May 14, 2007
Bach in Bethlehem
— Martin E. Marty
It has been called to our attention that in the April 16, 2007, issue of Sightings ("Evangelical Adaptations"), thanks to an article error at our source, the Wall Street Journal, the view of Prof. Craig Keener of Palmer Seminary was misrepresented. The article indicated that Prof. Keener changed his view, after reading the article author's work, to permit remarriage for certain grounds. In fact, Prof. Keener's works have always maintained that remarriage was permitted (for the explicit biblical and also analogous grounds), and he has not changed his view. In fairness to Prof. Keener and in the interest of accuracy, please note this correction.
The Center that issues Sightings is devoted to "public religion endeavors." Its leaders have always been emphatic: "Public religion" is not just about politics. As many of the Thursday Sightings articles by other contributors demonstrate, "public" includes the market, the mall, the university, the gallery, the concert hall, or wherever else diverse sorts of people or groups come together. I was attending to the concert hall so assiduously and engrossedly last week that I was unable to report on what I sighted and heard — so we skipped a week. I report now, to advance our mission and to justify my goofing off.
The concert hall in question is in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where the hemisphere's oldest Bach festival has celebrated its centennial during the two weekends past and in other ways all year. (I spoke at the festival cantata, and will do the same at the Oregon Bach Festival in July). The New York Times covered the Bethlehem Bach Festival, as did or will other national papers and magazines. It's a form of "public religion."
In his May 7 Times piece, James Oestreich sets the concerts, meetings, lectures, and displays into public context. Bach may have written out of the Lutheran tradition mainly for gathered Lutheran worshippers, but events like the Bethlehem Bach Festival draw, I presume, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and atheists (?) who do not have to show ID papers or declare whether or not they are in spiritual affinity with the intentions of the composer of the St. Matthew Passion, the Mass in B Minor, the cantata, and all the rest. We bring our own curiosities and interests, and leave with our own interpretations. Bach would not have been disturbed: He wrote "Soli Deo Gloria" ("to God alone be glory") above texts of "sacred" and "secular" music alike, and many a Bach choir today includes, for example, Jews, for whom many lines in the St. John Passion would have to be painful if taken literally and in an original context, ripped from their transcendentally beautiful musical settings.
Bach's work was "public" in Leipzig — he was in a way a public official, who had an appointment over whose details he so regularly argued — and the performances reach publics in festivals at Bethlehem, Eugene, Cleveland (which is celebrating its seventy-fifth season), and other sites. With Parker Palmer we've informally pointed to the public sphere as "the company of strangers," which one assumes a congregation itself is not, or is less so.
Oestreich, setting the weekends in their local public context, shows how autochthonous the venture is. These are local Lehigh Valley folk, with a few borrowed professionals, giving time away from other interests and mingling with others whose only common interest is sacred choral music.
But to read Oestreich is to learn that all is not serene where Bethlehem Steel used to belch flame. While the old mill rusts, locals are busy in public debate over whether or not a casino would be good for the valley. Insofar as "gaming" is "playing," Bach would not mind: Festival lecturer Michael Marissen and the Paul Taylor Dance Company demonstrated that Bach's "Soli Deo Gloria" would be a natural fit.
At the same time, insofar as and because casinos are deceptive, exploitative, and unfair, one might like to think that Bach could write some savage and scornful music for their portentous presences — something he was also capable of doing. The "civic tradition," says the Times, "built over decades and centuries on the Moravian cultural and religious ethic and the American work ethic," prospers in the face of and despite the threat of the mammon of the Sands Corporation. "A bad fit, many say," writes Oestreich.
That's part of the price one pays when "going public" with things sacred.
Further information about the Bach Choir of Bethlehem and the 100th Annual Bethlehem Bach Festival can be found at: www.bach.org.
James Oestreich's article "Bach's Captains and Foot Soldiers of Musical
Industry" (New York Times, May 7, 2007) can be read at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/07/arts/music/07bach.html?n=Top%2f
The May 9, 2007, issue of the Wall Street Journal features a review and report by Barrymore Laurence Scherer ("A Long Love Affair with Bach Brings 'Passion' to Pennsylvania"). The article discusses the public and natural settings of Bethlehem, and ponders why Leeds, Huddersfield, and Birmingham in England and Bethlehem in Pennsylvania, when still ugly industrial towns, became the homes and hosts of classical choral societies which featured sacred music.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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