Use and Abuse of Religious Art

From the most ancient Egyptian and Greek monuments to the present day, most of what we call “Art” is religious art. One of our cultural superstitions is that any art is religious because it is presumed to express the grand spirit of the artist. It is a short step from “creative artist” to then artist as creator: symphonic conductors as demigods; poets, painters, playwrights, and sculptors as transcendent geniuses, and so forth. It takes only one more step to arrive the artist as an avatar of the Creator. Even modern art that appears to call religion into question, or to make a travesty of it (“Piss Christ”) finds itself addressing faith in backhanded ways. When it’s trying to say something positive, not merely mocking, capital-A Art takes the human spirit as a quasi-religious object. The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, set forth by the French National Constituent Assembly, was painted by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier as a pair of tablets, like those from Sinai.

Lately the Owl has written about works of art that have clear liturgical functions. It is just as interesting to look for authentic spiritual and theological content in unexpected places. In some cases, the matter is clear; in others it is ambiguous, or solipsistic. Here are a few examples.

Mass for Our Time

A well known composer who lives in our town knew about my church affiliation and interest in music. He had written a setting for a colleague’s poetry, and wanted to mount a performance at my church under the title Mass for Our Time. In effect, the parish’s worship space would become a concert hall for the afternoon; not an especially unusual occurrence.

The Mass contained nothing of orthodox Christianity; not even a liturgical structure that gathered to tension and release, nor any coherent prayer—certainly no prayer of confession, nor absolution by which worshipers might be prepared for receiving something of God. The poetry expressed ordinary nineteenth century transcendentalist spiritualism. It consisted of some pretty phrases on the subject of human goodness. Neither the poet nor the composer appeared to see any impropriety, nor even mild irony in the suggestion it be performed in a Christian church.

Should we lend our building or our ears to this kind of art, as the composer suggested? To his transcendentalist thinking, one supposes, the matter is not problematic. Capital-A Art is an expression of the glorious human spirit, which is one with the great capital-S Spirit. Any art at all, therefore, is a quasi-religious undertaking. Churches, having nothing better to do the other 167 hours of the week, ought to welcome it. But surely this can be doubted without doing violence to either Art or Church. “Spirit” needn’t become an excuse for loose thinking.

Performances Observed

In 1994 the San Francisco singing group Chanticleer produced a program of Mexican liturgical music, which they performed in Royce Hall at the University of California, Los Angeles, among other places. The program consisted of baroque pieces written for use in princely households, not for a general mass of worshipers. A single line of the Mass can thus be prolonged to make a largely meditative composition, very beautiful throughout.

On another occasion, we heard a Haydn Mass in Winchester Cathedral, originally written for the private chapel of Prince Nikolaus Esterhászy I. Here the piece is performed as a concert so we can enjoy the long echo in the big space, quite foreign to its original setting and intent.

Yet another time we attended a performance in Los Angeles of the Mass in B Minor by J. S. Bach. As this is presented, it is not a Mass at all; only the Ordinary of the Mass, without any Propers. Again, very beautifully done, but the treated this way, it turns into a heap of disconnected elements.

Only one of these occurred in a church sanctuary; in every case broken up by applause. All the action of the Mass and all responses from a congregation are absent. Moreover, the element of timing, which has a completely different meaning in liturgy from what it has in musical performance, is thrown off. This hurts the music as such, but more importantly, it uproots and trivializes the Mass to treat it this way.


It remains an interesting question, What is really the religion of our time? How would a Mass for our time be constructed? Using what language? Do we have anything suitable? Whether we do or not, what does that imply for good or ill? A trenchant book on that question is Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity, in which Judeo-Christianity is recognized as the most ancient and implacable antagonist to all mere religion.

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