This week, Dr. Kelly Blewett brings us a reflection on reading, or “practicing,” scripture for our Thursday devotional. I hope you all find it as meaningful and enjoyable as I did! Thank you, Kelly!
One of the most demanding musical compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach is called “The Goldberg Variations.” Originally a set of practice pieces for a talented harpsichord student, it has become a challenging musical hurdle for generations of pianists. Today we’ll consider how musicians’ struggles with “Goldberg” can speak to the way we approach difficult Biblical passages, such as John 15.
Heavenly Father — Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer — be with us today as we read your word. Open our hearts and bring us unique insights about how these words might relate to our own lives. Guide us, Lord, that we can be faithful and fruitful, obeying you and doing your will out in the world as we practice our faith.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.
“Great is Thy Faithfulness” — Thomas Obadiah Chisholm (YouTube instrumental video for in-home worship: https://youtu.be/0QC6SPrCf8c)
“Great is Thy faithfulness,” O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not
As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be.
“Great is Thy faithfulness!” “Great is Thy faithfulness!”
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided —
“Great is Thy faithfulness,” Lord, unto me!
Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon and stars in their courses above,
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love. Refrain
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside! Refrain
The “Goldberg Variations,” composed by Bach and published in 1741, represent a kind of musical Mount Everest. Comprised of thirty variations on a melodic theme, the piece ranges from thundering to whispering, from impossibly quick to generously slow. Bach wrote “Goldberg Variations” to provide practice material to a talented harpsichord student, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (the piece’s namesake). Since 1741, musicians have found “Goldberg” both vexing and inviting.
What makes it vexing? The musical passages are intricate. And beyond technical skill, the length of the piece—which can run anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes—demands stamina. Impossibly, some musicians have memorized the whole thing. Last year I read a memoir by Philip Kennicott about his attempt to play “Goldberg” in the months after his mother’s death. Kennicott wrestled with the music like I imagine Jacob wrestling with the angel. He eventually asked his childhood piano teacher to listen to him play, and then lamented every mistake he made. The piano teacher told Kennicott to take it easy.
Like Kennicott struggling with “Goldberg,” many of us might struggle with the scriptural passages like the one shared above. Like “Goldberg,” such passages can seem both awe-inspiring and daunting. Our passage for today, for instance, indicates that Christians are expected to be fruitful. By our fruit, we are proven to be Christ’s disciples. And if we have some success at fruitfulness, we can expect to be pruned, which sounds uncomfortable. The passage raises lots of questions, such as: what does fruitfulness look like? How do I know if I am connected to the vine? How do I know when I’m being pruned? Reading passages like this can feel formidable, especially during seasons when we are worn thin, such as when experiencing a global pandemic.
Considering how Kennicott approached the music by Bach may inspire us to approach difficult passages like this in the Bible differently. Kennicott writes: “When competent musicians sit down to practice, they have in their head a to-do list: the rough spots, the complicated passages, the transitional places that need special attention” (69). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our own approaches to scripture were similarly nuanced? But what would practicing scripture really look like?
When Kennicott set out to learn “Goldberg,” he began with a healthy appreciation of the music. He set aside time to work on the difficult parts, tapping his fingers on tabletops to rehearse key parts before approaching the instrument. He watched videos of others performing Goldberg, especially Glenn Gould, who made one of the most famous recordings of the music that we have today. (You can find the whole thing on YouTube). He said that while others wanted to simply appreciate the music in an intellectual way, he wanted something different—to appreciate “Goldberg” in an industrious way: “I would be happy to know Bach’s music in a far more basic way that Goethe experienced it. I would like to know it at the level of industriousness rather than cosmic aspiration. I would like to know it well enough to play it” (172).
Like Kennicott, I would like to know my chosen text, the Bible, in an industrious way. Rereading, retreating, praying, and understanding how others read the text provide some good starting places. Doing these things may help us see thorny passages of scripture differently, moving us from what Kennicott calls a “superficial” relationship with the text to something deeper.
When I first read John 15, I was inspired by the vision of the fruitful vine. While my inspiration was earnest, it was also crude. I thought that everyone’s fruit would look the same, and that once I figured out what my fruit was, I’d be able to keep producing it easily throughout my life. Eventually, God nudged me to see that everyone’s fruit—like everyone’s giftedness—is unique and that being connected to the vine is a vibrant, changeable place. I should expect to grow and produce different kinds of fruit when I’m connected to God, not continually produce the same thing.
My understanding of the passage also deepened when I read about how other Christians interpreted it. For instance, Rachel Jankovic reflected on this passage in light of an old fruit tree in her backyard. She noticed how much fruit fell to the ground and seemed to just sit there and decompose. She realized that spiritual fruitfulness could be the same way; sometimes she would produce something and it wouldn’t be used. That was okay. She was obedient in producing it. She also realized that the fruit tree in her backyard went through long winters, when no fruit was produced. And that gave her the kind of permission that she needed to go through seasons that were similarly austere and quiet.
Reflecting and praying over this passage and reading about how Rachel read it have changed the way I see it. I expect that I may read John 15 differently in the future, and that’s okay.
One interesting thing about “Goldberg” is that while there is a musical composition that has been written and passed down since 1741, many of the choices in interpretation have differed from musician to musician. The New York Times reported at the end of August that the famous pianist Lang Lang has just released a recording of “Goldberg.” The reporter writes:
Mr. Lang…will yet again divide listeners with his “Goldbergs.” Baroque specialists in particular may bristle at his occasionally counterintuitive voicing, with unconventional emphasis on particular notes and phrases, and his rubato — rhythmic manipulation that sometimes pushes the meter toward unrecognizability. The slow 25th variation, which typically lasts six or seven minutes, is here stretched beyond ten; Mr. Lang’s studio version of the closing Aria is nearly six and a half minutes long, while most pianists stay shy of four.
Such a variety of interpretations is inevitable when we are practicing a complicated text. Our own personalities and styles will shine through, just like Lang Lang. But that isn’t a bad thing; instead reading and practicing the same text may draw us closer together with other Christians. Even when our interpretations differ, we have similar aims: to know God and to get closer to him. We aim for something like Kennicott experiences when he plays Bach well:
When things are going well, there is extraordinary pleasure in playing Bach . . . the music is both familiar and fresh and hasn’t faded from the memory through neglect, the fast passages will feel elegant and infallible . . . When things go well, Bach emerges and the self retreats . . . one has the sense that the perfection and autonomy of the music summons the composer himself. (122-23)
Unlike Kennicott playing Bach, however, we are blessed to be reading a text whose author is alive and can reach through the text to communicate with us. May God emerge for each of us as we reflect on His word this week.
Holy God, we thank you for your faithful presence in our lives. Help us abide in you and practice the Bible with the patience of a musician learning a difficult score. May your word be both familiar and fresh to us this week and in the future. We ask this in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Barone, Joshua. “Lang Lang, Piano Thunderer, Greets Bach’s Austere ‘Goldbergs’.” New York Times, 21 August 2020.
Jankovic, Rachel. Loving the Little Years. Canon, 2010.
Kennicott, Philip. Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning. Norton, 2019.