Bach and the Beauty of Christ: A Study in Theological Aesthetics

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2020

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This dissertation attempts to shed explanatory light on the work of Johann Sebastian Bach by situating it within the broader framework of Lutheran theological aesthetics. Although Bach has long been considered one of the most influential musicians in European history, he wrote very little about himself and the personal convictions that inspired his music. This vacuum has prompted theologians and musicologists to explore – and speculate about – the nature of those convictions and the historical sources that shaped them. Here I argue that Bach was a sophisticated interpreter of Lutheran aesthetics, who used music to make the beauty of Christ’s cosmic redemption more audible to his listeners.In order to defend this thesis, I adopt the following methodology: in chapter one, I present a conception of Bachian aesthetics from both theoretical and practical perspectives. In chapter two, I open up a historical vantage point for understanding that aesthetic conception: the thought of Martin Luther and his followers. Although Luther has typically been considered an anti-aesthetic figure, I follow the recent Luther scholarship of Mark C. Mattes and Miikka E. Anttila, who argue that Luther held to a radically Christocentric conception of beauty. After presenting my condensed rendering of Lutheran aesthetics, in chapter three I seek to situate music within that theo-dramatic framework. For Luther, music is one of the most beautiful gifts of God, which was created through Christ and can help Christians gain a foretaste of the heavenly beauty achieved by Christ’s crucifixion. In chapter four, then, I re-read chapter one in light of chapters two and three, with the goal of presenting Bach as a sophisticated interpreter of Lutheran aesthetics. In chapter five, I pivot to consider the implications of this study for the modern academy and church, two locales that are critical for both Bach and this dissertation. In particular, I suggest that neither the modern academy nor the modern church offer an entirely hospitable locale for studying and understanding Bach’s music. The dissertation closes by offering several alternative cultural locales for understanding Bachian aesthetics, to which both the contemporary academy and church should pay more attention.

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Jones, Nathan (2020). Bach and the Beauty of Christ: A Study in Theological Aesthetics. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/23619.

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