Bonhoeffer and Music

I was raised and confirmed in the Lutheran Church, and Dietrich Bonnhoeffer (1906-1945) was mentioned often in our catechism classes. It was 1964, and his death 19 years earlier at the hand of the Nazis was still fresh in the minds of many, especially my pastor. When I started playing the organ in Methodist and Presbyterian Churches (immediately after my Lutheran confirmation!), his name faded into the background. 22 years later, I once again began leading worship at a Lutheran church (Zion Lutheran-the mother German Lutheran church in Delaware) and Bonnhoeffer was still discussed often. This time I learned of his impact on the world.

Hopefully you will have joined us in reading his book Life Together. In it we learn that he was a man of unparalleled intelligence. We may disagree with some of his views, but all of his views must at least be heard. His study and understanding of music seems to have been limited, which can be the case with men of great theological intelligence. However, he did understand the IMPORTANCE of music in worship. He believed that 1) reading scripture, 2) praying in private and in public, and 3) singing God's praises were the foundations of spiritual growth.

What I have learned from reading Life Together is that as church leaders we must always be growing and moving forward to stay strong. It was heartbreaking for Bonnhoeffer to realize that the Protestant Church in Germany broke down and totally failed in the battle against Nazi oppression, mainly because of a lack of forward thinking.

We must move ahead musically as well as theologically. In every age, new hymns are written, pass through the trial and error stage, and either become a classic or one for the archive. How Great Thou Art, today one of the best loved hymns of Christians throughout the world, was completely unknown to Bonnhoeffer. It wasn't written until 1953, 8 years after his death at age 38. How many of our current hymns would he sing in his devotions if he were alive today?. I think many. How could he not be moved by In Christ Alone, Let Us Build a House, or Cornerstone ("My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood!)

He spoke out against people singing in any way that glorifies themselves and not God--i.e. the "showoff" and as a result strongly emphasized unison singing. This allows us, as the body of Christ, to literally become one voice during worship. What a spiritually uplifting experience it is on a Sunday morning in Advent to join our voices so beautifully in unison to sing "O Come, O Come, Emmauel". But, oh, when we break into powerful harmony on "Rejoice, rejoice" it's like a shaft of light bursting into the sanctuary. I think Bonnhoeffer would approve.

Jeffrey Miller