013


Chris Donato has completed a fine little series on Friedrich Schleiermacher:

1. More Than a Feeling

2. More Than a Feeling: Gefühl

3. More Than a Feeling: The Hypostatic Union

4. More Than a Feeling: Restatement

5. More Than a Feeling: Response

6. More Than a Feeling: The Death of God?

I have yet to read every post, but it looks like a great introduction to Schleiermacher, with whom every responsible theologian is required to be familiar.

Axel Haig - Burgos

Philip Nielsen has a nice article on Balthasar’s aesthetics:

“Depicting the Whole Christ: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Sacred Architecture”

Here are a couple of my favorite points:

For Balthasar, a Church totally devoid of images is not something that could concentrate the eyes of the congregation purely on Christ (as many Protestant and even some Catholic thinkers would assert), but is rather much more akin to a Gospel in which half the parables of Christ were removed.


…sacred art and architecture should avoid taking on merely human dimensions, seeking rather to preserve the “dissimilarity” between God and his creatures. Sacred architecture’s first duty is to create a sense of “spacing” between God and man. The church, but especially its sanctuary, must clearly depict a distance between God and his creatures. A church that looks like a living room makes an awareness of the difference between Creator and creature more difficult to perceive—it makes it an act of near heroic virtue. “Spacing” can be achieved first and foremost by scale, ornamentation, art, and architectural cues such as rails, screens, stairs, or curtains. All of these elements, insofar as they make the glory of God more clear to the participant, express true beauty. This beauty must lead to God, however, not simply to an aesthetic experience. “The awareness of inherent glory,” writes Balthasar, “gave inspiration to works of incomparable earthly beauty in the great tradition of the Church. But these works become suitable for today’s liturgy only if, in and beyond their beauty, those who take part are not merely moved to aesthetic sentiments but are able to encounter that glory of God.” [Balthasar, New Elucidations, 136.]

Nielsen is a Phd candidate in architecture at Texas A&M and previously studied theology and architecture at the graduate level at the University of Notre Dame.


Image: Catedral de Burgos, by Axel Haig (1835-1921)

In light of my recent bit of music criticism, I thought it would be worth pointing to some of my favorite contemporary acts, lest you think that I only exist in the 1960′s and 70′s. As much as I idolize and idealize that time period, there are in fact recent artists who are just as capable. Here is a wide range:


Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming has an inexhaustible amount of imagination. I don’t need to add to what has already been said about this magnificent double-disc album. Certainly a fan favorite is “Raconte – Moi Une Histoire,” the life of a frog. If that doesn’t make you happy, you have no soul.

The Joy Formidable

Their Atlantic debut, The Big Roar, is about the most addicting album in recent memory, with its unique brew of shoegaze and 90′s alt-rock. They have an extensive YouTube presence; check-out “The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade” and “I Don’t Want to See You Like This.”


I posted some videos of her Sing Sing sessions here. That should be enough proof that you need her presence in your life. The debut album is Vows.

Ryan Bingham

I don’t know what to make of his most recent album, Tomorrowland. I suppose every artist needs a departure, to test the waters; and after three albums of near perfection, we can cut him some slack. Mescalito and Roadhouse Sun should be in everyone’s car. Listen/watch his first single, “Southside of Heaven,” to get an introduction.

Justin Townes Earle

Here is another fine example of folk-country Americana. I would pick his 2010 album, Harlem River Blues, as a good place to start. I will close this post with his performance of the title track on Letterman:

The Mumford debate

October 5, 2012

I’ve lost count of the number of articles either defending or assailing Mumford and Sons. I haven’t seen anything like it. I was introduced to their first album when it was initially released a couple years ago. I was at work and a fellow co-worker — a super enthusiastic evangelical from California — told me that I gotta hear this band. He played one of their songs and passionately described how the song was recalling the captivity of sin or something like that. I smiled, nodded, and said something generic like, “sounds pretty good.” I eventually listened on my own time and concluded that they were okay but nothing compelling. So, I wasn’t very impressed, and now I’ve enjoyed ruminating further on what in particular is not compelling.

Consider this quote from Mumford about songwriting:

I can’t write lyrics unless I really feel them and mean them, which can sometimes be quite frustrating — because if you’re not feeling much at the time, you’re stuck.

Umm. Let me first give some background to my criticism. I’ve been steeped in the classics of American folk and country for quite a while now. My CD tower (yes, I still buy CD’s) is full of Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, and the like. Why would I listen to Mumford when I can listen to “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”? This is where I agree with many of the critics of Mumford. The lyrics really do try too hard, and that by the way is my general complaint about the whole indie music scene. When Dolly Parton wrote her 70′s masterpieces (e.g., My Tennessee Mountain Home), she wasn’t groping for literary allusions. She was describing her world, painting a picture with words — not unlike Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. None of these earlier figures were trying to be philosophers or even poets really. They were mediums, storytellers, communicators — and the clearer the better. They wanted to bring comfort in all areas of life, both the highs and the lows. They were neither tragic nor idealist. They didn’t write songs about needing to accept their weakness; rather, they were weak, pure and simple, nothing to fuss about. They didn’t need to take the next step of abstract speculation or emotional grappling about their weak status! I could say the same thing about nearly every theme that dominates the indie music culture, from which Mumford derives his sound and voice. Can you imagine Merle or Kris saying that he couldn’t write lyrics “unless I really feel them”?

Everyone who is looking for “the real” or authenticity, and think they have found it in Mumford, should dig a little deeper into the American music repertoire. We perfected the “real,” with the birth of country, rock, and blues. Actually, we should specify that the South did this because of all her sins. These great forms of music were born out of the cultural turmoil of a racist and segregated South. Something beautiful and powerful was born in the collision between whites and blacks struggling in the poverty (and shame) of Reconstruction. Here, the particular is what is being fought for and loved. The small things and common things were life-giving. Mumford tries to touch on this by making the common things his themes, but he just needs to bring himself down a little from his metaphysical heights. The world doesn’t need to be infused with meaning; it already bears it. No striving necessary.

Randall C. Zachman (Professor of Reformation Studies, Notre Dame) is one of the finest historians of the Reformation today. Professor Zachman specializes in the theology of the key figures of the Reformation, beginning with his brilliant study of Luther and Calvin published in 1993. There is a serious concentration on doctrinal nuances in his work, which makes his historical monographs especially useful for the student of dogmatics.

For your reading pleasure, I point you toward this essay I recently discovered at the Institute for Reformed Theology:

“The Generosity of God: The Witness of the Reformed Tradition” by Randall Zachman

I especially appreciated his use of Zwingli, along with Calvin, in bringing-out the themes of goodness and beauty in Reformed theology.

I just got back from vacation in the mountains. On the way to Grandfather Mountain, we passed this beautiful Presbyterian church in Pineola. Of course, I insisted that we stop on the way back so I could take some pictures. Click to enlarge.

Friedrich Schleiermacher

After treating the intellectualism of Hegel and his followers, Bavinck turns to the Romanticism of the period which oriented religious thought along the affective and aesthetic domain of the human person. This domain of feeling was thought to be the proper domain for religion, not the rational domain strictly speaking, though the concerns of modern reason and skepticism were never far away. Romanticism was found in Wordsworth and Coleridge in England, Rousseau in France, and, most importantly for dogmatics, Schleiermacher in Germany. Here is a brief excerpt from Bavinck’s incisive appraisal of this approach:

One then, naturally, slips into the error of confusing and equating religious feeling with sensual and aesthetic feeling. Known to us all from history is the kinship between religious and sensual [erotic] love and the passage from one to the other. But equally dangerous is the confusion of religious and aesthetic feeling, of religion and art. The two are essentially distinct. Religion is life, reality; art is ideal, appearance. Art cannot close the gap between the ideal and reality. Indeed, for a moment it lifts us above reality and induces us to live in the realm of ideals. But this happens only in the imagination. Reality itself does not change on account of it. Though art gives us distant glimpses of the realm of glory, it does not induct us into that realm and make us citizens of it. Art does not atone for our guilt, or wipe away our tears, or comfort us in life and death.

[Reformed Dogmatics, volume 1, p. 267]

To be clear, Bavinck does note the positive connection between religion and art: “From the beginning religion and art went hand in hand. The decline of the one brought with it the decay of the other. The ultimate driving force of art was religion. …In religion, specifically in worship, the imagination has its rightful place and value.” (Ibid., emphasis mine)

Take an hour out of your day and watch Roger Scruton explain the value of art, beginning with an engrossing display of 20th century art as rebellion against form:

For more on Scruton’s work on aesthetics:

Beauty: A Very Short Introduction

The Aesthetics of Architecture

Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation

Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation

His latest book is the publication of the Gifford Lectures from 2010 at St. Andrews.

Here is Pope Benedict XVI describing why the organ is better than guitars in worship:

The organ has always been considered, and rightly so, the king of musical instruments, because it takes up all the sounds of creation – as was just said – and gives resonance to the fullness of human sentiments, from joy to sadness, from praise to lamentation. By transcending the merely human sphere, as all music of quality does, it evokes the divine. The organ’s great range of timbre, from piano through to a thundering fortissimo, makes it an instrument superior to all others. It is capable of echoing and expressing all the experiences of human life. The manifold possibilities of the organ in some way remind us of the immensity and the magnificence of God.


Okay, he’s not directly contrasting with guitars, but it’s probably in his mind after a few too many hokey John Paul II masses.


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