In the annals of music history, Marilyn Manson won't even warrant a footnote. But the freakish shock rocker released a new album this month that has some religious groups understandably up in arms. The cover of "Holy Wood" depicts Manson in a Christ-like pose, wearing a crown of thorns and sporting crucifixion marks in his hands and torso. The lyrics of one song taunt: "Dear God, if you were alive, you know we'd kill you."
Manson fashions himself a musical revolutionary teeming with profound thoughts and unappreciated works (such as "Antichrist Superstar") that will one day be embraced and immortalized. In an interview with USA Today this week, Manson offered this deep meditation: "Art, by nature, has to be evil because it challenges the status quo and what the mainstream defines as beautiful or moral or ideal."
People of faith needn't be alarmed. Marilyn Manson is an inconsequential speck in the artistic universe. His godless "music" and message possess a shorter half-life than an order of McDonald's french fries. Manson's dark cult of nihilism sinks even deeper into the abyss of cultural irrelevance when viewed in light of this year's commemoration of the 250th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach's death.
The devoutly religious composer's impact is timeless, global, and truly revolutionary. Celebrations of Bach's work are taking place around the world, from Leipzig to Tokyo to Des Moines. In his 65 years on earth, the German-born Bach produced an astonishing amount of music -- enough to fill 153 CDs. Bach was a rebel of a different sort, cranking out whole forests of Baroque compositions that were considered outdated in his own time. He was no slave to fashion. He was, first and foremost, a servant of God.
Bach often signed his manuscripts with Latin expressions of faith -- "J.J.," for "Jesu Juva (Help me, Jesus)" at the beginning of a piece; "S.D.G.," for "Soli Deo Gloria (To God alone, the glory)" at the end. Christoph Wolff, famed Harvard music scholar and author of the newly published "Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician," writes that Bach was thoroughly committed to pursuing "true music" -- that is, music whose "ultimate end or final goal" was "the honor of God and the recreation of the soul."
Bach used his intellectual gifts, endowed by his Creator, to build the foundations of what Professor Wolff calls a "musical science." His work was an enlightened search for truth, a lifelong exercise to reveal God's harmonious ordering of the universe. His use of counterpoint, one admirer wrote, provided "the humble bricks and mortar with which he builds cathedrals and heavens to praise God and the angels, and a tool to plumb the innermost recesses of the sensitive heart, all through mere notes and their carefully controlled interactions."
Popular music today is often aimed at doing the exact opposite -- blaspheming God's name and tearing down those who worship Him. Christian music is marginalized as a quaint oddity; Christians are portrayed in the mainstream media and on MTV as dull and uncreative followers of the church.
The endurance of Bach's music and the universal recognition of his genius transcend modern contempt for divinely inspired art. It's not just his masses and chorales and cantatas, but also his intricate inventions and fugues and concertos that resonate across cultures and religions. Only the most unreconstructed atheist will not be moved by the soaring strains of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desire" or the simple spirituality of the Prelude No. 1 in C major or the aching beauty of the Mass in B minor or any of the unaccompanied cello suites.
The Marilyn Mansons of the world can bask in their vulgar 15 minutes' worth of fame. But "art" inspired by nothing fades to nothingness soon enough. For lovers of true music, gloriously dedicated, Bach rocks on.