This weekend, I honored the anniversaries of the deaths of the two musicians I consider most formative in my understanding of worship: Johann Sebastian Bach (July 28, 1750) and Keith Green (July 28, 1982).
The Bible refers to singing more than 400 times and has 50 direct commands for us to sing to God. Its longest book, the Psalms, is exclusively a book of worship. Moreover, it’s virtually impossible to imagine Church history without music. Martin Luther’s view of music as the synchronization of sound and theology led him to believe that, “Next to theology, music deserves the highest praise.” The chants, hymns, and worship songs sung through the ages serve as the hallmark of many services and have uniquely drawn billions of people closer to Christ. Just as God is multifaceted, singing multidimensionalizes our theology. It mysteriously imbues our words with emotion. Both Bach and Green used their musical talents to powerfully engage the politics and the culture of their times.
Johann Sebastian Bach is enshrined as one of the greatest musicians in history. The Baroque composer’s music beautifully exemplifies the dualism of the luxurious majesty of royal society and the intricate calculation of the Age of Science. His crowning genius was his amalgamation of devilish melodic structures to develop sublime harmony. He stunningly portrayed God as high above the heavens reaching down to care for His creation and, in doing so, built a cornerstone of many worship traditions.
Orphaned at age 10, he fought continually and often bitterly with town councils that claimed he was a stubborn loon who refused to relinquish his obsolete music. He died in obscurity, foregoing fame in pursuit of fidelity. It’s all the more astounding that Bach, a liturgist in his own rite, wrote his greatest music in his most trying surroundings. A sustaining Lutheran faith and love of the Lord is displayed in most of his chorales that are heavily influenced by a lifelong study of Scripture. Friedrich Nietzche, one of Christianity’s harshest critics, confessed that upon listening to Bach, “One who has completely forgotten Christianity truly hears it hear as Gospel.”
Keith Green was a hippy vegetarian recovering from a youth of drugged disillusionment and cultural chaos. A classically trained child prodigy, he spent the majority of his years on a troubled quest for spiritual significance that culminated in an abounding love for Jesus Christ. Convicted by the evangelist Charles Finney’s calls for devotion and action, Green confrontationally and often controversially rebuked the Church for its lazy complacency in the cultural malaise of 1970s America.
Green modeled what he prayed for by housing prostitutes, the homeless, biker gangs, and pregnant women considering abortion. His wife, Melody, was an instrumental part of his success, and together, they proclaimed the Gospel as urgently and often as possible.
His countless compositions have pierced thousands of hearts. Traveling across the nation, he challenged Christians to follow Jesus and to give their lives in service of missions. Several leaders of Operation Mobilization and YWAM have stated that he was a primary motivation of thousands of missionaries that joined these organizations. A leader of the charismatic Jesus Movement of his decade, he’s widely regarded as a father of contemporary worship. Many Christian artists today cite him as a foundational inspiration. His raw anointing and spontaneous sermons never fail to convict me and strengthen my relationship with Jesus. He died as he lived when his plane crashed at the tragic age of 28 while showing church planters the facilities of his ministry.
When we think of the heroes of our faith, we list missionaries, theologians, and pastors, but often overlook musicians. Christian history is deeply indebted to both men and will forever be enriched by their transcendent legacies. They redeemed the complexities of their times and offered themselves as sacrifices of praise. Below are excerpts from some of their classics. I can’t wait for the day when we harmonize together around the Throne. Until then, I’ll keep singing here below.
Bach Cantata 39
Break your bread for the hungry, and those who are in misery, bring into your house!
If you see a naked person, then clothe him, and do not recoil from your flesh.
Thereupon will your light burst forth as the red dawn of morning,
and your betterment will quickly grow, and your righteousness go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will embrace you.
The bounteous God casts His abundance on us, we who without Him do not even have breath.
He gives only the use, although not so that we alone are refreshed by His treasures.
They are the touchstone whereby He makes known that He has dispensed poverty,
We need not return, for His loaned good, interest into His storehouse;
mercy that is shown to one’s neighbors can reach His heart more surely than any gift.
Keith Green, “Oh Lord, You’re Beautiful”
Oh, Lord You’re beautiful, your face is all I seek,
For when Your eyes are on this child. Your Love abounds to me.
Oh Lord my body is tired, but You keep reminding me,
Of many holy tireless men who spilled their blood for Thee.
I want to take Your word and shine it all around, but first help me just to live it Lord.
And if I’m doing well, help me to never make a sound, except to give all the glory to You.
Oh Lord my faith is small and I need a touch from you,
Your Book of books lies undisturbed, and the prayers from me too few.
Oh Lord please light the fire, that once burned bright and clear.
Replace the lamp of my first love that’s fueled with holy fear.