Yesterday, Good Friday, 2009, I had one of the most blessed Easter experiences of my life. In the Immanuelkirche, an old, liberal Lutheran church in downtown Berlin, I attended a two–hour performance of Bach’s Johannes–Passion.
On the way into Berlin, I talked with my daughter, Eowyn, about the difficulties she and her husband, David, face as they bear witness to Christ in a radically post–Christian, sexually “liberated” European culture – what Pope Benedict called “a desert of godlessness.” She told me of a Christian lawyer who, having expressed the biblical view of homosexuality on his personal blog, was dismissed from his law firm. All this seemed sadly captured in the metrosexual sophistication of the professional choir, orchestra and soloists whose demeanor as they sang suggested little passion about John’s account of Jesus’ death. I winced at the contradiction with Bach’s opening line: “Lord, thou our master, whose repute in every land majestic is.” What may have been largely true in Bach’s time is no longer true of contemporary Europe.
As the concert progressed with the words of Scripture and Bach’s own interspersed arias of personal application, the thought that the Gospel was being powerfully expressed in godless Europe touched my soul. Bach observes (though the poetry is better in German):
Consider how his back so stained with bleeding…
Doth heaven imitate,
On which, when once the waves and waters
From our own flood of sin have settled,
The world’s most lovely rainbow arching
As God’s own sign of grace stands.
Here is Bach’s personal testimony, significant for our time, when even some Evangelicals now deny the atonement:
Within my heart’s foundation
Thy name and cross alone
Shine forth each day and hour…
How thou, Lord Christ, so gently
Didst give thy blood till death.
What a powerful, deeply moving statement of God’s gracious atoning sacrifice, sung exquisitely by unbelievers! How Europe really needs to hear this message again–and America too, as it follows Europe in its headlong rejection of its Christian past. We noted in our February 2009 think tank that a great delusion hovers over our land–a delusion from which it may never recover.
What a difference a week and a long airplane trip make. A week before the concert in Berlin, I sat in Jakarta, Indonesia, transfixed before a choir of 80 young Christians, singing a similar classical piece from an 18th century European Christian composer with belief in skill. In Jakarta, I witnessed a youthful and expectant biblical orthodoxy spreading like wildfire throughout Southeast Asia. I was the guest of the Indonesian Evangelical Reformed movement and its founder and visionary, Reverend Stephen Tong. Tong is not just a fiery, convincing preacher but a long–term strategist and solid kingdom builder. A six–thousand seat auditorium rises gloriously in the center of Muslim Jakarta, together with an eight–story structure housing offices, a museum, a library and classical concert hall– all attached to a twenty–six story high–rise for a seminary and a university.
I was flown to Singapore for a day of teaching with 180 students. The next day at a Calvin 500 Symposium at the church back in Jakarta, I lectured on the first chapter of Romans to over 2,000 people. Later that day I lectured to 1,200 people on “Calvin and the Pagans.” I taught the following week in the Reformed seminary to a group of committed future ministers on “Pauline Theology for the 21st Century.” On the final weekend, in Jogjakarta, I explored the largest Buddhist shrine in the world as well as a series of Hindu temples just down the road, then flew to Bandung and preached to 300 students and young professionals, eager to grow in their knowledge of Scripture.
These three weeks on the road have left a welter of conflicting thoughts and emotions swirling around in my head.
While the West abandons its Christian roots at breakneck speed, deliberately silencing all significant Christian discourse it is nonetheless confronted, if only for “traditional” and artistic reasons, by immense creative statements of biblical truth about existence, forever embedded in its cultural past.
On the other hand, seemingly suffocated by an age–old paganism deeply imprinted into the fabric of contemporary culture, Christianity in the East knows a freedom and optimism almost totally absent in the West.
Human cultures constantly exchange the truth for the lie, but God’s truth is marching on. To this truth we, like Stephen Tong in Jakarta and the Stoddards in Berlin, must remain faithful–whatever our external circumstances–to the glory of Jesus, our suffering Savior. Just ask Bach:
It is fulfilled.
O hope for ev’ry ailing spirit!
The night of grief
Is now its final hours counting.
The man of Judah wins with might
And ends the fight.
It is fulfilled.