Religious Music and Public Religion

Both sociologist Grace Davie and law professor Angela Carmella have described the ways in which cultural artifacts rooted in religious traditions can take on a public aspect.  That is what seems to be described in this piece by James Oestreich about a series of concerts featuring Bach’s music at Trinity Church with the unfortunately saccharine name, “Remember to Love.”

I say “seems” because Oestreich is obviously conflicted about describing either Bach or his music as religious.  And in the process I think that he misses what is special about Bach’s music — and the reason that its religious quality was perhaps a particularly apt choice as, to use Davie’s term, a “public utility” on the ten-year anniversary of September 11.

Bach’s interpretation of religious themes in his Masses, cantatas, and so much else moves from ineffably serpentine complication to clean, satisfying resolution.  When a piece of Bach’s concludes, there is the distinct sense that a very difficult affair has been worked on, labored through, and that one emerges into a place of light where all is, at long last, right with the world.  Bach is, for me, the greatest composer of all time, and it is because he perfected this suite of emotions in his music — the human struggle from spiritual darkness to the peace of illumination — that his music resonates so deeply across time.

But this is exactly a religious theme, interpreted by Bach in religious texts, and which inspired in him this music.  The source of his creation, just like the site in which it was experienced yesterday, is ineradicably religious.  This is difficult for some to acknowledge, because of the sense that the civic polity stands apart from religious experience, or that it does not need its ministrations, or even that to indulge in them somehow violates the Constitution.  But to deny the ways in which religious music can contribute to the public or civic landscape is to misdescribe profoundly the nature of the relationship between religion and the state.  — MOD

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