Sonata of dogmatics

“It might help the beginning reader who feels bogged down in Barth’s syntax to remember that one is reading a translation. The translation, which of course we fortunate to have, is certainly workmanlike; but it is also stolid, uneven, and generally uninspired. Frustrated beginners are sometimes surprised to learn that Barth was awarded the prestigious Sigmund Freud Prize for the eloquence of his academic prose. Even with our English translation (such as it is), attentive readers can still perceive that in the style of composition there is a certain music to the argument. What first appears as mere repetition turns out on closer inspection to function rather like repetition in sonata form. It is the author’s method of alluding to themes previously developed while constantly enriching the score with new ideas. Here it can be helpful to remember Barth’s great love of Mozart, whose music he listened to every morning. Like Mozart, Barth preferred to work with sharply contrasting themes resolved into higher unities and marked by regular recapitulations. Themes or fragments of themes, once dominant, are constantly carried forward into new settings where other themes take the ascendancy. Materials are constantly being combined, broken up, recombined, and otherwise brought into contrapuntal relationship. Part of what Barth seems to share with Mozart, in other words, is a certain taste of thematic interplay, a taste which includes the custom of complex recapitulation, modification, and allusion. The more deeply one reads Barth, the more one senses that his use of repetition is never pointless. Rather, it serves as a principle of organization and development within an ever forward spiraling theological whole.” (George Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth, p. 28)

Anyone else noticed that Hunsinger employed the sonata form as well in describing Barth’s sonata form or is it just me? Anyway, it shows how Barth understands that “an intimate connection exists between this style of composition and . . . the subject matter.” (p. 28) How we speak about God must correspond with what kind of God whom we worship. The formal aspect of theology corresponds with the material aspect of theology. Thus, although he didn’t write hymns, Barth nonetheless wrote his dogmatics in “worship” form. And this is a good example of attention to form which Jamie Smith wrote about a few weeks ago.


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