Robert Shaw, a perceptive sleuth of quality and one of the 20th century's finest conductors, said that J. S. Bach might be the "single greatest creative genius" in the "whole history of the Western world." Mozart said of Bach's works, "Now there is music from which a [person] can learn something." Brahms commented, "Study Bach: there you find everything."

It isn't only experts who know that Bach stands high on the list of creative geniuses. Recordings of his music abound, books about him continue to be written, there are Bach festivals in places like Pennsylvania and Oregon, and he is popular not just in Germany but in Japan as well. His music is heard more often in the concert hall than in the church, though ironically most of it consists of cantatas written for worship. In the face of this concert-hall success, why should we 21st-century Christians listen to the music of a German Baroque composer who died in 1750? And given the church's impulse toward relevance and marketing, can we use his music at all in 2007? If so, how?


One of the graduates of the Master of Sacred Music degree program I direct says she is a Christian because of Bach. She is not the only person who has told me this. Bach's reputation as the "fifth evangelist" (after Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) still reverberates today.

Bach's cantatas proclaim the good news of God's mercy in Christ. They do not seek to manipulate or sell anything. They simply announce what God has done and does. By doing so, they extol God with "boundless freedom" that is paradoxically bound to form because of the Incarnation, to quote Jaroslav Pelikan. Bach's music lives out the church's presupposition that music is for the glory of God and the edification of one's neighbor. ...

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