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Posts Tagged "Karl Barth":

Music at Midnight: Taylor Carey

There’s a story that the great Anglican poet and priest George Herbert once made himself late for an important rehearsal by stopping to help a poor man in distress. Herbert re-saddled the man’s horse, and helped him on with his pack, making himself filthy in the process. Upon arriving in the midst of proceedings at the Cathedral, Herbert was asked why he had even bothered to waste his time with such a pathetic figure as the poor man on the road. Herbert replied that his deed would ‘prove music’ to him at midnight, ‘for if I be bound to pray for all that be in distress, I am sure that I am bound, so far as it is in my power, to practise what I pray for’. ‘And now,’ he added, ‘let’s tune our instruments’.

Music is a theme to which countless Christians have returned when considering matters of social justice. A striking vision of Christian society, after all, is of a well-balanced orchestra in which each player understands both the unique contribution they bring to the sound, and also the context of dependence upon others in which they operate. St Paul’s understanding of ‘gifts’, expounded in his First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 12:12), was centred on a vision of diversity and harmony in the Body of Christ, in which each member might exercise their talents as an indispensable part of a greater whole. All the while, as Psalm 69 bids us, we are called to ‘sing a new song’ of praise, ever more closely caught-up in the glory of God. That imperative to perform God’s song afresh often draws seekers of the Kingdom into the wilderness to discover the ‘still small voice’ (1 Kings 19:12) of the One who stands in judgement.

The Swiss theologian Karl Barth firmly believed that no composer could ever be thought to rival the genius of Mozart. In his own words, ‘Mozart has apprehended the cosmos and now, functioning only as a medium, brings it into song’. ‘One marvels again and again,’ he continued, ‘how everything comes to expression in him: heaven and earth, nature and man, comedy and tragedy, passion in all its forms and the most profound inner peace…It is as though in a small segment the whole universe bursts into song’.

The whole universe bursts into song. The point, for Barth, was that Mozart had simply allowed God’s continuous action to take over and shape his art. Mozart’s own emotions and ideas were always responses to, and in the service of, the ‘original music’ which is God’s constant creativity. In the words of Joseph Ratzinger, surely one of the most significant theological aesthetes of our time, ‘the joy that Mozart gives us…is not due to the omission of a part of reality; it is an expression of a higher perception of the whole’. And so, for all that his works present to us the unbearable tragedy of the human condition, and God’s judgement over against us, they also carry over the reality that God’s mercy, forgiveness, and Grace is already forthcoming and overflowing.

How then do we hear God’s ‘music’ in our own lives? One answer is provided by Jesus in an episode recorded by each of the synoptic evangelists. ‘Let the little children come to me,’ says the Lord to his baffled disciples, ‘for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these’ (Matt. 19:14). We are to become as children, so that we might inhabit God’s new creation. And, on a practical level, this perhaps means two things above all. Firstly, we are called to a purging of our ‘adultness’, which binds us to our unthinking habits, and continues to perpetuate structural injustice in a broken world. Secondly, by a rediscovery of our imagination (through what Nicholas Lash would call asking ‘childlike’ questions), we are called to an anticipation of the Kingdom. We must live in a world ‘charged’ with the energy of God – ‘It will flame out, like shining from shook foil,’ as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote – and always alive with the possibilities of the Divine. This must be our continual witness, in thought, word, and deed.


So, Herbert was right. The greatest ‘music at midnight’ is the truest resonance of God’s own perfect harmony, echoed through generations of Christians who say the Creed and transform the world. ‘The whole universe bursts into song’. Indeed. And it’s about time we listened.




Thought for the week: am I pointing towards God? – Taylor Carey


Throughout his writing life, one painting hung above the desk of the famous theologian Karl Barth. It was Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion, which, in its original form, made up part of the great Isenheim Altarpiece built for a monastery in Alsace. The Crucifixion is a shocking and intensely moving masterpiece. Christ’s body is pitted with lacerations and sores. His fingers are splayed in agony, whilst his ribbed chest heaves against the onslaught of his violent demise. It is impossible to contemplate Grünewald’s masterpiece without absorbing a crucial message: here is a God who speaks to the suffering, because here is a God who suffers.

But there is more to the Crucifixion than mere morbidity. Standing beneath the Cross, pointing towards his Master, is the figure of John the Baptist. This is clearly anachronistic, since John was executed, upon the orders of Herod, in 29 AD. Yet Grünewald isn’t making an historical mistake; on the contrary, Karl Barth, for one, took the interaction between Jesus and John in this painting as deeply symbolic of the basic model for Christian life, witness, and worship.

Behind the figure of John are the words given to the Baptist in the Fourth Gospel: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30). For Barth, this disclosed an essential truth about the vocation of the Church. Christians must become ‘signs’ that point to God. We must be that ‘pointing hand’ which directs everything beyond ourselves, to the One who has already turned towards us. Only when it does this is the Church fulfilling its purpose and mission. In a quite different context, this idea can be found amongst the sayings of the Desert Fathers of fourth-century Egypt, who maintained that ‘Our life and death are with our neighbour’. Our lives must be liberated from the constraints of our own ego, to be made into signs that, like the Baptist’s pointing hand, lead our gaze to God.

But this is not just a God ‘above’, a God who is distant from earthly woe. Our gazing at God brings us into the deepest reality of this world, since that is where God is to be found, in stillness, silence, and prayer. Far from forgetting the troubles, injustices, and joys we face on a daily basis, by becoming a pointing hand, we bring a little of God’s freedom into them, and we inhabit them in a radically new way.

This week, many will participate in a prayer vigil for Gaza. Our prayers for all those in that region, whose plight can be so easily forgotten, are not simply naïve requests for a convenient celestial solution. Rather, they are responses to an urgency of suffering, made by women and men who seek to place themselves as an interface between a dire need and the constant activity of a loving and creative God. The Christian who prays about Gaza seeks to make themselves into a sign, or a pointing hand, in order to bring about a transformation of humanity, and to bring something of God’s creative freedom to bear upon situations of tragedy. They seek, in the words of a well-known prayer, to be made into ‘instruments’ of God’s peace. This undoubtedly involves facing up to the terrible depths of human sin and error, but, as Grünewald’s suffering Christ shows us, these are depths already endured and overcome by God’s love.

So, are we living up to the Baptist’s model as ‘pointers’ to God? Do we, in our daily lives, stand before the Cross, and commit ourselves to dispossession and embrace? Christ’s body might be ugly and distressing – more so with every death and bereavement in Gaza – because this is a body totally transparent to the reality and suffering of the world. And yet, like Grünewald’s masterpiece, it is also surely beautiful, because it speaks of hope, and of God’s presence here and now. And so it speaks of a world of peace, of swords beaten into ploughshares, and the Church at last singing the very music of God.

Editor’s Note

I find this piece by  Taylor very moving, as I expect our readers will too. As a footnote I add a picture of the Crucifixion hanging above Barth’s modest desk.170px-Karl_Barth_Desk



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