Monday, March 26, 2007

J. S. Bach: The Passion According to Saint John

When I was an evangelical Christian, of the four gospels, the one I loved most was John's. Sure, Mark writes the tautest plot, Matthew charms with his Christmas story, and Luke betrays the compassion of a doctor for the sick. But John, in the most argumentative and dramatic of the gospels, unveils the Power and the Glory:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

And that gospel-in-a-nutshell, that bribe disguised as a gift of love, that verse memorized in Sunday School and thrust into the faces of unbelievers:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.

So it was with some shock I heard John’s words again, in Bach’s Passion, and realized how anti-semitic the gospel is. The crowd, repeatedly called “the Jews,” bays for Jesus’ blood, despite Pilate’s insistence that he finds Jesus not guilty of any crime, and when Pilate offers to release him, the Jews ask for the release of Barrabas the murderer instead.

Charles Brink, the music director and conductor of the Grand Tour Orchestra performing the Passion, writes in the program:

Quite a lot has been written about the anti-semitic nature of St. John’s text, and the propriety of altering or preserving the words in modern-day performances. While not trying to explain away the disturbing elements of the text, I hope our performance will convey what I think are by far the most important messages in Bach’s St. John Passion—those of redemption, love, and forgiveness.

It is a hard decision to make, whether to alter or preserve the words, and I am not sure if I would decide differently if I were in Brink’s place. However, his explanation seems to exculpate Bach by putting the blame on John. According to Brink, the anti-semitism, “the disturbing elements,” belongs to John’s “text” while Bach’s Passion conveys the “most important messages…those of redemption, love and forgiveness.”

I think, in both John and Bach, the messages of redemption, love and forgiveness cannot be separated from the anti-semitism. John’s argument is that the Jews, by rejecting Jesus as their king, have given away God’s salvation to the Gentiles. Bach seemed to have understood in the same way the relationship between that rejection and his own salvation. His Passion orchestrates, and sharpens, that dramatic relationship he found in John’s text. As a Chorale puts it:

Christ, who makes us blessed
And has done no wrong,
Was seized for us like a thief
In the night,
Led before godless people,
And falsely accused,
Ridiculed, mocked and spat upon,
As is said in the Scriptures.

The artistic integrity of the Passion seems to me to depend on the dramatic confrontation between the Jews and Pilate over the fate of Jesus. And that integrity, with its unsavory underside, may be a better reason to preserve the words of the Passion.

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Passion According to Saint John
The Grand Tour Orchestra
Charles Brink, music director
Hélène Guilmette, soprano
Renée Lapointe, mezzo-soprano
Matthew Garrett, tenor
Randall Scarlata, bass-baritone

Conflitti di Voci Chorus

Sunday, March 25, 2007, 3 p.m.
St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church


Rui said...

hi Jee Leong,

some thoughts. i thought for quite some time about whether or not to post them.

The text of John's Gospel does, as you note, repeatedly point to 'the Jews' as the people who persecuted Jesus and called for His crucifixion. i also agree that the confrontation between Pilate and 'the Jews' contributes significantly to the narrative's dramatic power.

However, i disagree that John's text is therefore anti-semitic in nature. The fact that the crowd was Jewish is relevant to the narrative, because it provides a motive for their animosity towards Jesus - they believed Him guilty of blasphemy because of His claim to be the Son of God, which was in essence a claim to equality with God. According to Jewish law, this was a crime punishable by death. Labelling the crowd as 'Jewish' therefore helps to give a reason for their behaviour. There is no evidence that John was personally biased against the Jews.

Also, John himself was Jewish. As was Jesus, who celebrated the Passover (arguably the most important of the traditional Jewish festivals) with His disciples the night before His death. We would have to take these points into account when considering whether John's text is anti-semitic.

Holding this particular group of Jews responsible for the crucifixion does not equate to blaming the entire Jewish race in general.

Not only is there no basis for seeing John's Gospel in itself as anti-semitic, a reading of the rest of the New Testament would show that justification of hatred towards the Jewish race is not consistent with the Bible. Redemption is given to both Jews and Gentiles who accept the Gospel.

As a Christian, i am disturbed by the suggestion that John 3:16 is a 'bribe'. The 'briber-bribee' relationship is dependent on an unequal balance of power: the one offering the bribe is usually in a subordinate position, and the one accepting the bribe is in a position of some sort of power. Calling the Gospel a 'bribe' denies God's sovereignty and reverses the relationship between Creator and created. Also, it makes Christianity appear like an illegal under-the-table transaction. i'm not sure if this was the intention, but it is what the word 'bribe' suggests.

i know, Jee Leong, that you are an atheist, so your perspective on the issue is probably fundamentally different from mine. i just thought that it was worth thinking about and discussing.

2 cents,

Jee Leong Koh said...

Dear Rui,
thank you for posting your long and thoughtful comment on the anti-semitism in John's text. Here are some of my thoughts in response to yours:

I don't feel bound by that tradition of biblical interpretation that sees the whole of the Bible as consistent with itself. Given that the different books were written at different historical times, by different writers and compilers, the logical assumption seems to be that the Bible will contain a variety of views and ideas. Unless of course I believe that the Bible is God's inspired Word, and God cannot contradict himself, which I don't. Believe, that is.

If I don't assume that the Bible is self-consistent, then significant differences emerge from the different gospel accounts, also written at different times.

Whereas John insisted on calling the crowd "the Jews," Mark called the crowd "the crowd." In fact, Mark highlighted that it was the Chief Priests that whipped up the crowd's blood-lust: "The chief priests accused him of many things." (Mark 15:3) and also "But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead" (Mark 15:11). Mark who gave the earliest account of Jesus' life, according to Biblical scholars, placed the blame for Jesus' death on the Chief Priests. This is very unlike John who placed the blame squarely on "the Jews," an entire race, instead of a group, a crowd, of Jewish people.

The argument that John is Jewish and therefore unlikely to be anti-semtic is not persuasive to me. One can be Chinese and a sino-phobe. Self-hatred is not an uncommon phenomenon. Many gay people, before they learn the hard lesson of self-acceptance, would have experienced that.

We should also not forget the way John's text was appropriated by anti-semites throughout history to justify the persecution of the Jews. One particularly difficult thought that occurred to me during the performance of Bach's Passion was his German identity. Nationalism was a powerful force in the Nazis' anti-semitic campaigns.

To call John's text anti-semitic is not to deny its expressive power and beauty, but to attend to its use of anti-semitism to generate that power, that beauty. Eliot's "Gerontion," among other poems, is anti-semitic: "The jew squats on the window-sill." Part of its aesthetic power lies in its identification of the enemies of civilization, the historical accusation against the Jewish people.

As to my calling John 3.16 a bribe, my view is entirely personal, but also justifiable. Faced with the stark choice between eternal death and eternal life, I cannot look at God's love as unconditional love.

Jee Leong

Rui said...

hi Jee Leong,

Thank you for your thoughtful response. i think we've just proven that it *is* possible to have a reasonable, un-hysterical conversation about religion.

i'm sure that you've thought long and deeply about issue of love and freedom, both when you were a Christian and after you left the church; and in relation to both Christianity as well as normal human relationships. So i won't rehearse the standard Christian arguments here. Suffice to say, for the people reading this blog and who may be following this conversation, that there *are* arguments. My personal view is that i prefer being allowed to choose either eternal life or eternal death instead of having the decision forced on me. i prefer being allowed to choose whether or not to reciprocate God's love. That freedom of choice is integral to my view of myself as a rational, thinking human being. i wouldn't have unconditional love expressed in any other way.

Thanks once again for sharing your thoughts.

:) Rui

Rui said...

oops, make that:

"i'm sure that you've thought long and deeply about issue of love and freedom, justice and mercy...."

all the best,
:) Rui