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Bach’s Dialogue with Modernity: Perspectives on the Passions

John Butt
Published by Cambridge University Press in 2011

In the arts, most of us will be familiar with the notion of a “classic.” If we take a college course in English literature, the history of art, or Western architecture, we will likely be introduced to human artifacts that are widely regarded as so important, so influential in shaping our culture, that a basic education would be seen as incomplete without at least some mention of them—King Lear, the Mona Lisa, the Parthenon. In the midst of tangled debates about just what it is that marks out a classic, many will speak of something like “transcendence,” the work’s capacity to outlast its time and speak to cultures vastly different from its own. Classic works, it is often said, touch on matters that are “universal” to the human condition (love, death, faith, and so on).

With the so-called “postmodern” turn in academia, the notion has fallen on hard times. A “classic” is typically regarded as the expression of the particular power interests of the Western white (often Eurocentric) male, and not in any sense “universal.” Here the suspicion is in fact being directed at the very possibility of transcendence, the belief that something, or even someone, can stand above the flow of time and history, space and place, hover above the teeming and irreducible particularity of society, politics, and cultural history, and gain some supposed “universality.” The concept of a “work,” stable and perduring through time and space, or of a common “human nature,” extending core-like through the plasticity of place and circumstance, are no more than artifacts, fabrications, cultural constructions thrown up by the arbitrary criss-crossing of social forces.

And yet, and yet, something in us seems to resist this. However affected we might be by the chastening winds of postmodern academe, there do seem to be cultural texts that have a remarkable capacity to persist in their witness far beyond their time and place, and touch highly diverse social and cultural groups over the course of centuries. This is one of the things that fascinates musicologist John Butt about some of the music of J. S. Bach (1685-1750), and which provokes his luminous and fascinating study of perhaps Bach’s greatest works, the St Johnand Matthew Passions. 

Currently the Gardiner Professor of Music at the University of Glasgow, Butt is not only a distinguished scholar but an outstanding conductor and keyboard player. His immense knowledge of Bach, evident here and in many other publications, has been acquired as much from the “inside” as performer as it has been from scholarly studies. He also brings to the table a depth of reading in a huge array of fields, far beyond musicology and music theory. Especially striking is the way in which he is prepared to take theology seriously. He is well versed in the Lutheran thought of Bach’s milieu, in the wider theological debates of the time, and in at least some of the scholarship surrounding the biblical texts used in Bach’s Passions.

To return to his main concern, Butt is well aware that “transcendence” can be understood in strongly theological senses. But his interest is less in theology than in the ways in which Bach’s music might have “transcendent” significance within modernity. Hence the title, Bach’s Dialogue with Modernity. He sees modernity primarily as a “mindset” or group of mindsets, a cluster of mindsets associated with the culture of what is loosely called the “Modern Age” (attitudes which include, for example, a vision of “disembedded” humans in a “disenchanted” universe; the accessibility and adaptability of the natural world through human reason, yielding potentially unlimited knowledge; the privatization of religion; specific and autonomous zones of knowledge; directional change and progress; the independent, individual self, wary of an unthinking reliance on past tradition). Butt is rightly careful to note the Christian roots of at least some of modernity’s most characteristic convictions. He is also distrustful of wholesale rejections of modernity:

One of the most pernicious pieties of some self-proclaimed postmodernists is the assumption that everything within modernity necessarily points towards an ordered regulation of obedient, individualist subjects, always on the brink of some new Auschwitz. (21)

In a book like this, we might expect Butt to tell us about specific musical components in Bach’s Passions that can be read as signals of modernity—motifs, harmonies, and so forth. Rather, he focuses his attention chiefly on “the way [the music’s] various elements relate within a process created and heard in time” (21). That is to say, he is interested in dynamic processes, not static signs, with musical procedures and strategies that betray characteristically modern outlooks and thus give Bach a power and relevance beyond his own time. The emerging picture is of Bach as a composer whose music spans both pre-modern and modern sensibilities; indeed, Butt thinks Bach’s ability to take and re-configure elements of the pre-modern is itself an example of a dynamic central and integral to modernity. “What is most valuable about the modern condition,” he holds, is “the way it generates new opportunities through the combination and inflexion of diverse elements and perspectives—an attitude of permanent dialogue” (35). 


Butt’s approach is thematic; he examines various concerns and issues he believes are central to modernity, and invites us to hear Bach’s music with these in mind. “Subjectivity” is one such. Basic to modernity, Butt believes, is the tendency to conceive the self as an essentially disembodied center of individual consciousness, a tendency in part birthed by the Reformation. Even the novice to Bach’s Passions cannot help notice how much they are geared toward the individual believer, something especially evident in the solo arias, where the singer stands not in the time and place of the historical narrative, but very much in our present time, our world, drawing us into the drama so that each of us can make our own response. Butt relates this to “emergent modern subjectivities” in Bach’s era, noting a growing emphasis on self-discipline and self-construction along with a conception of the self as a unique entity awaiting discovery. At the political level, this finds expression in the notion of the absolute monarch authorized by his subjects (Butt cites Thomas Hobbes in particular), subjects who secure their autonomy through obedience to the ruler. At the individual level, Butt points to Lutheranism’s stress on the believer’s “responsibility to cultivate faith internally as the means towards salvation, without the external apparatus of traditional sacramental practice” (38),1 something especially clear in the disciplined patterns of devotion and behavior enjoined by Lutheran Pietism. Butt sees evidence of both of these in the Passions. By close attention to Bach’s musical procedures, Butt contends Jesus is presented as the absolute ruler, authorized from below by his followers. The individuals who surround him—the characters who sing the arias and the meditative choruses, and who occupy our time—invite us to share in their experience so that our own feelings, emotions and commitments can be transformed, in line with the Lutheran commitment to “the responsibility placed on the individual believer to achieve union with Christ for ultimate salvation”(43).

Especially telling is the way in which Butt relates this to broader, cosmological issues. In early modernity, the “inward turn” of the human self is concomitant with a loss of confidence in the wider order of things, that the cosmos really is our intended “home.” Butt, following Charles Taylor and others, points to the conceptual shift we find in key writers of the time: from a stress on living according to a pre-existing order external to the self, in relation to which we discover our vocation and station, toward a stress on the order that we construct or is internally discovered within our minds.Given the breakdown of pre-modern assumptions about universal resemblances within creation, about the comprehensive interconnectedness of things, together with the need for humans—in as much as they are conceived as discontinuous from their physical environment—to maintain a sense of coherence in an increasingly uncertain natural world, we find the realm of the “artificial”—what we make—increasingly distanced from the cosmic, “given” order. Butt suggests that the burgeoning fascination with musical forms and struc-tures we witness in the decades preceding Bach could be read “as a compensation for the severing of any assumed continuity with the natural order” (39). It is as if music answers to the need for a “surrogate order” (39). 

In this respect, Bach appears to straddle both pre-modern and modern. On the one hand, Butt points to what was almost certainly Bach’s own attitude to music and cosmic order—the ancient and well-rooted “pre-modern” view, held by many Lutherans of the time, that music is, or ought to be, a respectful engagement with a God-given order embedded in the physical world. And the “subject”—in this case the composer—must understand his divinely ordained vocation against this background. He is the self-effacing servant, called to be faithful to the materials he is given. On the other hand, Butt contends that Bach’s dedication to his task as a musician was of a virtually unprecedented intensity, and that “his music contains a level of constructedness that is unparalleled for its time” (63), suggesting a more modern accent on artificiality, the seemingly immense possibilities of human making. When Bach’s music was famously attacked as “unnatural” by Johann Adolf Scheibe, Bach’s defender, J. A. Birnbaum, argued that the composer was not riding roughshod over nature but improving on its imperfections. (This, we might add, ran against the Enlightenment view, at least in its earlier forms, that music should be clear, transparent, simple, and uncluttered, that it was at its best when it showed least human artifice.)

We should be clear about what is at stake here—and this is not always clear in Butt’s book. It is one thing to speak of a composer bringing forth new, more elaborate, and unprecedented forms of order through developing natural order—“improving” on it in this sense. And, further, if one believes that nature has in some sense been marred, then this calling might even be spoken of in redemptive terms—again, a form of “improvement.” But it is quite another matter to say that the pre-eminent role of the artist is to construct order out of an essentially and fundamentally disordered world, to assume that nature’s order is inherently unreliable, or (even stronger) to assume nature has no order other than the order we bring to it. This second range of views, of course, will encourage what will later become a quintessentially Romantic conception of nature as in some sense requiring the artist to become fully itself, and of the artist as a quasi-divine figure.

Thankfully, Butt does not project onto Bach the Romanticism of a later age. But he does lay considerable stress on Bach’s inventive, constructive powers, and is especially keen to do so, since he sees this as a major strand of modernity—a fast-growing confidence that nature can be brought to new levels of splendor hrough human creativity and industriousness. While there is doubtless truth here, we should surely question Butt’s view that “the Bachian approach showed that nature is as much constituted through art—that is, as a human construction—as providing the model that art must faithfully depict” (34). Could it be that Bach is in fact rather more radical than Butt supposes here? Could it be argued that Bach’s music might serve to challenge modernity’s perennial tendency to set creativity and discovery against each other, to assume that the greater the human artifice, the less the respect for created order? We shall return to this point in due course.


The combination of modern and pre-modern, according to Butt, also marks Bach’s treatment of time. Butt detects in Bach’s Passion music the emergence of a “dynamic,” “progressive,” directional temporality interlaced with the more ancient, stable, cyclical temporality typical of a pre-modern sensibility (although he is careful to point out that Bach’s is not yet the progressivist time of the nineteenth-century Germanic musical tradition with its large-scale tensions and resolutions). Theologically, Butt speaks of directional (“linear”) temporality as intrinsic to the Christian faith, together with the more cyclical time characteristic of the liturgy and the physical world at large.

Bach’s Passions, Butt proposes, move us beyond what would have been standard pre-modern views of time and history in his day—that sacred and secular history, natural and human time, form a relatively undifferentiated, seamless, and stable whole. Especially in the St Matthew Passion, we are given numerous discontinuities, unpredictable novelty, and a strong evocation of the irreducible difference between present and past. Nor is Bach captive to a one-dimensional, profane, linear time—the clock-time of emerging modernity—but rather he exhibits a subtle combination of different temporal patterns, different paces, and time-scales. Yet this differentiation and variety is normally held within a temporal stability and reliability, combined with a sense of “progressive” direction. Speaking of sections of the Mass in B Minor, Butt writes:

Bach has given us a sense of symmetrical circular time simultaneously with a linear or pro-gressive quality. The Bachian sense of time demands progress within stability, a dynamic approach to cyclic time that evokes something of the energy of a spiral. (110)

In fact—though he does not put it this way—Butt here portrays Bach’s music as presenting what most would acknowledge as a fairly mainstream Christian theological perspective on time (though the word “progressive,” of course, would need careful handling). Thus it is significant that he distances himself somewhat from Karol Berger’s recent study Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow.2 Berger’s thesis is bold—that it was not until the late eighteenth century, after Bach, that composers began to show a deep interest in directional time, the irreversible movement from past to future, an interest which signals the shift from a pre-modern (Christian) to modern (post-Christian) ethos. We find in Bach an overriding commitment to closed, cyclic temporality, evinced very clearly in the opening movement of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, “Komm, ihr Töchter” (which Berger analyses closely). For Butt, while accepting Berger’s thesis with regard to a long-term historical trajectory, and acknowledging that, for example, the opening chorus of the St John Passionis indeed strongly cyclical, not all Bach’s Passion music can be accommodated within Berger’s thesis. “Komm, ihr Töchter” is in fact far more directional than Berger allows: it reaches an open-ended conclusion (it “craves completion beyond its own span” [100]), and includes interruptions, asymmetries, and unexpected, unique events. Butt also argues that both the Passions exhibit a musical incompleteness that reaches out to an eventual fulfillment: “Bach’s music both sets up a sense of immanent crisis, on numerous levels, historical and actual, objective and personal, but also a sense of potential resolution” (117).

Meaning and Hermeneutics

Another feature of Bach’s music that Butt believes gives it power beyond its own particular situation is its ability to provoke an immense range of significance, in Butt’s words, “to generate a certain meaningfulness that is more significant—and indeed more real—than any specific meaning or message” (147). Here, then, Butt tackles the highly complex issue of musical meaning, and in particular, the semantic potential of music in relation to the meaning(s) of the texts Bach sets. He acutely observes that a “faithful” hermeneutic (one that takes the conscious intentions behind the art work as the norm for interpretation) and a “suspicious” hermeneutic (that takes the unconscious intentions as normative, whether sexual, cultural, political, or whatever) seem to be opposed to one another, yet in fact—if I understand Butt correctly—they both lean on the same questionable theory about how music communicates, namely that it transmits definite “messages” in a manner akin to a code, and that in conjunction with texts, it will conform to the literal meanings of the words.

Butt opens up a far more nuanced account of musical and musical-textual meaning, one that allows music considerably more semantic “room” to maneuver. Bach is a master at giving musical expression to the straightforward, literal meanings of the texts he sets. But what is especially striking about Bach’s composition, so Butt argues, is the way he harnesses music’s distinctive powers to generate multiple meanings, going far beyond any obvious textual meaning. (Butt aligns this multiple semantic generativity with the “maximalist” approach of the emerging natural sciences, with their relentless pushing beyond limits and boundaries. He also compares Bach’s Passions to the modern “polyphonic novel”: he was “doing musically what the modern novel was doing textually” [23].) So, for instance, Bach can pull together an extraordinary diversity of musical styles, as well as combine very different texts through contrapuntal overlay, the associations and connotations of each musical line mutually affecting and interacting with each other. Butt contrasts those who listen with “‘correct’ theological presuppositions” with those who are prepared to hear that 

something richer in its potential meanings and implications emerges, something very different from most music of the pre-modern world. Bach was creating something that had the potential to adhere to many more contexts and cultural expectations than much previous music. (32)

This, then, would seem to be a major reason why Bach’s music can be detached from its particular religious setting and speak to such widely differing audiences.

Voice and Authority

Butt goes on to argue that in the Passions, the music assumes its own kind of narrative authority: the music itself (though not of course by itself) takes on the “aura” of a narrator. The key musical technique here, according to Butt, is tonality—the arrangement of keys, a quintessentially modern device, and one that generates particular “shapes” in the temporal flow of the drama in ways that are not possible at the level of text alone. This “renders both the story and its simultaneous interpretation that much more immediate and convincing” (33).

Especially illuminating in this connection is the way different kinds of voice and narrative authority can be heard in the Passions. There is a long history of interpreting these works as essentially operatic, so intense is their drama. For Butt, there is an “anti-theatricality” to the Passions which cuts against this approach. It is evident in the way Bach scores the music for voices. The named “characters” (Peter, Pilate, Judas, and so on) are not developed as personalities—for example, Peter’s guilt spreads out and is shared between different singers: “all the named characters apart from Jesus (and the Evangelist) seem to be as anonymous and vocally ‘other’ as possible” (202). Moreover, in the original liturgical setting in Leipzig, a large proportion of the congregation would not have been able to see the performers (“the effect of the performance would have been disembodied” [207]). These are all highly un-operatic phenomena. The point is this: for Bach, more important than penetrating the historical personalities in the story (as in opera) was the need to ensure the impact of the story upon the listener. We should feel guilt and remorse for the death of Jesus, and the need for repentance; the drama must be played out in our own lives. Bach, according to Butt, was fostering the conditions for a new type of listener:

The combination of the potent generic resources of opera with the traditional Protestant imperative that the congregation be personally involved in the faith-renewing mechanism of liturgy implies a type of listenership that potentially transcends both practices. (235)

Rhetoric and Dialectic

In what is perhaps the most interesting and theologically suggestive chapter of the book, Butt explores something that has captivated many devotees of Bach: the way in which his rhetorical strategy involves not merely the reinforcement of a pre-existing certainty, message or text, but a transformative “dialectic.” So we find Bach exhibiting a subtle interplay of the predictable and the unpredictable, fashioning breathtaking expanses of music from relatively simple musical ideas (motifs, themes, and so forth) in ways that are utterly convincing and yet at the same time delectably unforeseeable. The music seems vibrant with contingency, undermining all determinisms, while at the same time being magnificently ordered. I am not convinced by the way Butt relates this to the Lutheran “dialectic” between law and Gospel (quite a different matter), but he is surely right to claim that Bach

perhaps gives us a feeling of change within a sound world that is still wedded to the sense of a broader, consistent reality. This is a sort of music that welcomes—even creates—belief, even if it cannot on its own determine what sort of belief this should be. (250)

As we have said, Bach would have believed in the grounding of music in invariable cosmic order, and in composition as needing to be faithful to this order. But the forms of this music, as Laurence Dreyfus has argued at length,3 are not like rigid templates or molds into which notes are poured, the organic unfolding of an inexorable pre-determined logic, but emerge from the qualities and character of the musical material being treated, and in ways that are hard to foresee. “This is a music that seems supremely wedded to the world of certainty and interconnectedness, yet its results, for many listeners at least, seem to be utterly unexpected and transformative” (35). For Butt, this is one of the keys to Bach’s enduring appeal: it enacts a particular dynamic, a “balance of rationality and particularity” (246), a “curious sense of order and subversion” (247). This brings to mind a (modern) sense of the “individual” composer, alert (like the rhetorician) to the effects of his music on his listeners, and thus keen not simply to repeat formulae of the past. There are also resonances with the way God the Creator is pictured: in Butt’s words, Bach “evokes a creative figure far more nuanced than the self-satisfied God which can sit back once the best possible of all machines has been set in temporal motion” (243). Further, there are suggestions of a cosmology that is possessed of an openness and contingency intertwined with reliable and structured order (of which more below).

It is hard not to be impressed by this book. The argument (and I have only been able to trace the bare bones of it) is demanding, certainly. And those want-ing a full and comprehensive, measure-by-measure analysis of the Passions will need to go elsewhere (although much detailed analysis is included). However, for depth, range and intellectual stimulation, there must be few treatments of Bach that come close to this. Certainly, it would be impossible to attend a performance of one of the Passions and hear it in the same way after reading this book; the experience will be incomparably richer. 

From the scholarly perspective, Bach’s Dialogue with Modernity exhibits the new perspectives that have been opening up in Bach studies in recent years, in which methods and issues traditionally thought to be outside the musicologist’s purview are engaged unapologetically—there are frequent references by Butt to literary theory, metaphysics, moral philosophy, the history of ideas, the philosophy of art, and so forth. Moreover, these perspectives are drawn upon without the all-too-common reductionist cast of mind that tries to subsume all legitimate inquiry under the aegis of just one disciplinary guild. Butt is hospitable to a broad range of conversation partners, and seems reluctant to criticize any particular scholar. His own positions, though cogently argued, are modestly presented (words like “perhaps,” “could,” and “possibly” feature strongly).

Especially noteworthy for our purposes, as I have mentioned already, is his willingness to take the theological character of Bach’s world seriously—a conspicuous and encouraging feature of a good deal of current writing on Bach in the secular academy. The theologian, it seems, is welcome to sit at the table of the Bach cognoscenti, to contribute as well as learn.

And yet it is just here that I have questions. Butt is quite open about his commitment to what he believes are the more positive and fruitful features of modernity—and this is a refreshing change in a climate that is all too keen to cast all things modern into outer darkness. Unfortunately, among those rudiments beloved of modernity he shows no signs of abandoning is the marginalization or privatization of religion. He notes the tension between reason and revelation in the modern mindset and the tendency to confine matters religious to a zone of “faith” largely disconnected from other aspects of life. But this is never questioned. Although quite prepared to take Bach’s own faith commitments seriously, there is every sign that with regard to religion, Butt wishes to limit himself as a scholar entirely to the restrictions enjoined by the modern project. In a telling passage, he comments:

The value of [Bach’s] music lies, I claim, not in any universal revelation it might offer (such a notion is perfectly understandable as a form of belief, but not necessarily as scholarship), but in the way it can imply a powerful dynamic relating to the modern condition. (293; my italics)

Inquiry about the “universality” of Bach’s music, then, is to be strictly confined to the immanent, this-worldly sphere, and in particular to the mindset designated by “modernity.” To ask questions that press against and beyond such strictures would, it seems, transgress the bounds of serious “scholarship.” And yet, we might ask, why should “scholarship” be denied the opportunity of asking not only if it is possible (i) that Bach’s “universality” might be in part due to his engaging dynamics of human life and of the physical world that extend beyond this or that culture, features that are at some level common to all, but also (ii) more strongly, that his music might be allowed to challenge some of the metaphysical and, ultimately, theological (even anti-theological) axes on which modernity has habitually turned? 

What is so intriguing (and even tantalizing) is that Butt’s own “take” on Bach seems to push at these very questions. Consider, for example, a comment about Bach’s music near the end of the book: “the more exhaustively the potential of the musical material is researched, the more ‘real’ it seems to become, as if disclosing more of the ultimate nature of matter” (291; my italics). One would be hard pushed not to read this as an ontological truth claim, implying that the music in some sense discloses “the way things really are.” He adds: “This could also be interpreted as the imperative to make the most of what has been received, the Christian’s acknowledgement of his God-given talents and the intention to bring them to the most fruitful issue, without wastage” (291). Quite so.

Or again, we find this remarkable claim: “Bach’s contribution is to offer us the sense of an order that lies just out of the reach of fully modern sensibilities, one that sets up keen expectations of fulfillment but which somehow seems to retain a sense of openness and unexpectedness” (292; my italics). With such assertions in mind, the Christian theologian cannot help but ask: Could it be that Bach’s music might provoke us to imagine the cosmos, and human life within it, in terms considerably richer than those offered by those “modern sensibilities” that are thought necessary for genuine scholarship, an ontology that modernity does not have the resources to generate by itself, one which would seem remarkably congruent with a biblical and Trinitarian vision of reality?

We do not have to appeal to Bach’s own beliefs and commitments to see how this might be so.4 We need only extend some of Butt’s own observations about the music. Take for example, the trajectory he skillfully appropriates from Dreyfus, that Bach’s elaboration of musical material is not governed chiefly by an external, pre-given logic but first and foremost by the musical material itself. Bach, that is, seems far more intent on exploring the logic and potential of the musical material in hand than adhering precisely to pre-existing, extra-musical schemes of organization.If we allow this aspect of his music to provoke a vision of creation as God’s handiwork, it is one in which creation is not, so to speak, a text that hides a more basic group of meanings or ideas. As many have argued, rather than theological schemes in which forms are given an eternal status in God’s mind,or schemes in which God initially creates ideas or forms and then subsequently creates the world, or schemes in which matter is created first and then shaped into forms, is it not more true to the biblical affirmation of the goodness and integrity of creation

to affirm that it is created directly out of nothing, such that it possesses its own appropriate forms, forms that God honors and enables to flourish as intrinsic to the matter itself?5 To re-quote Butt: “the more exhaustively the potential of the musical material is researched, the more ‘real’ it seems to become, as if disclosing more of the ultimate nature of matter.”

Or take the simultaneous presence of radical openness and radical consistency which Butt makes much of in Bach’s Passions, the absence of determinism—either mechanistic or organic. It is hard not to align this with theological accounts of the created order that take both God’s ordering and contingent interaction with the world seriously. So it is that theologians have spoken of the world’s “contingent order”;6 in and through time, creation is “perfected” by the particularizing, proliferating ministry of the Holy Spirit, who effects faithful but unpredictable improvisations on the harmony already achieved in Jesus Christ.Closely related to this, there are Butt’s acute observations about the “boundlessness” of musical process in Bach. Even at his most mathematical, Bach includes material that is anything but mathematically “closed.” So for example, although we find ample evidence in the Goldberg Variations of mathematical sequences and symmetries, we find these interlaced with striking and surprising irregularity.7 Writing of a crucial point in these variations, Butt comments: “Rather than coming full circle with the canon at the octave, the canons ‘overshoot’ with a further canon, now at the ninth. We have a sense of recurrence that could go on ad infinitum, but it is one in which things are somehow different at each recurrence” (109). In another place:

There is something utterly radical in the way that Bach’s uncompromising exploration of musical possibility open up potentials that seem to multiply as soon as the music begins. By the joining up of the links in a seemingly closed universe of musical mechanism, a sense of infinity seems unwittingly to be evoked. (292)

It would be hard to find the point better expressed. But can we not go further? Insofar as there is an evocation of infinity to be heard here, it is not the infinity of monotonous continuation but much more akin to the infinity of proliferating novelty of the sort a biblical theology will gladly affirm: the ever new and ever more elaborate richness and bounty generated by the Holy Spirit as the created world shares in the excess of God’s own abundant Trinitarian infinity, something that itself might be heard as a glimpse of the non-transient novelty of the future transformed creation, “in which new occurrences are added but nothing passes away.”8

Further, suppose we were to envision this cosmos as possessing this character because in its entirety it is contingent—unnecessary, the free gift of a benevolent God, whose own love has overflowed to fashion an “other” which can share in and be upheld by this same, dedicated love. In a recent article, Butt writes: “Perhaps it is not the ‘natural’ we should be looking for in Bach’s music, but its artificial, constructed qualities, since it is precisely this attitude that has made western modernity so effective.”9 But this attitude, of course, has been a very mixed blessing. Without an associated conviction about the value and inherent good order of the physical world as gift and not our possession, the constructive drive all too easily leads to ecological tyranny. If we allow Bach’s music to generate a different vision of the created world—as not just “there” in some brute, neutral sense, but as an abundant dynamic order, that possesses an inherent dynamic that reaches beyond itself, precisely because it is given in, and out of, love—then the relation envisaged between humans and the natural world, artist and physical world, composer and sound, is strikingly re-configured. Moreover, such a re-configuration will press us to question the common antithesis we so easily set up between creativity and discovery, between making and respecting. One of the striking things about Bach’s obituary is that it speaks of the composer’s “ingenious and unusual ideas” and his extraordinary grasp of the “hidden secrets of harmony” without a hint that the two have to be at odds.10 Scripturally, there is nothing to suggest that creativity, the fashioning of new things, is intrinsically at odds with a calling to honor the integrity of the world’s order.11

Or, to press another point: in speaking about Bach’s deployment of modern tonality to bring the Passion story alive for the present day, Butt remarks that this

renders both the story and its simultaneous interpretation that much more immediate and convincing. Ironically, then, a story that, from the Christian point of view, must necessarily be true, is given a particularly modern sense of reality through the mobilization of a rationalized, historically conditioned system. (33)

Why “ironically”? Presumably, because Butt thinks it odd that an “artificial” modern procedure can make something that is already true “more” true, that is, relevant, today. To which we are tempted to respond: surely this is just the work of the Holy Spirit, to employ “historically conditioned” means in every age to make the Gospel story “immediate and convincing.” This dimension of biblical Christian faith will likely be missed as long as we remain imprisoned entirely within the parameters of modernity.

And so we could continue along the same lines. Doubtless, such theologically loaded “readings” would receive short shrift in the contemporary academy, perhaps most of all because they venture into territory that breaks the mold of the immanentism of modernity (something that still haunts the corridors of universities despite the influence of “postmodernity”). For all his hospitable willingness to venture into the theological, Butt will not allow the claims of theology the status of public truth claims; they are private options, or the objects of historical investigation, but no more. Thankfully he is not under the illusion that he himself occupies some privileged high ground of “neutrality.” He is too fine a scholar to be prone to that chimera of modernity—a supposed standpoint within history which can at the same time be quite outside history. But although he permits Bach to take us to the edges of modernity’s worldview, and even to look beyond its boundaries, he will not allow the “radical” character of Bach’s music to question the metaphysical and “theological” suppositions that have generated those very boundaries in the first place.

Christian scholarship cannot afford to retreat when it reaches these boundaries, however grateful we must be to writers like Butt for leading us right up to them. As I write, many in the non-Christian academic arena are struggling hard in the face of the regnant views of what is to count as authentic “scholarship,” often at bitter cost. If Butt’s book is evidence of a new conversation emerging, it will be vital that it ensures the sheer awkward, boundary-breaking character of the Gospel is not muffled. Words of Charles Taylor, as so often, go to the heart of things:

There are certain works of art—by Dante, Bach, the makers of Chartres Cathedral: the list is endless—whose power seems inseparable from their epiphanic, transcendent reference. Here the challenge is to the unbeliever, to find a non-theistic register in which to respond to them, without impoverishment.12

Cite this article
Jeremy S. Begbie, “Pressing at the Boundaries of Modernity—A Review Essay”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:4 , 453-465


  1. Compare page 56 where Butt speaks of “the early modern Protestant tendency to define oneself through a direct relationship with Christ through faith, and developing a sense of personhood through a sense of individual autonomy.” It has been argued that the Protestant stress on freeing oneself from (certain) inherited traditions paradoxically encouraged the notion of the self as possessing god-like status—riding above time and history, and possessing the ability to read and interpret Scripture without the mediation of ecclesiastical authority.
  2. Karol Berger, Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow: An Essay on the Origins of Musical Modernity (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007).
  3. Laurence Dreyfus, Bach and the Patterns of Invention (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).
  4. This, of course is the weakness of some well-meaning Christian treatments of Bach; if we can show Bach believed this or that theological truth, it is assumed we have thereby shown that his music must express/reflect/display these theological commitments, and no others. Matters cannot be this simple.
  5. See, for example, Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study (Ed-inburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998), esp. 77-79.
  6. Thomas F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981).
  7. Peter F. Williams, Bach: The Goldberg Variations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 46.
  8. Richard Bauckham, “Time and Eternity,” in God Will Be All in All: The Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann, ed. Richard Bauckham (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999), 186.
  9. The Universal Musician,”
  10. Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel, and Christoph Wolff, The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999), 305.
  11. See Richard Bauckham’s perceptive comments about the difference between “improving” and “enhancing” in Richard Bauckham, Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation(Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010), 34-36.
  12. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 607.

Jeremy S. Begbie

Jeremy S. Begbie is Thomas A. Langford Research Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity School, Duke University.