Music Prayer: Barth’s Balance of Dogma and Play

Music prayer employs lyrics and notes in a unified expression of both the principles and the playfulness of our relationships with God.

Dove BackgroundMusic prayer often expresses our cries and our praises to the Lord better than verbal prayer alone (Ps 55:1; 92:1). In music prayer the right-brain’s creativity combines with the left-brain’s sense of pattern. Literal meaning in the lyrics melds with emotional meaning in the harmonies. When we respond by singing along or clapping to the rhythm, prayer rises from voice and movement, as well as from reason. And when we are hearing with this fuller understanding, music prayer broadens our minds to the possibilities of God’s response (Ps 81:1–10).

However, even church music is not prayer unless we offer it to God or receive it as though it is from him (Amos 6:4–6). We have all listened to Christmas carols, for example, as a seasonal backdrop, without noticing the person to whom they refer. On the other hand, music that is not strictly sacred can also stretch us beyond ourselves and cause us to reach for the “Other” that is God (Exod 15:11; Isa 55:8–9). This, too, can be considered prayer.

Both the sacred and secular music of Mozart provided just such a vehicle for multifaceted prayer throughout the work of theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968), a man whose life was engrossed with systems for articulating truth and establishing moral order. Born in Switzerland to a theological lecturer at the university of Basel, Barth spent his own early academic career in Germany. He studied under the powerful liberal Protestant minds of the nineteenth century, but his theology began to change in 1911 when he entered the pastorate of a small Reformed church just over the border in Switzerland.

From that politically neutral vantage, he and his congregation listened in horror as the guns of World War I demolished countless lives and with them, nineteenth century idealism. To Barth’s further dismay, many of his former professors endorsed Kaiser Wilhelm’s war, claiming that God’s will was being worked out in the emperor’s war policy1 (Isa 5:20).

Discouraged by the flimsy beliefs he had learned from these teachers, Barth began to search for a more robust system of understanding the institutional and individual sins that war had uncovered (Rom 3:21–23). He found the popular Protestant theology of Germany, where he was now teaching, too optimistic concerning humanity. It squared neither with the ugly reality of world war, nor with Scripture. Freedom from evil, Barth said, could not be attained in the human experience of truth, but only in God’s self-disclosure (2 Cor 3:17–18).

In his prolific writings, Barth insisted that human pride corrupted even organized and personal religion, all of which fell under God’s judgment (Rom 2:6–9). The 1930s confirmed his worst suspicions when a large segment of Germany’s state church threw its support behind the Nazi movement. Millions of Jews were murdered while the church claimed that God’s will was being revealed through Hitler’s plans. Barth’s objections drove him out of Germany and back to Basel, where he continued to write.

Eventually, his writings would radically reform Protestant theology. His multivolume Church Dogmatics continues to be the most comprehensive systematic theology since the war. However for Barth, this ardent advocacy of right thinking was more than an academic endeavor. In Barth’s mind, sound doctrine actually changed a person. “To know God, to have correct information about him, [was] to be related to him in a salvific experience.”2

On the other hand, Barth understood that communing with God was not limited by how perfectly he could conceptualize God (Rom 11:33). To balance his focus on objective moral principles, Barth immersed himself in the music of Mozart though he confessed, “I haven’t the vaguest idea of the theory of harmony or of the mysteries of counterpoint.”3 Nevertheless, “I have for years and years begun each day with Mozart, and only then . . . turned to my Dogmatics. . . . How am I to explain this? In a few words perhaps this way: our daily bread must also include playing.”4

Unlike Barth, Mozart revealed no doctrine in his music.5 Barth wrote, “[he] does not demand that [the listener] make any decisions or take any positions; he simply leaves him free.”6 Barth understood Mozart’s music to independently complement the “objective statements of the sacred texts . . . often in a very surprising way.”7 Barth could receive Mozart in all his playfulness; he could even play along, because Mozart gave voice to “real life in all its discord.”8 Freedom could be experienced in Mozart’s music because Mozart disciplined himself not to play to the extremes, but called the listener “to see himself as the person he really [was]”9 (John 8:31–36). “What then came forth was always, and still is, an invitation to the listener to venture, just a little out of the snail’s shell of his own subjectivity.”10

In the midst of Barth’s struggle to reintroduce the Continent’s churches to unchangeable truth, he found himself moved to prayer by the very subjective tug of Mozart’s music. “Does not every Kyrie,” he wrote, “every Miserere, no matter how darkly foreboding its beginning, sound as if borne upward by the trust that the plea for mercy was granted long ago? . . . In Mozart’s version . . . Dona nobis pacem! [Grant us peace! ] is a prayer, but a prayer already answered”11 (Ps 51:1; John 14:27).

Barth’s instinct toward balancing cognitive and emotional understanding was not unfounded. Composing in the eighteenth century for the Catholic church, Mozart himself had challenged Protestantism that it was too much “in the head.”12

Listening to music filled out Barth’s work toward a durable set of doctrines. The music renewed a childlike delight in God’s grace, and delight brought deep joy to the process of accurately describing God’s grace. Music aired the longing of his heart in a way that systematics could not. It can do the same for us. If, like Barth, we are motivated by good behavior and accurate systems that undergird our ideals, we can be tempted to allow the struggle against imperfection to become our only means of interacting with God (Eph 2:8–9). Through music prayer, we learn to play with God, not just study him. Music gives our ideals voice and hope, lifting our heads out of the fight for perfection and reminding us to delight in the
process of getting to know God and being known by him (Ps 37:1–4).

If on the other hand, we tend too much toward play, planning the next experience, or partying to drown out hurt, praying through music can ground our gifts of happiness in principles of Scripture (Eph 5:18–20). Music can fill us with the durable joy we find in hearing God’s song and singing it back to him. In music, we are able to maintain our childlike outlook, while discovering a deep delight that sustains us in the midst of pain as well as pleasure (Ps 5:11; 131:1–2).


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1Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (one-vol. ed.; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1985), 163.

2Ibid., 163.

3Karl Barth, “A Letter of Thanks to Mozart,” Luzerner Neuesten Nachrichten (21 January 1956) repr. in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (trans. Clarence K. Pott; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1986), 20.

4Karl Barth, “A Testimonial to Mozart,” Neue Zürcher Zeitung (13 February 1955); repr. in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (trans. Clarence K. Pott; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1986), 16.

5Karl Barth, “Mozart’s Freedom” (an address delivered at the Commemorative Celebration in the Music Hall in Basel, 29 January 1956) repr. in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (trans. Clarence K. Pott; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1986), 53.

6Karl Barth, “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart,” Zwingli-Kalender (Basel: Friedrich Reinhardt, 1956); repr. in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (trans. Clarence K. Pott; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1986), 37.

7Ibid., 39.

8Ibid., 33.

9Barth, “Mozart’s Freedom,” 54–55.

10Ibid., 50.

11Ibid., 56.

12Barth, “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart,” 26.

2 responses to “Music Prayer: Barth’s Balance of Dogma and Play

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