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    PloughCast 28: Rowan Williams, Shakespeare, and Doing Bach Badly

    Why We Make Music, Part 4

    By Rowan Williams, Maureen Swinger, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    April 12, 2022

    About This Episode

    Peter and Susannah have a long, polyphonic conversation with Rowan Williams about his new collection of plays, Shakeshafte and Other Plays; about a Christianity that can accommodate the whole of the world; about the poet David Jones, the artist Eric Gill, and the destructiveness of aesthetic fundamentalism.

    Then they turn to a discussion of the war, and of the role of art in a time of war. The archbishop closes in a prayer for peace and justice.

    Peter and Susannah then speak with their colleague Maureen Swinger about her piece “Doing Bach Badly,” about the history of the Saint Matthew Passion and of its role in the liturgical life of the Bruderhof. They reflect on the way that singing can put you in a position to experience grace, and Maureen recalls a very specific experience of singing as conversion from her teenage years.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Section I: Rowan Williams: Shakeshafte and Other Plays

    Peter Mommsen: Welcome back to The PloughCast. I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief of Plough.

    Susannah Black: And I’m Susannah Black, senior editor at Plough. Today, we’ll be talking with Dr. Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, about many things, and with Plough’s own Maureen Swinger about her piece “Doing Bach Badly.”

    Peter Mommsen: Rowan Williams was the 104th archbishop of Canterbury, a position he held from 2002 to 2012. He is also a theologian, a poet, and in case you didn’t know, a playwright. And his new collection of plays, Shakeshafte and Other Plays, was recently published by Slant Books. Welcome, Dr. Williams.

    Susannah Black: So the occasion for this is this book, which I will show to the camera, and which we will drop a link to, I guess, in the show notes, which is published by Slant. I’m not sure that I’d known that you were a playwright, but these were three really unusual, and in one case, pretty strange plays. The third, Lazarus, reminds me of a fragment from Dorothy Sayers’s The Man Born to be King. It’s got that flavor to it. And it was wonderful. And then the second I think we’ll talk about, at some point, Pete has an interesting related anecdote, but the first one, the play called Shakeshafte.

    Susannah Black: There were so many things that it felt impossible not to be reminded of, for me. Obviously A Man for All Seasons. The flavor, especially of the central debate between Will, young Will Shakeshafte, who is actually Will Shakespeare, and the Jesuit in hiding, Edmund Campion, who’s staying at this house that Will is apprenticed at just reminded me so much of the debate between Moore and Roper, that central debate. And the other thing that it actually reminded me of was the Grand Inquisitor episode.

    Rowan Williams: Really? Yes. Yes. Well, you cued into two very important texts. I actually acted in A Man for All Seasons when I was a student.

    Susannah Black: Can you talk about the play and how it came to be and what was going through your mind and where you were drawing from?

    Rowan Williams: Well, it began really reading a book about the last years of Shakespeare by Ernst Honigmann of Manchester University, which sets up the case for identifying the Will Shakeshafte mentioned in a 16th-century will with Shakespeare. Now, most scholars now don’t actually think this is a very strong case, but I just thought, “Well, why not? And what if?” Because I think that’s rather what you do if you’re trying to write imaginative stuff at all. But it began as a play with the simple question: if they were there in the same house, what would the Jesuit future martyr and the young future playwright have to say to each other?

    So the first scene to be written was that longish, I suppose, not confrontation, but engagement between the two of them. That is one of the, I suppose, the key moments in the play, and the rest followed. And what I found extraordinary was how relatively easy it was to listen the work into being. I could sense the characters stepping forward and speaking. I know it sounds slightly weird, but it was a bit more like listening than making it up. But they had some logic and some energy of their own and surprised me a bit at certain moments.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, it certainly seemed like that. And that central conversation, just for our listeners, this is the teenage Shakespeare who’s a servant at a large estate in northern England where the Jesuit priest Campion, Edmund Campion, is in hiding under a disguised name. And he, of course, is at risk of his life because Queen Elizabeth I is executing Catholic priests, especially Jesuits, who are in the country. It’s viewed as automatic high treason.

    Susannah Black: You compared them to ISIS fighters, essentially. That was kind of the way that they were thought of, these dangerous subversive and extremely foreign agents essentially.

    Peter Mommsen: And it’s this fascinating discussion between Will, who is of course Shakespeare, and Campion, who is a believer in a truth that requires shutting certain voices out of his head, if only so that he can face the scaffold, I guess, with sanity and courage.

    Rowan Williams: Yes. I think in the play, I really wanted to give full range to both voices. Campion, as you say, knows that for his own sanity, in a sense, he has to focus. He has to say, “Well, only one thing matters here.” But he’s also saying it is possible by martyrdom and heroic witness to turn the clock back. We could go back to the days when we took prayer for granted. And Will, although he’s a sort of Catholic, doesn’t really believe that and you can see he’s drifting away from the assumption you can turn the clock back. But if you’re not going to turn the clock back to the age of faith, what’s left? Is it just stuff that you draw out of your own insides? And as you’ll notice, that’s one of the images that kind of haunts the play. Can you make the world out of your own insides? Will is not saying that, but he can’t quite say what he can say.

    So I see Will as really standing right on the front line between traditional faith and – not agnosticism exactly, but a very troubled and almost anchorless position. And just by balancing that, it’s no accident, but in the very last scene of the play, there’s quite a lot of reference in the metaphors to wood and nails. All that we know about is the wood and the nails. The theories don’t quite catch it, whether Campion’s or Will’s.

    Susannah Black: I identify thoroughly with both of these voices. They both, while they were speaking, got me. Campion was representing – It’s not a rigid or dour or formal faith, it’s just actual Christian faith. But it’s a very Catholic faith in that it’s inflected through … There’s the script essentially of the mass, of the mass in Latin, which is kind of the thing that’s at the back there. At least it seems to me.

    And you’re throwing yourself on the reality of what’s going on through that script. That that’s not a man-made script, that these are the words that Christ gave us. And the reality that they bring into being is the reality that we are depending on. And so that’s kind of on one side, one of the voices.

    And I was like, “Yes, okay. I will go full Anglo-Catholic, or maybe I’m becoming Catholic as I’m reading this.” And then on the other hand, it’s not actually Protestantism. It doesn’t quite feel like Protestantism. It feels more like Shakespeare as Renaissance humanist, self-creating type of person who is maybe going to be getting to something that is a Christian faith. It’s kind of trusting God to bring harmony out of a more confused or a more sort of a varied understanding of truths or aspects, versions of Christianity or something like that.

    Rowan Williams: That’s exactly it on two fronts certainly. Dostoyevsky’s idea of polyphony in writing, that doesn’t really try to control things, but lets the voices have their head. You don’t even load the dice when you’re writing a dialogue, you try to give full respect to the different voices and let something come out of it. That’s very important. But also you’re quite … Shakespeare is not meant to be a Protestant. He’s meant to be somebody who just wonders what to do with religious orthodoxy in a world where increasingly it’s not getting traction or it doesn’t seem to contain the range of experience.

    And Shakespeare also knows in the play, I think, that his perspective is not everything, which is why I made him kiss Campion’s hand at the end of the dialogue by way of farewell. And he recognizes Campion as speaking for something essential. It’s just that he can’t quite find the words or find the space for it. And likewise, Campion can’t quite find the words or the space for the way that Shakespeare enters into or absorbs, realizes, the life of so many chaotic others in his imagination. So I wanted them to be not exactly complementary, but to really engage with one another.

    Susannah Black: And it does seem to me that the debate between the two, which on such a weird level, did feel like a debate between voices that I’ve heard in my head before almost; it’s also kind of the debate you have in converting as an adult. There’s this question of, what do you do? I was basically a Shakespearean before I was a Campionian I was a humanist, I was raised on literature and so forth, before I was a Christian. And so then when you convert, you sort of have these moments or these questions. And I think I can remember thinking about this in terms of Shakespeare in particular. What do I do with the huge variety of good and evil and passionate and unorthodox and orthodox, just human experience and supernatural elements and just that whole huge sense of the panoply of humanist writing that is represented in Shakespeare? What do I do with all of this? Is there room for this in my Christianity?

    Rowan Williams: Is there room for it? That’s the key question, I think. Can we have a fundamentally orthodox Christianity, which has room for this, where you can see that all these rivers somehow find their way to proceed?

    Susannah Black: Possibly this is why I ended up Anglican.

    Rowan Williams: Possibly it’s the reason I ended up Anglican too, but that’s another story.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, as the Anabaptist in the room, I mean, I agree with what’s been just said. I was thinking of something else though, in terms of Campion’s voice. Because there’s a way in which the voice of a martyr, of someone prepared to literally die for a set of teachings that can be denied or recanted, that have very little to do possibly with their own human experience, but which they’re unwilling to relinquish, is extremely difficult for the contemporary mind to kind of wrap our heads around. I had to think of Brad Gregory’s book from some years ago, Salvation at Stake, where he writes about martyrs of the Reformation era, Catholic, Protestant and Anabaptist.

    And one observation, and I had to think of this as I read Campion, who of course is representing a Catholic form of martyrdom. But Brad Gregory observes in this book that the closer they came to the point of their actual martyrdom, almost the more the particular inflection of their faith that they were dying for – I will not say it didn’t matter because that’s what they were dying for. But at the stake, they were talking about Jesus. They weren’t talking about a particular doctrine of the mass or so on.

    Rowan Williams: I think that’s an important insight. Campion and other Reformation era martyrs in their sermons or the statements to the crowd on the scaffold, that’s the kind of thing they say, “We’re dying for the Christian faith.” It’s not some local eccentricity. It’s not some corrupt … we’re dying for Christ. And that’s the appeal they make. And it’s a bit like Thomas More, again, after his condemnation, he would have been a ferocious persecutor of heretics. He says to his judges, “May we all meet merrily in heaven.” As if something has opened up, something’s been released that moment of ultimate seriousness, which is greater than any partisan position. And which I think always tells against the way in which we so easily weaponize martyrs and say, “Well, we must be right because so and so died for what we believe.” And that shows you’re wrong, which doesn’t really work in the Reformation because everybody dies. You know what I mean?

    Peter Mommsen: Right.

    Susannah Black: One of the books that we published a couple years ago was The 21, Martin Mosebach’s book about the 21 martyrs. And just the moment where, I mean, there’s 20 of them are –

    Peter Mommsen: These are the Coptic Martyrs who died a number of years ago in Libya.

    Susannah Black: … Right. Who were killed by ISIS fighters. And twenty of them were Coptic Christians. And then one of them was probably a Catholic. And he said in the face of … he was around these people who were about to be killed as Christians. And he said, “I’m a Christian like them.” I think that that was the phrase that he was reported to have said. And so he’s actually considered, although he was a Catholic most likely, he’s considered a martyr in the Coptic Christian Church, which is pretty extraordinary.

    Rowan Williams: That’s right. That’s right. And something like that is often said about the martyrs of Uganda in the nineteenth century. They were both Anglican and Catholic, they were all pages of the king’s court, they died within days of each other. And when Pope Paul VI went to Uganda back in the 1960s, was it? He rather made a point of celebrating them all together.

    Peter Mommsen: It’s something that especially the modern martyrs illustrate in a particularly strong way. And that’s another thing I had to think as I read the play is this has such modern resonance. Susannah mentioned the Coptic Martyrs. But if we think of the twentieth century project of ecumenism, of Christian unity, unlike the time of the Reformation, typically the martyrs dying are not dying at the hands of other Christians. It does help illustrate commonalities that are kind of denied.

    Susannah Black: It’s better than when we were killing each other, it seems like. I’m not sure that’s a thing you’re allowed to say, but it does seem like it’s better than when we were killing each other.

    Peter Mommsen: So I wanted to actually say it in a more positive way: what does it actually tell us about levels of unity that might be there without being acknowledged institutionally?

    Rowan Williams: Well, I think if we see that the center of gravity of Christian faith is the wood and the nails, it is that release through the cross into a kind of freedom. Well, that’s what martyrdom speaks of and connects. And that has to be something that resonates with anyone who understands anything at all about Christian faith. And I would really underline that element of what I called release just then. I’d often tell the story of meeting somebody in South Africa many years ago when my wife and I were working briefly for the church out there in the Apartheid era. And we had a conversation with somebody who had suffered enormously at the hands of the South African government and had given up a great deal for this conviction about Apartheid and had risked ostracism, imprisonment and death.

    And what he said, and I’ve quoted it so often is, “Well, there comes a point,” he said, “where you know they can’t touch you. There’s something in this which nobody can make any difference to because it’s just there, it’s just a rock upon which you stand.” And I’ve never forgotten that conversation because it seemed to me that that spelled out why it is that martyrdom speaks across boundaries, breaks down certain kneejerk reactions to other kinds of Christian life and is in itself a sort of ecumenical event. It’s an event on behalf of the entire Christian church.

    Susannah Black: There’s just the idea of finding yourself on somewhere sturdy when everything else has been washed away. That image actually reminds me very much of the last play in the book, the play about Lazarus. The middle play, it’s a doozy. It’s the story of this Welsh poet, David Jones, who was in the First World War, suffered from shell shock, what we would now call PTSD, and nearly married one of Eric Gill’s daughters. Can you talk about the way that that came to be written?

    Rowan Williams: I’ve been reading David Jones since I was a teenager and admiring both his poetry and his artistry because he was a great letterist and watercolorist and engraver. And because he’s such a complicated artist and because his way of working as an artist is very often to pile layer on layer, I thought the worst way of trying to write about David Jones is to write a simple linear story about him. So I imagined a play that would be working on several different levels.

    But, yes, the bleakness of it is to do with the double trauma in Jones’s life. There’s the trauma of the First World War, which was the raw material of his greatest work, In Parenthesis, the long, long poem about life on the trenches, and also the trauma of the breakage of his relationship with Petra Gill. But I also wanted to address the further traumatic memory, which was that Petra Gill was sexually abused by her father. Nobody knows whether David Jones knew anything about that or not. And I’ve tried in the play to evoke a kind of unease in him, which half recognizes that there’s something deeply wrong, but nobody can quite talk about it. So, yes, there’s a lot of rather dark material in this and it felt risky in some cases, right? It felt very risky.

    Susannah Black: But it’s also, I mean, it echoed with the Shakespeare play in the sense that it’s talking about basically what the worthwhileness of art is to a certain degree.

    Rowan Williams: Exactly. This is the big disagreement between Eric Gill and David Jones: that Gill had a very strong theory that art always had to be in some sense propaganda. And Jones, right from the beginning, although he’s deeply indebted to Gill, says, That’s not how it works. Art really makes stuff. And by making stuff, it becomes more than just the expression of an idea. It attends to the form of the world, the shaping intelligibility of the world, all that gives the world structure. It tends to that deep structure and finds that some sort of deep structure lives in more than one physical embodiment, and you as an artist are finding another embodiment for the form, the energy around you.

    And his theological reflections on that are tremendously fascinating. I think most of what I understand about sacramental theology derives from some of his essays and some of his poems. So there’s a real gulf there. Jones, in a sense, for all his obsessiveness and his getting trapped in details, he does have this sense of art as a deeply releasing thing because it releases forms and structures to live, to reflect, to interact. And one of the images that he often uses is freeing the waters to unblock the wells. And the poet is doing both a kind of archaeology, digging down in the meanings that have been inherited. And also, yes, unblocking something. And behind it all that imaging of course, is the central image of the water streaming from the side of the crucified one.

    Susannah Black: As sort of closed off and inaccessible in his own pain as he is, he still is able to encounter Petra as someone outside himself and someone who’s not just an embodiment of “girl” or someone who can be used in service of a theory or an idea. He does encounter her.

    Rowan Williams: That’s it. Yes. And part of what I was trying to convey is that Eric Gill’s own eccentricities, failures, sins are not unconnected with his rigid sense that everyone has to have a function. So there’s a little bit of a kind of sidebar debate where Petra tests a bit about her being reduced to her function as a woman who has children and that’s all there is to her. And Jones has that little bit more sense to see that she’s a subject in her own right. I must confess in writing the play, I certainly fell in love with Petra. I found I created a character I really very much liked because I could, again, the voice I could hear was this voice, on the surface, very calm, very self-possessed. That’s what people said about her. But also a very deep amount of pain, being managed very successfully, but not quite silenced. And I thought that’s a brave woman, that.

    Susannah Black: Yeah. She’s wounded, but she’s not destroyed somehow. And that sense of kind of fundamental wholeness, that comes through.

    Rowan Williams: I’m glad it comes through because that’s what I wanted to go through. And as I said, from accounts of her, even as an old woman, that’s a little bit what you get.

    Peter Mommsen: The figure of Eric Gill really fascinates me. And what you just said that he represents almost the kind of aesthetic fundamentalism you could say perhaps. This is a very weird side note I should mention. Of course, his very problematic, to say the least, personal life only I think came to light much later in the ’70s or ’80s. But back in the 1930s, he was one of the first donors to Plough and actually designed Plough’s first logo. And I grew up with a woman, Mari Marsden, who was an artist who was from his circle, who had joined the community. And her daughter actually still contributes to Plough. But they also got out of his circle for a reason, I guess. Although I’m not sure if they ever realized the full story. And in one way, he kind of represents an attempt to force, maybe I’m misrepresenting this, but to force this kind of spiritual reality by the rule that you could kind of see with this certain kind of a hidebound traditionalism in religion.

    Rowan Williams: Yes. And he’s a very complicated figure because on the one hand he is a very dogmatic conservative Roman Catholic. On the other hand of course he’s an expression of it in his art and in his interest in church buildings, liturgy. He really was pushing beyond that at the time. So it’s a distinctive kind of conservatism.

    Susannah Black: The typeface is sans-serif, which if you’re going to be traditionalist, you’re not going to do that.

    Peter Mommsen: And his Plough logo. Actually, that’s very, very nice.

    Susannah Black: I love it. It’s my favorite of our Plough logos and it really disturbed me when I found out that it was by Eric Gill. I mean, I’d heard about him primarily as a kind of hanger-on to the distributists and carrier-out of the vaguely William Morris-y, Ruskin-y project. I heard about him before I heard about this horrible stuff with his daughters and it’s terrifying to think that someone who in some ways could get so close to the good, the true and the beautiful could be so wrong inside.

    Rowan Williams: But isn’t that one of the things that we in the twenty first century find very, very difficult to get hold of that? Sometimes people’s vision is consumingly powerful, so consumingly powerful. But it really knocks them off the center. It can delude and mislead by its very strength when it’s very forced. And I feel Gill’s that sort of personality.

    Section II: Rowan Williams: Art in Wartime

    Susannah Black: So I mean, turning a bit from the book itself. One of the things that both the first play, but especially the second, raises is the role of beauty in the face of war or the role of art in the face of war. And the first play as well, what good are plays if you’re facing martyrdom?

    One of the things that we were kind of hoping you’d talk about is how literature and music shouldn’t be casualties of war. You’ve written a book on Dostoyevsky, we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine – We should say that we’re recording this on March fifteenth, it’s going to be released during Holy Week, so the people who are listening to this will know more than we do about what’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks.

    But we are in the thick of it now. And one of the things that the thick of it has brought have been these sort of bizarre attempts to cancel Dostoyevsky or to deprogram Tchaikovsky music from planned performances. Can you talk about the way that we need to not let art and music be casualties of war? Not to feed you the right answer here, should we let art and music be casualties of war?

    Rowan Williams: Now it worries me that we have this reaction. If something is ambiguous, if something has mixed consequences, then we just scrub it out. And Dostoyevsky is a good case in point because of course he is one of the sources of the toxic Russian nationalism which we see in its most brutal and abusive form in Putin’s politics. On the other hand, precisely because Dostoyevsky is more than a propagandist, back to the Gill-Jones debate, he’s an artist, he’s not a propagandist in his novels. He allows all the voices to be heard. He doesn’t predetermine your answer. You read Dostoyevsky, I think, not to get a series of edifying quotations or fridge magnets. We read him to be involved in the debates he’s involved in. You mentioned the Grand Inquisitor and that’s such an important piece of literature because in that, I suppose we call it a fantasy or a fable, in the last, longest, possibly greatest of his novels. There you have naked unaccountable power confronted with the silence of Christ. And the protest that the Inquisitor makes represents in part that freedom is too difficult.

    It says to Jesus, “You’ve made it too difficult for us. So we are mopping up after you. You failed to give us the program. So we have to provide.” And when I look at the idea that you can coerce society and faith and look at all the ideas of that close alliance of church and state, which is true in Russia now – it was true in some of the other places in history. You think, well, it is all the Inquisitor’s business, the Inquisitor constantly saying to Jesus, “You didn’t leave us a program, we’ve had to supply it and it’s hard work. And don’t think we enjoy this, but we’ve got to do it because you didn’t take the trouble.”

    Now, Dostoyevsky can come up with all of that alongside the, at times, nonsense of his nationalistic fantasies. And you’ve just got to see the person whole. And that’s really hard. And you just do not deal with that by saying forget it, obliterate it. And in times of war and crisis, what do we need most? We need resources that free us to spend time with them, attend to the humanity of whoever is outside the circle.

    Peter Mommsen: It almost returns us to the need for that polyphony of human voices that we spoke about in terms of Shakespeare.

    Rowan Williams: But it’s also deeply rooted in the nature of the body of Christ. I suppose this is one of the theological themes I come back to most often in my own reflection that the body of Christ is about my defects, my lack always being supplied by the overflow of God’s gift in the other, and the defects and the lack in them being supplied by the overflow of God’s gift in me. So no isolated person, no isolated community knows or experiences the whole truth unless they are open to that overflow. That’s not a political program, but it is a spiritual challenge.

    And all good art reminds me of what I didn’t know, what I can’t put into words, what I can’t theorize, what I can’t turn into a fridge magnet. It reminds me that I’m still learning and serving. Art keeps me humble in a strange way. It keeps us humble. Humble not in the sense of self-deprecating, but humble in the sense of, I’m still learning and I’m hungry to learn. So if we turn our backs on art in times of crises, we’re always in danger of freezing what we’re comfortable with yet again, which is a human default position.

    Peter Mommsen: It seems like that what you were just speaking of this need for many voices of recognizing our own lack and insufficiency, both as individuals and the insufficiency of our communities to which we belong, often is kind of thought of sloppily as – that’s just classical liberalism, right? When actually there’s something deeply Christian about the need for the body to have many members. I mean, this is classic Saint Paul.

    Rowan Williams: It’s the difference between if you’re shrugging your shoulders, that’s somebody else’s difference, and asking yourself, what do I have to learn from that difference? It doesn’t mean I have to agree. It doesn’t mean I have to think that the disagreements are trivial. But it does mean I’m called to spend the time asking, what have I got to learn? What do I need to learn from this person and this community? And that’s hard work. Whereas indifferentist liberalism says, it doesn’t much matter what anybody says or thinks, I’ll just let them go their own way. So between those two extremes of indifferentist liberalism and totalitarian enforced unity, there is this real interaction about open trust, creative engagement with real difference.

    Susannah Black: I think that one of the differences between a classical liberal version of that openness and a more Christian version would be something like … I mean, the one that we are all describing different aspects of, or the one body and the one Lord whom we’re all getting at different aspects of from our different bizarre communal perspectives and our different bizarre individual perspectives. That unity is found in him, that unity is not necessarily found in a kind of structure that we mold ourselves into. I think I might feel more Protestant again than I did earlier.

    Rowan Williams: I agree very much. I think the idea that in some sense, the unity of the church always already exists is important. Just that we forget it, we deny it, we avoid it, but the unity is there because Christ is there. And sometimes something I often say to theological students, students preparing for ministry is just remember the church exists because God wants it to, not because you or anybody else has decided that it should. It’s there because God wants it.

    Susannah Black: I was just thinking in light of all of this about was the way that Orthodox Christians and Catholics in Ukraine and primarily Orthodox Christians in Russia are split from each other by this war and how it’s in wars that we’re most strongly tempted to deny the reality of our unity in Christ. And it’s also in wars, in time of war that we need to insist on it. And I wonder whether you had any thoughts about that.

    Rowan Williams: Yeah. That rings a lot of bells because one of the reasons I’ve always been an opponent of nuclear armaments is that I can’t put my signature as a voter or whatever to any system that systematically and deliberately programmatically creates a policy whose effect is the obliteration of the large portion of the human race, including a large portion of our fellow Christians. I cannot see that there’s any moral justification for that. And in times of war where people face hideous choices, Christians have to be there in various roles in various ways, whether as non-combatants or as, depending on people’s consciences, uncomfortable combatants. Saying, “Yep, the one thing we mustn’t forget is that at the very, very, very best, this is a tearing apart what God is gluing together.” Very best. And at the worst, a real collusion of that rebellion against what God has given.

    Susannah Black: This is our Holy Week podcast. And I’d almost like to ask you to end with a prayer for our listeners and for the world and for this upcoming Easter. It seems like I have a sort of fantasy or hope that when this goes out, by the time this goes out, things will be resolved. And I don’t know when the Lent of this war is going to be over, but do you think that you could pray for that?

    Rowan Williams: God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, you have bound us together in His body, needing one another, hungry and thirsty for one another. So hungry and thirsty for your justice, your peace and your Kingdom. In this Paschal season, keep our hunger and thirst acute. Help us to long with all our being for peace and for justice. And so to long with all our being for reconciliation with one another. Touch the hearts of those who believe they can live and win battles, kill, abuse, and oppress. Open the healing for them. Make them humane, help them to join the community of true exchange, gift and hope. And Father, keep us all as faithful to where you have placed us in a world of contradictions, temptations, and tensions. Hold us there in the middle of that, our feet planted up on the rock, the rock that is the crucified and risen Jesus. In His name we make our prayer.

    Susannah Black: Amen.

    Peter Mommsen: Thank you so much.

    Susannah Black: Thank you so much.

    Section III: Maureen Swinger: Doing Bach Badly

    And now a huge welcome to our dear colleague, Maureen Swinger, who’s here to talk about her piece in this issue, “Doing Bach Badly.” Welcome, Maureen.

    Peter Mommsen: Before we get into our conversation with Maureen, we’re now in the season of Lent and it’s a time when much sacred music is classical music. You think of the big pieces, The Seven Last Words, there’s cantatas and oratorios. One of the most famous of them, of course, and arguably the summit, the peak, the top thing in all Western classical music is the Saint Matthew Passion by J. S. Bach, an absolutely stunning architectural piece that tells the story of Jesus’ passion and death. Based on the gospel of Matthew, of course. It mixes an old tradition that came from the Middle Ages of telling the story of the Passion based on scripture, which over time during the medieval period, rather than just having one priest or celebrant tell the story or actually chant the story, they started getting other people involved to take on the different parts. So there’s a Peter and there’s a Judas and there’s the High Priest Caiaphas and there is a crowd –

    Susannah Black: There’s an operatic aspect to this piece.

    Peter Mommsen: Yes, exactly. And so these different groups would start participating in the chant, and it became almost a bit theatrical, right? By the time Bach inherited the form of the Passion, they were also working in aspects of the Reformation. So they worked in chorales where the entire congregation could respond to this story at different points by singing usually one verse from a well-known chorale. Applying perhaps this lesson to their own lives, right?

    So as the genre of the Passion evolved, it became more and more participatory, but also more and more not just telling the story, but focused on how it would edify, a bit like Greek tragedy would purge the souls of those participating in it.

    So anyway, I’ve been talking for a while, but I think it’s important to understand your piece, Maureen, that Bach wrote this as a participatory communal event. Now, in modern days of course, the Saint Matthew Passion, like most of classical music, is just one of these enormous things, it’s like an ocean liner. It’s like a classical-music ocean liner that scares the bejesus out of people. It’s enormous. It’s huge. It’s sprawling. It seems like super high art and all the sort of cultural conventions that have sort of grown up around classical music, the quiet concert hall. It’s not in a church anymore. There’s no congregational singing. There’s not a sermon in the midst of it. It’s something that you have to be very serious around. It’s such a sacred high art object that you sort of have to whisper and assume that it’s going to be boring. And it’s only for the kinds of people who listen to classical music in the first place, right?

    Susannah Black: And it takes three hours.

    Peter Mommsen: And it takes three hours. And why would you do that unless you’re a super high-minded, very high-culture person? That can be the reaction from a lot of people. And so this is where Maureen’s piece jumps in because she tells the story of what it’s like with a really super amateur choir, right, Maureen?

    Maureen Swinger: To say the least, yes. And also from my own perspective as a young person, I was not completely in love with classical music at all. Our family didn’t grow up immersed in the classical world as you did. And still, you can come to love and embrace this piece and be completely surprised by it from a very young age. It can sneak up on you and enter your heart in a way that changes your life. But you have to be there to have experienced it. And I think singing it is integral to that as opposed to listening to it.

    Susannah Black: I’ve done a little bit of this kind of Bruderhof singing as a non Bruderhof person because I was up here for a rehearsal for the Hallelujah Chorus a couple weeks ago or a couple months ago, I guess now.

    Maureen Swinger: That’s right. We were in the alto section together.

    Susannah Black: So I can sort of picture what this is a little bit like, but I’ve never been to a Saint Matthew Passion rehearsal. So why don’t you just describe what this is that you guys do, and maybe give a little bit of background to how the Bruderhof came to do music in this way? And as you talked about it in your piece.

    Maureen Swinger: Okay. And Pete can jump in as well. In the ’60s, a lot of these pieces came back to our communities, especially when the English translations became more available. And I know that your grandfather, Peter, especially loved Saint Matthew Passion. And it was part of our culture from the beginning to know these pieces, of course, from our German roots.

    So in the early years of the Woodcrest community, they had an amazing choir ready to go. And they worked very, very hard for hours several times a week sometimes as they were in the Lenten season or the Advent season to own these pieces, to learn them, to drill them. And I think in later years, we haven’t kept up that standard nearly as well. But it’s something that has been a part of our communal worship definitely from the very beginnings.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah, I think that’s exactly it. These pieces, by whatever accidents of history, have just become, certainly during Holy Week, have become part of our community’s liturgy. This is one of the key ways that we celebrate Passiontide, by singing through this stuff.

    But it’s a completely different approach to these pieces than the one that is dominant when you hear a performance, right? Because the purpose is not to get to the performance. The purpose is to get together once a week or twice a week in the weeks leading up to Easter, in this case, the Matthew Passion, or to Christmas, or at other times of the year and sing them.

    Susannah Black: This functions, from what I can tell really, as a liturgy in the community. These are worship services, these rehearsals.

    Maureen Swinger: And that’s how you would come and actually, as you invite your children to join you at the practice, you’re saying, “This is something special for our community. This is like a worship meeting.”

    And whether we’re singing an angry mob or a chorale that’s expressing grief, or as Peter was mentioning earlier, so many of those words are talking about me on the spot. “Make thee clean, my heart, from sin.” Or “I would be beside my Lord be watching.” When you’re singing that, as opposed to listening to it, you are there on the spot, whether you were expecting to be or not. You can’t help but be in the moment, be in the Passion.

    Section IV: Maureen Swinger: How Music Shapes You

    Susannah Black: And as I was reading your piece, it reminded me of that. It reminded me of the transformative power of inhabiting the word of God, because so much of the text is from scripture. And you also sort of talk about a pretty transformative moment in your own life that had to do with singing through this.

    Maureen Swinger: Right. And again, at age fifteen, it’s not necessarily your favorite thing to do. Nothing was different back then. I came because that’s where we were that evening. And I was prepared to be bored as many teenagers would. And listening to the technicalities and getting tired of the director over explaining the technicalities. And then this one gorgeous moment that just pops right out of a tenor solo after Jesus is crucified. When the whole choir, both choirs, get to sing the lines, “Truly, this was the son of God.”

    And if our listeners haven’t had a chance to hear that, just pull it up. I think it’s the central point of the entire piece. It comes after extremely turbulent movement where the tenor is singing all about the temple veil being rent and the earthquakes, and it sounds exactly like the earthquake and the temple veil and so on. But you’re not ready for this movement when suddenly the whole earth comes to a standstill. And the centurion of all people realizes the man that I just saw put to death is the son of God. And I will say it for all on the hilltop to hear. And then we are the ones saying it and acknowledging it. And I still can’t hear that part of the Saint Matthew Passion without tearing up, because it still takes me right back to that moment as a young person where I just literally could have hit the deck with surprise and shock that it’s the first time this truth came home to me, I think.

    Peter Mommsen: And really the overall purpose of your article, Maureen, it’s not to highlight some cultural oddity of the Bruderhof, but there’s a wider point that we’ve been talking about in these episodes, the importance of music to shape one’s own soul, right? And to shape a community. And you really only do that by participating in it, by doing it. You don’t need to have a trained voice. You don’t need to have a trained orchestra or choir. You don’t need to be raised as Christian to sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” right? But if it’s something that one does, it kind of takes on a life of its own.

    Susannah Black: Yeah. It feels to me very much like there’s something going on with … we breathe music. Our breath kind of inhabits music when we sing. And the Holy Spirit does something with that in a weird way a lot of times. I think.

    Maureen Swinger: And I think we have to give ourselves a chance to be there. We might be very surprised by where God is, but we kind of have to show up to be there and be even a reluctant part of it for that to happen to us.

    Susannah Black: One of the other things that really struck me about your piece, Maureen, is something about it … again, I don’t mean to be like, “This is a weird thing about the Bruderhof.” But it is kind of, which is the way that you guys as a community experience time is really distinctive. And I’ve noticed this with the way that Plough has worked. So the magazine was started along with the publishing house one hundred years ago, a little more than one hundred years ago. And it keeps kind of a new generation will kind of take it up again and breathe new life into it and get it going again as you did. And it sounds like this kind of singing through this is a similar kind of thing where every now and then there’ll be a new movement to kind of start it up again.

    And there was one line, I forget, maybe it was your husband, Jason, who’s the conductor who said it: “If we want to be good at this in ten years, we’ve got to work hard now.” And that was just a really distinctively, weirdly Bruderhof thing to say.

    Maureen Swinger: You can’t just pick that up out of nowhere. There has to be some continuity and work to make something this big and this old and this eternal actually alive. You can’t just say, “Well, we may not be inspired right now. So let’s leave it.” I don’t want to believe that.

    Susannah Black: Yeah. I mean, also you do kind of need to get it in your … The weird shock of recognition or opening of your eyes that happens at some point, you need to have the familiarity for the unfamiliarity –

    Peter Mommsen: To hit you, right?

    Susannah Black: I mean, as you were describing the whole history of the Saint Matthew Passion and where that came from, what you’re talking about is the history of Passion plays. “Oberammergau” and all of those medieval, fairly amateur participatory dramas that use the words of scripture. And just thinking about what Wagner was trying to do in creating an opera that was something like this. He wanted to, in a slightly creepy way, in my opinion, try to create a –

    Peter Mommsen: A religious experience.

    Susannah Black: … A religious experience. Not a Christian religious experience, but a religious experience that was very much liturgical in sme way. But obviously nobody’s doing Wagner badly and I don’t think it would work as well.

    Peter Mommsen: No, no. And this is the point that we’re trying to get at with our whole issue, right? Because nobody does Wagner badly. You don’t build community by doing Ring Of The Nibelung and just for the joy of immersing yourself in Wagnerian harmonies, as wonderful as they sometimes can be, because there’s no there there, right?

    Susannah Black: Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: Actually behind them. I mean, unless you really believe in some creepy dramatic paganism, which you probably shouldn’t unless you’ve got other problems.

    Susannah Black: Although my dad did make me go to the Ring cycle when I was probably nine at the Met and he just made me do it. He let me read, though, so it was fine. But it was suffering. I suffered.

    Peter Mommsen: We started this podcast series with Plato on music. And he talks about, and this is where I think Plato, as much as he’s been criticized for being this kind of musical censor, was right on the money. Where he says musical training is the most important, because it communicates directly to the soul. It has direct access to our emotional life. It shapes us. It turns us into who we are. And I think the story that you’ve told, Maureen, is exactly that – how music – not necessarily right at the moment, it’s not only a matter of having these sublime experiences every time that you encounter music – but over a lifetime, as Plato implied by talking about training, not about a singular aesthetic experience, right? But over a lifetime of doing music, it shapes who you are and then it’s there for you. And I think, not to be morbid, but having been near people who are at the end of their lives, it’s music, it’s the songs, it’s the hymns that they’ve sung, maybe have sung distractedly, maybe they didn’t even like them that much, right? But at the end –

    Susannah Black: That’s what they ask for.

    Peter Mommsen: … That’s what they ask for. And while I don’t think everything about life should be preparing for death, it does kind of indicate what really matters and what you should maybe focus on.

    Susannah Black: We’re going to drop some of these links to various pieces of the Saint Matthew Passion in the podcast notes. But I would encourage you to … do people do a participatory Saint Matthew Passion, other than the Bruderhof, the way that they …

    Peter Mommsen: I don’t know, but I know that here in our area, our local philharmonic does a participatory Messiah every year that we join in. So if you can’t find the Saint Matthew Passion, you can definitely find those that are easier to discover. And I kind of just encourage more people to try it. And chip away at it. You don’t need to do it all at once. Do a few pieces, do a little bit. And then next year, a little more. It’s worth it.

    Maureen Swinger: Maybe in ten years you can get through it all.

    Peter Mommsen: Thanks, Maureen.

    Maureen Swinger: It was great to join you today. Really good to talk.

    Susannah Black: Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you’re listening to this and check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe. $32 a year gets you the print magazine. For $99 a year, you can become a member of Plough. That membership brings a range of benefits from free books to regular calls with editors, invitations to special events and the occasional gift. Go to to learn more.

    Peter Mommsen: And join us next week to talk with Plough friends, Phil Christman and Joey Keegin about post-punk and new wave music, Christian hardcore music, and their misspent youth. As well as with Plough editor Joy Clarkson about her new book Aggressively Happy. Till then.

    Contributed By RowanWilliams Rowan Williams

    Rowan Williams was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. A theologian and poet, he is master of Magdalene College in Cambridge and chancellor of the University of South Wales.

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    Contributed By MaureenSwinger2 Maureen Swinger

    Maureen Swinger is a senior editor at Plough and lives at the Fox Hill Bruderhof in Walden, New York.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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