Faith and the arts

Pinturicchio fresco in Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, Rome (my photo)

At the start of this new year, my friend Talita from high school put on her debut concert as a singer-songwriter, livestreamed over Facebook (Thunder Bay, Ontario, is far from Durham, England) from the Urban Abbey. It was the story of her journey as a musician, and a good number of friends from high school as well as her dad and sisters made appearances on the platform, performing alongside her, including Ryan Marchand who is actually a rock star.

It was a wonderful event, and there was a strong element of Talita’s faith in the midst of the theme of her emergence as an artist. Many of the beautiful songs, including her own compositions, were songs of the Christian faith, reflecting the beautiful truths of our beautiful God. It was great to watch this event. And I am so glad that the Urban Abbey provides a space for artists — performers and others — to ply their trade.

But few churches and Christian communities really do. It’s probably seen by some as a hipster sort of move. Historically, however, churches have not needed to sponsor the arts so consciously as this — it was natural. Notker ‘the Stammerer’ was not Sankt Gall’s Artist in Residence (and certainly not a hipster), but he wrote them beautiful poetry. The mosaicists of Palermo were simply plying their trade. The anonymous liturgists of the Gelasian Sacramentary did not need to make special pleading in the church.

But today, spaces like the Urban Abbey can be rarely found.

In Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, one piece of wisdom Chris R. Armstrong imparts is for evangelicals to get into art more — that the Incarnation makes Christian art important. God Himself became His creation. All creatures matter. Not only this — and this is not from Armstrong but is Tolkien language also expressed by Sayers in The Mind of the Maker — but we are made in the image of God, and one of the foundational properties of theism is that Our God is Creator. We then, are sub-creators in some way.

Turning back to Armstrong, evangelicals have not always made good art. Think of the King of the Hill line about how Christian rock doesn’t make Christianity better but rock’n’roll worse. Armstrong mentions Richard Wilkinson’s study of English literature 1860-1960 that found the only orthodox Protestants producing high literary art worth mentioning in that century were C. S. Lewis and T. S. Eliot, both sacramental Anglicans. I don’t know how accurate that is, but it’s worth thinking about.

How can we make great art and beauty a natural part of evangelical faith?

The Gospel — the evangel of evangelical — is the most beautiful true thing in the world. The God who dies. The myth that is real. The cosmic-rending reality of Incarnation. The piercing of the Virgin’s Mary’s soul. There is high drama here. It is worthy of great art, and great art has been made about Christianity forever.

People of faith have always made art, often of a very high degree of skill and beauty. Just think on the Parthenon and temples of the Acropolis, the Pantheon of Rome, the tales told of the cult statue of Zeus at Olympia, or consider the Dome of the Rock, the Great Mosque of Damascus, the calligraphy on the exteriors of so many mosques. Think of the Homeric Hymns, the Poetic Edda, the Rg Veda. Greek tragedy and comedy began as part of a religious festival.

Christianity, in its worship of the Triune God, has given us the beautiful prose of the Book of Common Prayer, the verse of Gregory of Nazianzus and Prudentius and Ambrose, the glories of Byzantine and Renaissance liturgy, the fine intricacies of ars anglicana embroidery, the hymns of Charles Wesley, of Romanos the Melodist, of Ephrem the Syrian, of Isaac Watts, of Notker the Stammerer, of J. M. Neale, as well as the architecture of liturgy — Hagia Sophia, St Peter’s, Notre Dame, Chartres Cathedral, the mosaics of Santa Prassede, of Palermo, of Hagia Sophia, of San Marco in Venice.

Beyond the formal worship event, Christianity has given us so much (and so much more than the following): The Dream of the Rood, Dante (!!), The Quest for the Holy Grail, Fra Angelico,  Mozart’s Mass in C Minor and Requiem, William Byrd, countless mosaics and frescoes throughout the Mediterranean world, the Christian Latin epics of Late Antiquity, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, J. R. R. Tolkien, and so many more without delving into Protestantism.

For the churches descended from the Reformation have their own rich heritage in the arts. St Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne, George Herbert, Lancelot Andrewes, the prose of the 1611 KJV Bible, Sir John Davies, Henry Purcell, Thomas Tallis (who was also Roman Catholic — he lived in interesting times), J. S. Bach, C. S. Lewis, Malcolm Guite, and undoubtedly so many others who escape me just now.

Let us drink deep from the beauty of the beautiful God, and we shall produce beauty ourselves.

The multiple media/genres of classic/historic Christianity

booksforwebThis blog/site is about the promotion of Classic Christianity as a way to engage more deeply with the Triune God, to re-engage with Scripture, to increase in devotion to Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and so forth. As an antidote to spiritual drought, seeking the wisdom of the faithful over the many ages of Christianity.

I tend to divide things by temporal period, probably because of my inclinations as an historian. So I think in such terms as ‘Patristic’, ‘Medieval/Byzantine’, ‘Renaissance/Reformation/Counter-Reformation/Early Modern’ and ‘Modern.’ Mostly I post about subjects Patristic and Medieval — write what you know!

But the world of Classic Christianity, although something of a seamless whole if we watch for the common threads of the tapestry that the Great Tradition is woven into, presents itself to us in many ways — through texts, through images, through actions, and through music.

Texts

Christianity is a text-based religion, and not just because the Most Holy Trinity has revealed Himselves to us through the Bible. Texts are the surest way of transmitting tradition to further generations, for one thing. They are also a way for individuals to order their thoughts, organise their prayers, remember themselves, and share with others far away their own discoveries and beliefs. Furthermore, Eusebius of Caesarea established the story of Christian texts and their preservation, as well as the stories of Christian authors, as central to ecclesiastical history, a trend furthered by St Jerome’s De Viris Inlustribus.

As a result, there are many genres of text in Christianity, and it is these that mostly occupy my time here. Sometimes I go through phases where I discuss liturgy more, sometimes the ascetic/devotional writers, sometimes the theologians and exegetes. I go in phases, but each genre is an important part of learning the faith once delivered. If we ingest these texts thoroughly, we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Some of the genres available to us from the riches of the Great Tradition are:

  • Theology
  • Scriptural exegesis
  • Devotional/ascetic/mystical treatises (a form of lived theology described by practitioners)
  • Poetry
  • Liturgical texts (incl. hymns) and personal prayers
  • Saints’ lives (aka hagiography)
  • Ecclesiastical history

Images

Byzantine mosaic of the Transfiguration, 11th-12th c, Louvre (my pic)
Byzantine mosaic of the Transfiguration, 11th-12th c, Louvre (my pic)

Images have been hotly disputed throughout Christian history. Nonetheless, whether for adorning churches or the interiors of Books of Hours or the walls of living rooms, Christian tradition has a broad variety of images. These images are to be understood each in its own way, its own context, and its own uses. One does not view a Renaissance master the same way as a Byzantine icon, but that does not mean one is more ‘Christian’ than the other. Each has its value. Each can draw us up into Heaven.

Actions

Actions come to us through the texts, I suppose. But they are also transmitted through the lived practice of Christians in our midst. I learned how to do prostrations, placing my head to the floor, from Fr Raphael upstairs in his study in Edinburgh. I learned how to pray from my parents and other spiritual guides. I have learned of fasting from the pulpit, from examples of other Christians around me, from conversations, as well as from Scripture and non-scriptural texts. When we take these actions from the texts and the images and the lives of those around us and incorporate them into our own devotion to God, we are living tradition, we are entering into that cosmic union of all faithful people of all times and places that is the mystical Body of Christ.

Music

I probably blog about music the least, although I might sometimes post a YouTube video of a hymn or chant I like. But I grew up the son of a piano teacher, am the brother of a composer, and play the clarinet myself, besides spending a certain amount of my youth in youth choirs. Music, for me, is much harder to put into words. Indeed, perhaps simply sharing a YouTube video is the best approach. Nonetheless, sacred music imbues the whole history of western music; it is where western music history classes begin, with Gregorian Chant; then the great music of the Renaissance, followed by the Christian musical tradition in Vivaldi, Bach, Haydn, Handel, Mozart, even Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and Bruckner.

When I attend a sung Eucharist at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, it is in the midst of that music that I lose myself and enter into that moment completely, casting all other thoughts away. It is then that my heart can most easily soar to heaven. My spirit sings as they sing.

How will you engage with the tradition today?

Weaving Jesus into your spare time

Christ
Christ, Basilica of Santa Prassede, Rome. 9th-c

Here are some other thoughts about what can be worked into the day to help us focus on Jesus at work at home at play with the kids mowing the lawn eating a juicy hamburger:

Mix quality Christian books into your fun reading. At this moment, I’m not advocating City of God for every reader (although, if that’s your thing…). More like Narnia. Or Lewis’ Space Trilogy. Maybe Stephen R Lawhead for fantasy fans.

There are readable Christian books out there for readers of non-fiction, of course. Like Mere Christianity. Or Knowing God by JI Packer. Or get wild and read The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi. Maybe read a book of saints’ lives, like Early Christian Lives, translated by Carolinne M White? Besides Milton (ohmygosh read Paradise Lost now!), read Scott Cairns or the lyrics of Charles Wesley or Gerard Manley Hopkins or whomever.

Maybe you’re not a reader. I don’t know how such people exist, but they seem to manage. In that case, find other ways to mix Jesus into your daily activities.

Every once in a while, good Christian films seem to come out. Watch them instead of something less edifying, perhaps? Go back and re-watch ones where you’re not sure about the orthodoxy of the input in your spare time, like Jesus Christ Superstar. Why not watch that? Or Brother Sun, Sister Moon, about Saint Francis of Assisi. If you like documentaries, there’s Lord, Save Us from Your Followers and Hellbound – whether you agree with the filmmakers’ perspectives, simply thinking about these issues should help us weave Christ into our lives and focus on him more.

If you’re an art-lover, you don’t even have to try to bring Jesus in. Just be more conscious in your focus, since most western art from the Early Middle Ages to some point after the Renaissance is Christian. Jesus is there. In fact, since He is Himself beautiful in a cosmic way, he is waiting to be thanked and delighted in every time you enjoy a work of art, whether it’s of waterlilies or saints or Queen Elizabeth I.

We live in an age of recorded music. Put Jesus on the stereo – Tallis, Striggio, Palestrina, Mozart, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner all wrote liturgical music and musical settings for Scripture; Handel’s oratorios are simply Baroque settings of the Bible in English. As well, the world abounds in CDs of hymns.

I grew up on a steady diet of Contemporary Christian Music. I admit that not all of it is the world’s greatest music, but I would recommend John Michael Talbot and Rich Mullins to about anyone, and still enjoying listening to new and classic Newsboys (it’s catchy) as well as good ol’ Audio Adrenaline and dc Talk. Those of you who scorn such music, please don’t judge me! Filling our ears with the truths of Christ and Scripture can help turn our hearts and minds to Him, helping us focus on Him. It’s just a matter of which track to play in iTunes or which CD to pop into the stereo.

I’m not saying to stop reading or watching or viewing or listening to the art produced by the rest of the world in our spare time. There are good theological, aesthetic, and missiological reasons to keep engaging with pagan sculptors and atheist novelists. I am not going to suddenly stop reading Isaac Asimov as part of my attempt to get more Jesus. Nor will I give up Star Trek and the Beatles. But to mix the Christian things into our downtime and our atmosphere, this is a Good Thing. It will bring Jesus more fully into our senses and into our lives.

Remember, Brother Lawrence was a lay Carmelite whose job took him to the scullery as well as across France on a vessel carrying wine. He was able to stay focussed on Christ the whole time. Frank Laubach was a missionary and literacy promoter who also trained himself to think on Christ. You can do it in whatever situation you are in and not neglect the children, the job, the boss, the spouse, the dishes, the food, the living room, the taxes.

The Kingdom of the Heavens is all around us — we don’t need to do too much that is special to start focussing on its King.

Baby Jesus and his Mom

A Madonna & Child, Duomo in Milano

As I stood at the Capello di Crucifisso on Sunday (discussed here), I noted that the chapel to my left had more attendees. There, front and centre was a Madonna and Child, with a little railing and kneelers besides the tables of candles and pews that it had in common with the Crucifixion.

More people were there to pray and light candles and kneel before an image — beautiful, certainly — of Our Lord as a child in the arms of His mother.

Later, in the galleries of the Sforzesco Castello, I saw more Madonnas. All equipped with a baby, thankfully. One such piece by Andrea Mantegna was originally for an altarpiece and has been extensivelly restored, and is visible here.

I am not opposed to images of the Virgin being painted. And if she comes equipped with the Child, all the better! Indeed, since her Son is the entire reason she gets any attention at all, she had better come with him!

But in the crowds of Madonnas, I fear sometimes that something is lost. Every once in a while, one of my evangelical brethren makes a scoffing comment in the direction of crucifixes, declaring proudly, ‘My Jesus didn’t stay dead.’

I know a priest whose response to this, when people note his glow-in-the-dark crucifix (he swears he didn’t know it was glow-in-the-dark when he got it), is, ‘Do you have a manger scene at Christmas?’

St. George's Anglican Church, Prince Albert SK

‘Yes,’ comes the answer.

‘Is Jesus a baby in it?’

‘Yes.’

‘Well,’ he says, ‘my Jesus didn’t stay a baby.’

My Jesus didn’t stay a baby. In fact, the baby Jesus didn’t atone for sin. Certainly, the fact that God was eight days old and held in the arms of His mother makes for the beginnings of a new reality, but it’s not until we take God as a grown man and savagely put Him to death and He rises from the dead that he atones for sin and makes possible the new life to which all may enter in.

What I see as the detrimental effect of all these Baby Jesuses, eight days old in the arms of His mother, is not an elevation of the Virgin so much as a confusion about Who He really is. Thus, the many mediaeval saints who saw visions of the Christ Child speaking to them.

Or the tale of the Jews who stole some Host to desecrate it, and when they stabbed it, they saw the image of a Child, and the Host bled. (Not giving credence to the story in any way.)

The Christ Who is present in the Heavens now, Who watches over His people and hears their prayers, Who sometimes even speaks to them, is, in fact, adult, not infantile. The Christ Whose death is commemorated and Whose body, by Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran and some Anglican theology, is present in the bread and wine, was and is an adult.

This is important, because acknowledging that the Child who was laid in a manger left this sphere of existence as a grown Man is an acknowledgement of the fullness of his human existence. Jesus lived a full human life.

I do not believe that the infant Jesus would have atoned for sin if slain. If what has not been assumed cannot be healed, then I believe that Jesus had to live at least long enough to be tempted to be able to atone for sin. How can one who has never been tempted by sin save me from it?

Irenaeus (or is it Athanasius?) takes it further, and says that Jesus lived to be an old man, thus going through and redeeming every stage of human life.

The Baby Jesus doesn’t save me.

The Man Jesus, crucified, risen, ascended, does.

Processional Cross, St. George's Anglican, Prince Albert, SK

What Good Has ‘Religion’ Ever Done?

In an age where Westboro Baptist stages its “God Hates the World” and “God Hates Fags” demonstrations, where terrorists crash airplanes into buildings (or blow them up), where Pastor Terry Jones threatens to burn the Qu’ran, where people sometimes destroy property and human life in their anti-abortion stance, where Christians who have converted from Islam are systematically tortured or executed in some countries, where former President G W Bush used biblical rhetoric to underlie engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Hindus in India attack Christian minority groups, where Christians and Muslims in Nigeria often turn to violence against one another — in such a world, many people have a hard time seeing what good “religion” and, frequently, Christianity in particular, has to offer.

Historically, it is easy to see the good that religion has done (thus giving the lie to Hitchens’ subtitle, “How Religion Poisons Everything”).  We need look no further than the hospitals of the city of Toronto, one, St. Michael’s, founded by Roman Catholics and another, Mount Sinai, by Jews.  Historically, religious people have been on the front lines of providing healthcare.  Livingstone brought both the Bible and medicine to Africa.  The first hospitals of the Byzantine and mediaeval worlds were church organisations.

Historically, the arts show us to what heights religion can take man, even if today’s “Christian Art”, be it music, novels, or trashy Jesus paintings, makes me shudder.  We have the glories of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, of Bach’s St. John Passion, of Handel’s Messiah, of Haydn’s Creation (my post on that last one here).

I have posted previously about Christian fiction — there is great narrative art from the pens of Christians, from the Anglo-Saxons to Dante to Spenser, Milton, and Bunyan to Chesterton, Waugh, Lewis, Tolkien, Buechner.  The Christian faith has produced some consummate storytellers.

Any cathedral with its stained glass intact can tell you that in no way is religion an entirely bad force.  Behold the Sistine Chapel!  Gape at the illuminated Winchester Bible!  Stand in awe before Michelangelo’s Pieta!  (Sorry I used Buonarroti twice.)  Any history of art that covers the Middle Ages and Renaissance will give a good hearty drink of what good religion can produce.

Winchester Cathedral

If you watch the video Palestrina’s link takes you to, you will see some of the architecture of the Church.  Christianity has produced some amazing architecture over the centuries.  So have Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.  When a person is striving for the highest good, when striving for something greater than one’s own petty self, beauty can be achieved.

But what good does religion do today?  A lot of people think that it has outlived its usefulness, that it has become nothing more than a source of strife and division, that our society has evolved beyond needing religion.

Well, in purely “practical” terms (ie. beyond what I see as the spiritual benefits), religion has built at least one hospital in Angola and a nursing school with it and another nursing school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  These are recent foundations.  Religion has brought many a person off the street, out of addiction, and into the workforce through organisations like the Salvation Army, Shelter House, Bethany Christian Trust.

In Toronto, I spent a good number of Saturdays at Toronto Alliance Church, the “Upper Room”.  This church is in the upper level of a storefront on Queen St. near Bathurst.  If you know Toronto, you have visions of that area with the intersecting streetcar lines, the street-health clinic, the street people, the community housing, the nifty shops, the closed down shops, the Starbucks on one corner, a mission to street people on another, Pizza Pizza the third, and a bar (now closed) on the fourth.

Every Saturday night at Toronto Alliance is “Community Night.”  There is a meal — soup & sandwich or something more filling, always warm — a clothing room full of donations people have brought, a nurse who can look after people’s feet (this is a real problem for a lot of people who live on the street), and a food bank.

Part-way through the night, the eclectic group of people who has gathered for food and friendship has a church service gathered around the tables.  There are always some of those old “revival” hymns, like “Just As I Am,” and frequently a lot of the people present know and love these hymns.  Then there is a message from someone on the church’s ministry staff; when I went, usually Bill or Doug.  The message was simple and always focussed on Jesus and the hope he brings and the change he can make.

These church services are sometimes raucous affairs.  I’ve never seen banter during an Anglican sermon, but there would be banter here.  People would often still mill about, but not many.  Some people looked uninterested, but others took a keen interest in the hymns, prayers, and sermon.

Bill, the pastor of Toronto Alliance, knows a lot of the people who come out to Community Night.  He’ll chat with them, see how they’re doing, show real concern for them and their welfare.  We often think that helping out that vague, amorphous group “the unfortunate” is a matter simply of food, shelter, clothing.  It is also very much a matter of love, as I witnessed in Cyprus, of love for the lonely, friendship for the friendless, and light for the lost.

Saturday nights at Toronto Alliance Church provide for the whole person.  That alone tells me that religion is of much good in this world, in spite of Westboro Baptist and Islamist terrorism.