The Bach Passions in Our Time

Contending with the Legacy of Antisemitism

How should one respond when art is both beautiful and religiously intolerant? When it raises the spirits to a higher plane but uses scripture that degrades and rejects our religious neighbors? Written in 2005 by Tom Hall, Chris Leighton, and Michael Marissen as a companion piece to for Michael Marissen’s Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach’s St. John Passion (1998), The Bach Passions in Our Time: Contending with the Legacy of Antisemitism tackles these difficult questions, asking readers to engage our sacred texts and art in a new light. The project was also relaized through a radio production, entitiled What to Do When the Words Hurt: Religious Intolerance in Western Culture.

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In 1965, Pope Paul VI issued a “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” Nostrae Aetate (In Our Time). In this extraordinary document, the Catholic Church repudiated the charge of Deicide against the Jews, stating that Jews should not be held responsible for the death of Christ, and that “the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from Holy Scriptures.” Forty years after Nostrae Aetate, the charge of Deicide no longer holds a prominent place within the Christian imagination, yet the threat of religious intolerance continues to imperil our world. In this day and age we cannot reduce the problem of ideological hate to religious extremism without also contending with a legacy of hostility that calls into question attitudes and assumptions deeply imbedded in Western culture.

The Bach Passions in Our Time is an attempt to examine the position that Bach’s St. John Passion and St. Matthew Passion has played in the long history of religious intoler­ance. As icons of western culture, these two masterpieces receive frequent performances all over the world. Does Bach’s music, advertently or inadvertently promote antisemitism? The historical record is rife with examples of the Gospels of John and Matthew being employed by those who promote an anti-Jewish view. Are Bach’s musical renderings of the Passion story implicated in this record? If so, should two of the most towering artworks in the history of music be removed from the repertoire because they offend and hurt? Is there room within the faith traditions of Christianity and Judaism for reconciliation and understanding, and can Bach’s music be a part of that endeavor? This brief volume will provide the framework with which these and related questions can be explored.