Life Can Only Be Understood Backwards

The sources I’ll probably rely on the most are Luther’s preface to Symphoniae jucundae. It’s personally one of my favorite writing of Luther because it resonates so well in my life as well as a good explanations of why music and Lutherans go hand in hand. Another source I’ll remember is the Holsinger article on Hildegard because it was so distant from what I knew about Hildegard from Great Con. One source I will thoroughly try to forget is John Butt’s article on the metaphysics of Bach. Basically whenever Spinoza is brought up, even if only to say that he will play a large role in the next chapter, I will not be a fan.

I will also remember the conversation we had about the election. It was really neat to come together and talk about it in a cordial way. We’ll have to see what happens, but I bet if we can keep coming together like that, things probably won’t go to hell in a handbasket. I also really liked our discussions about BWV 243. Usually I don’t think about her much at all, so it is good to be reminded that she is important for understanding the story of Jesus’ life.

A lesson I’ll probably use outside St. Olaf is that just because a paper has an absurd thesis, doesn’t necessitate it having a weak argument. Not only are there forces in the field to which I may be unaware, but being charitable at the outset of a paper seems like an academic virtue.

I wish we had spent more time on the theologians who influenced Luther, and what they thought about music. I am sometimes guilty of deifying Luther too much. Placing Luther in a tradition that I believe goes back at least to Augustine makes Luther seem less like either a one off madman or ecclesiastical savior, and more like a reasonable human character.

This class covered two topics which are of great interest to me and most of the people I know, quite frankly. It was enjoyable and informative, and I hope it will be taught many more times.

The title is half of a quote from Kierkegaard’s journals from 1843.

Was Jesus a Tenor?

I’m going to have to do a lot of circumlocution in this paper. I suppose that the entire point of this project is to get us to identify musical to theological links on our own. That’s probably going to be what I have to do anyway, because I haven’t found a single verifiable source that talks about BWV 38 explicitly yet. There is obviously lots of scholarship on Bach’s cantatas, much more than there is scholarship on Wycliffe and Hus. As I have thought about the process for this last paper I think that perhaps I was coming at it the wrong way. The point isn’t to get inspired by the work of another. Instead, the task is to find an argument in the music for yourself, and then use argument similar to those of more established scholars as evidence for why our argument is correct.

What I know thus far from my research is that BWV 38 comes from the second Leipzig cantata cycle. It was written for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost. I also know that some scholars think it is a rather sad piece, and that the big tenor solo should be omitted. Although I have never been a huge fan of prominent tenor solos, I think the tenor solo in this piece gives it a balance and symmetry that without it the piece would be sorely wanting. The solo also lends itself to deep theological importance. I could see a paper that would focus on the musico-theological connections of this aria alone, despite how much it would pain me to give even more attention to a voice part which too frequently steals the spotlight from its lower brother. 

In summary: although I haven’t found any sources which directly address my piece that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, and I might not even need them. If I can find other cases where music historians identify similar musical occurrences in their pieces and link them to a theological argument, I will be able to use their arguments to lend credence to mine.  

Pietism and Orthodoxy: Two Flavors in the Same Dish

In our silliness, Lutherans like to think of our tradition as being a singular continuous stream flowing from Luther’s pen to the current age. But as my research into pietism and orthodoxy has shown, this is obviously not the case. Almost immediately after its establishment, different flavors of Lutheranism began to emerge. This fact might be troubling at first, but on a second look it makes lots of sense in a Lutheran lens.

One of the most important significances of the Reformation is that the church is in constant need of reform. It is terribly dangerous to assert that the faith is completely defined and set, that its precepts are perfect and need no revision. Obviously the Augsburg confession continues to be a groundwork for our doctrines, but it does not address many of the concerns of the contemporary church. One of the slogans of the ELCA is “Always being made new.” We believe we need this constant renewal on two levels. We need it on a personal level, for although we are redeemed we remain sinners. We also need it on the institutional level, for the brokenness of our lives leads to brokenness in the church.

However while on the outside pietism and orthodoxy can seem quite opposed initially, within the lens of Lutheranism they can be seen as quite hand in hand. At the core of both movements is the preaching of the Good News. This preaching manifests itself in different ways, in different communities, but this also is good news! We needn’t be carbon copies of each other in order to be living the faith in an authentic way. Just like Pastor Matt explained that we shouldn’t think of translations as faux pretenders, but rather as living expressions of the same word. This is how I’ve come to think about different expressions of Lutheranism in the 17th century.

Christmas Fest is both Sinner and Saint.

As Lutherans assert that humans are simul justus et peccator (simultaneously sinner and saint), so I will assert that Fest is too. To put it in the vernacular, Fest is… complicated. It is quite consistent with Lutheran theology that things like Fest happen at schools like St. Olaf. Most fundamentally, Fest could be understood as a service of the Word, in the sense that the songs are meant to entice the listeners and singers to reflect on the gospel (when I say gospel I mean “Good News”) message of the birth of Jesus. In this sense, Fest is a perfect example of evangelism. It also makes sense from a Lutheran point of view of vocation that we spend so much time and energy on it. Having been justified by Christ’s death and resurrection, we can spend time working for the good of our neighbor by learning lots of songs  that elucidate the gospels, and singing at them.

The thought that music has the ability to bring greater understanding of the Good News is consistent with Lutheranism too. We’ve been using music as an instrument of edification since the Reformation. My personal research has also shown that proto-reformers whose ideas greatly influenced Luther, namely Hus and Wycliffe, held similar views on music as Luther. Thus, at its best, Christmas Fest is St. Olaf staff, faculty, and students, working together to share the Good News with the community at large.

However, we must also address the sinner side of Fest. To begin with, it seems problematic that people have to pay to see it. From a Lutheran standpoint, money should not influence how much one is able to participate in the church. It is a particular fault of our society to conflate the acquisition of wealth with God’s favor. The belief that one being rich indicates that one is favored by God is a stumbling block over which the Puritans fell, and over which the political right in America often falls today. I grant that Christmas Fest is not cheap to produce. It requires the time of many professionals whose services cost money, and those services  should be highly valued and adequately compensated. However, upon considering that Jesus was poor and disadvantaged enough in his society to be born in a barn, it seems awfully ironic that St. Olaf would prohibit the demographic to which Jesus belonged in participating fully in the celebration of his birth. If it is true that one cannot serve both God and mammon (Matt. 6: 24), then it seems like we should be perfectly willing to perform this artistic unpacking of the gospels free of charge, for any who care to listen.


I also worry about the pageantry. The pomp and circumstance around Christmas Fest can seem all consuming. To a degree, we feel like we’ve worked hard, and our hard work should be rewarded by the admiration of middle aged people in Norwegian sweaters who coughed all throughout the performance and clapped for a long time when we finished. To understand this situation through a Lutheran lens, one must consider the two kingdoms doctrine. Basically this doctrine asserts that the worldly kingdom is broken, slightly tragic, and temporary; whereas the heavenly kingdom is right relationship with God, the holy, and eternal. This is really a gross simplification but I’ve probably written too much already. In terms of the heavenly kingdom, Lutherans take the apostle Paul at his word when he says “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ,” (Rom. 3: 23-24). Basically the thought is that by our own power we do only bad things, and that it is by God’s action alone that we aren’t sentenced to eternal awfulness. However, in the worldly kingdom, relative levels of blame or praise may be assigned based on how well one loves one’s neighbor (a thought which of course needs more nuance than may be provided here). The takeaway is that when Lutheran’s are at their best, they’ll do what they believe to be a loving action regardless of whether or not they receive a tangible benefit from their efforts. I understand that in order to maintain its existence, St. Olaf needs money. However, it is necessary to point out that compromising one’s beliefs in order to prolong one’s existence is not, in any way shape or form, a Lutheran value.

I also have qualms with singing in dialect. It seems really pointless to me. In most cases I don’t believe that singing in a particular dialect helps an audience understand the words being sung. This matters a lot when one is trying to convey the gospels. It also strikes me as odd that in general we only sing in dialects when we sing music that we perceive as having an origin foreign to a white, anglo-saxon tradition. We never sing early  American tunes in the style of shape note singers. We never sing Luther chorales as they would have been sung by his parishioners. We recognize that these styles of singing are unappealing to the modern listener. Why then do we insist on changing the way we sing in English a song which originated out of a non-white community or tradition? Similar questions may be raised about why we sing in foreign languages in contexts where only the vernacular will be understood by a majority of the listeners.

Christmas Fest is important to me. In some dramatic ways, it can draw St. Olaf musicians into an even closer bond with each other.. All of us recognize that Fest can be (or rather, is) a nightmare, but we get to experience this nightmare together. And for some of us extra silly folks, Fest is an opportunity to express our joy at a particular event, which we assert happened in 1st century Palestine, in a place not designed for childbirth.

Finally I would like to exclaim that it is just fine that Fest happens in Skogatorium. Lutherans should not necessarily be interested in owning the most glamorous, the most expensive, or the most beautiful. During Christmas Fest Lutherans ought to  remind themselves that that the person called Jesus of Nazareth was born in a stable; the lowliest of living establishments. We are quite fortunate to have such a place as Skogitorium. It is warm and dry, and as safe as we can reasonably hope. Performing Christmas Fest is taxing on most performers, but I have to think it’s worthwhile.

What’s a theologians favorite lawn game? Duck, duck, Hus!

I should have known better, but finding useful sources was more difficult than I figured it would be.   Initial difficulties were experienced in the mere fact that there is disagreement on how to spell “Wycliffe”. As I mention in the paper, there are a number of variants, including but not limited to: Wyclife, Wyclif, Wyclyffe, Wyclyfe, and Wickliffe. Jan Hus’ name is often anglicised to John Huss, because of the close relationship of Hus’ and Wycliffe’s theologies. Some of the online sources St. Olaf is supposed to have access to through something at Carleton are unavailable. That was annoying. Another annoying thing was that all of the primary sources written by Wycliffe that Rolvaag owns were in dire disrepair, eg. pages falling out, and destroyed bindings. This included such gems as Tractatus de Universalibus.

Some sources I was able to use included Advocates of Reform, from Wyclif to Erasmus by Matthew Spinka. Spinka does a wonderful job of framing the reformer in question before including carefully selected writings from the reformer. However, while this source was good for getting a concise background of both Wycliffe’s and Hus’ theology, music is mentioned nowhere in the book. I was also pleased to find Writings of the Reverend and Learned John Wickliffe. Although it was published in 1831, this book contained documents of Wycliffe actually talking about music, as well as quoting the very same passage from Augustine that appears in Weiss/Taruskin. This short and sweet little passage showed not only Wycliffe’s admiration of Augustine, but that their similarities in theology led to the same concerns in music. Finally in my research on Hus, I was able to find his views on music in an article entitled “Jan Hus : Religious Reform and Social Revolution in Bohemia” by Thomas A. Fudge. In it, I found the same Augustinian fears once again, and was happily surprised by the slight quirkiness of Hus. This is not wholly surprising. Hus was an ardent follower of Wycliffe, so much so that he was burned at the stake 102 years before Luther posted the 95 Theses.

Although the sources I did find were good ones, I need to find a more diverse collection of sources if I am to get a more balanced understanding of these theologians and their thoughts on music. I was successful, however, successful in linking Augustine to Luther theologically via Wycliffe and Hus.

The Pagan and the Priest: An agreement over Music’s Unique Access to the Soul

With an attentive ear, music may be heard everywhere. It can be heard in a babbling brook, in the song of birds, in the whistling of the wind, and even in the laugh of a loved one. It is difficult for human bodies to create visual images with only ourselves, whereas it is relatively easy to create sounds. However, music and the creation of sound seems not to stop at only the natural. For Plato, sight was given to humans most fundamentally for the observation of heavenly bodies, and inquiry of the natural universe. Plato believes that it is from such observation that philosophy began, which is of course his end all be all. He goes on to say that the same may be said for speech and hearing, for in a similar manner as our eyes observe the harmony in the rotation of the heavens, music and hearing allow us to access to this harmony by regulating the rotation of our souls. Plato even grants a healing quality to rhythm, that it was given us to counter “the graceless and irrational” ways in which humans so often act. From a Platonic perspective, music would be valuable in worship for the healing properties it has for the wayward soul. Music could also serve as a vehicle with which to give thanks to the gods for the gift of the senses.

Although Athens may have little to do with Jerusalem, Platonic ideals of music were not lost on St. Augustine. Augustine is quite explicit when describing the power music had over him. Music seems for Augustine one of the few ways in which he was able to access the joy that was to accompany right faith in Christ. Augustine even goes so far as to say “A man rejoicing in his own exultation… burst forth into sounds of exultations without words, so that it seemeth to he, filled with excessive joy, cannot express in words the subject of that joy.” (Weisse-Taruskin, p. 25) For Augustine, music done in the right manner could express more adequately than mere speech the impact God could have on the soul. In Augustine’s perspective too it seems fitting that contemplation of the divine should be accompanied by music.

Few people have theologies that differ as grandly as that of Plato and Augustine. However in both their perspectives, music in its proper form is uniquely empowered to access the soul, which is why both a Greek pagan and medieval Christian can agree on music’s importance in worship.