Encouraging a higher standard for Christian music

Cantus Firmus

I have always appreciated the terminology employed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer as he described life to his friend. He spoke in musical terms, and in so doing ushered in the idea that life cannot be reduced to one note or a monotone. The cantus firmus, which means “fixed song,” is a pre-existing melody that forms the basis of a polyphonic composition. Though the song introduces twists in pitch and style, counterpoint and refrain, the cantus firmus is the enduring melody not always in the forefront, but always playing somewhere within the composition. For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, life was a great work of sounds and symphonic directions, and the cantus firmus was the essence, the soul of the concerto.

With these terms, he wrote: “God wants us to love him eternally with our whole hearts, not in such a way as to injure or weaken earthly life, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint… Where the cantus firmus is clear and plain, the counterpoint can be developed to its limits.”(1)

As he penned these lines, Bonhoeffer, who was facing execution and the looming end of his life, confessed life to be an awe-inspiring symphony, a melody to behold with attention and appreciation for a great array of intricate choruses. In this intricacy, there is no better song composed than one that finds as its ground bass a wholehearted love of God. Where the enduring melody of life itself is a tune written and played for God, the composition can resound unto the heavens. It is this type of melody that endures even beyond the chorister who sang it.

When Jesus spoke of life, he, too, spoke of multiple realms, of life as it is on earth and in heaven. Like a great composition, there are layers to faith and belief, Communion and the Kingdom, story and song. There is a sense in which all of our stories are the same, written by the great composer of music and sound. And yet, each song is also uniquely our own. For me, as no doubt for you, there have been minor sounds when God seems absent or life seems removed from any chorus of hope. Then again, there have also been moments when the cantus firmus of truth and love resounds in major tones and God comes near in the doxology.

So how do we tell the story of a human life? How do we put into words counterpoints and melodies and tempos? Like the one after God’s own heart, perhaps we start with the song at the center of our own souls, as we listen for the arrangement in our neighbors’:

“By day the LORD directs his love,
at night his song is with me-
a prayer to the God of my life” (Psalm 42:8).

God’s presence is the cantus firmus, set in the deepest center of a life, discovered and embraced over a lifetime. God’s love is the enduring melody that puts our stories to song.

Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

(1) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 303.

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