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.
Comment by Debbie Hudson on July 31, 2017 at 8:03 pm
What a beautiful article sweetie.
Comment by Dr. Jeffrey Neufeld on August 1, 2017 at 11:40 am
Amazing article Ms. Royer. This long-time church musician also continues to be inspired by the “ancient” J.S. Bach and the “future” Keith Green. Soli Deo Gloria!
Comment by Keith Green on August 1, 2017 at 8:10 pm
Excellent comparison of my two favorite musicians. Both innovators in their own genre. Both fought opposition from the church. Both are amazing musicians.
P.S. It is merely coincidence that my name is Keith Green.
Comment by Stephen on August 5, 2019 at 10:48 am
Comment by Greg R on August 3, 2017 at 5:55 am
So glad to see such a great contemporary article about Keith! And every word you wrote about Bach is dead-on. Love this article!!!
Comment by Alexander Keith N******** on August 5, 2017 at 12:25 pm
This is an excellent analysis of two musicians who changed the world. It’s sad that so many Christian musicians follow Keith Green musically while few, if any, follow him spiritually. As a 23-year old, Keith is still a heavy influence on my life in spite of his death a decade before I was born.
Comment by Kathy on August 5, 2017 at 12:30 pm
Absolutely love this article. Two of my all-time favorite musicians. Already gratefully familiar with Keith Green (part of my worship experience for over 35 years) but led me to do a bit more study on Bach. Always said I can’t wait to worship God in music with King David and Keith Green. Now I add Johann to the list.
Comment by Steven P Williams on August 5, 2017 at 12:55 pm
This is Steven Patrick Williams in Gold Bar, WASHINGTON.
God took my heart away from the world in 1980. At 17 years old I walked into a Christian book store and then I heard a song by Keith. I so identified with him as a young singer songwriter. 37 years later I work in my work shop as a reclamation artist while listening to this timeless music. J.S.B is in the CD changer as well. God’s creativity in me flows out of me while we commune together through music that honors our savior!
Comment by Martha on August 5, 2017 at 1:46 pm
Wonderful article on two amazing musicians and men of God. They both were truly inspirational!
Comment by Lee Ann on August 5, 2017 at 1:53 pm
The threads of inspiration are woven through the centuries…..the same God who is the author and finisher of our faith! What an inciteful article bringing two incredible men of Christian faith into their connection in music! Love this!
Comment by Karey T on August 5, 2017 at 2:25 pm
The lyrics to “Oh Lord You’re Beautiful” are different than on my Keith Green album. Close but different. Just wanted to give you a heads up. Love, love this article. I was also heavily influenced by Keith Green’s life and music and have new respect for Bach. Thank you for sharing!
Comment by Faith McDonnell on August 16, 2017 at 4:13 pm
They are different because the original way that Keith introduced it and sang it publicly was altered a bit when it was put on an album. Some of us like the original version better, with the reference to the unread Bible, and also a verse about martyrs who shed their blood for Jesus.
Comment by Arlow Cain on August 5, 2017 at 3:06 pm
The life and music of Keith Green profoundly impacted my life even to this day and I’m sure until the day I leave this world. He showed me with his actions that the most important opinion is the one of my savior not the opinions of this world. There’s not one Keith Green song that I can’t play and sing. I love his music and I love the message that he left behind. Take up your cross and follow Jesus. Until we meet…..
Comment by Michael Clark on August 5, 2017 at 4:50 pm
Love it. Thank you for the comparison of these two musical legends. It’s been a while since I heard the works of Bach described this way.
Comment by Tom Anderson on August 5, 2017 at 4:50 pm
It’s a little funny seeing an article about Keith on a page with Ecumenism in the title. 8)
Comment by Faith McDonnell on August 16, 2017 at 4:15 pm
Remember, we are JUICY Ecumenism! We are the real ecumenism that find that the ground is level at the foot of the Cross! Not the ecumenism of watered down gospel and secularized spirituality.
Comment by Tom Anderson on August 5, 2017 at 4:56 pm
Excellent article! Thank you for honoring Keith.
Comment by David on August 5, 2017 at 6:33 pm
Love both Bach and Keith! and share their love of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who with the Father and the Sprit is One God, The I Am & Elohim, now and forever blessed! Amen
Comment by Elizabeth Rogers on August 5, 2017 at 7:06 pm
Both men with great testimonies by using the great talent G-d gave them. Both taken on the same date….Their music still confesses their love for Christ!
Comment by Janet Howden on August 5, 2017 at 7:10 pm
Thank you for such an insightful article. I loved Keith Green’s music and was so grieved when he died. I like many others look forward to the day when we shall all worship together around the throne of God!
Comment by Patricia Miller on August 5, 2017 at 7:37 pm
Ooh so good to see this article. One of my favorite of Keith’s songs is “O Lord, You’re Beautiful”. I am currently preparing “Jesu Joy of Mans Desire” on classic banjo for a banjo rally in Oct.
Comment by Casey Horne on August 5, 2017 at 9:42 pm
Keith Green is one of 3 men who are responsible for the faith I have, my ministry, and the life I live. The other 2 men are my grandfather and a pastor named Keith Stepp who also recently went home to the Lord. Keith Greens music continues to remind me of the life Christ has called me to, and motivates me to stay passionately in love with Christ.
Comment by Bill M. on August 5, 2017 at 10:19 pm
Amazing article highlighting two amazing men of God!
Comment by Holly on August 6, 2017 at 12:49 am
Great article! Two of my favorite musicians as well, and you did a wonderful job honoring both of them! Thank you!
Comment by Shelley Stevenson on August 6, 2017 at 3:20 am
And when I’m doing well help me to never seek a crown for my reward is giving glory to you.
Comment by Shirleen Wait on August 7, 2017 at 8:17 pm
Excellent article!!! I love both men!
Comment by Paul Hurd on August 8, 2017 at 6:47 pm
Great article! I love the music of both composers. I have played and sung many of Keith’s songs, using my guitar. I also, play my own interpretation of “Yesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring” which I intermix with “Joyful, Joyful” from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. I love music that praises God. Once again, thanks for the article.
Comment by Curt on February 13, 2018 at 2:34 am
I am inspired by both Keith Green and JS Bach . Keiths music brings me back to what Christianity is to me , a burning desire to know the Lord and to fully follow Him.Its hard to find words to express the music of Bach. I am learning one of his songs on the classical guitar. “We thank Thee, we thank Thee.”