Saturday, March 31, 2007

Christianity in a Box

A brief rant and apologia for my post tomorrow (on Palm Sunday) that will combine Scripture with a review of a ‘secular’ film. Sorry, no Saturday science post today; it will resume in two weeks.

I do not think there is such a thing as ‘secular art.’ There is art that uses recognized religious subjects and is destined for churches, chapels, and private shrines, and there is art that uses other subjects and is destined for concert halls and parlors. However the use is divided, this does not mean that art in the latter category is purely ‘secular’ in intent. Is there anything secular about “Contessa, perdono” in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, or some of Caspar David Friedrich’s Romantic landscapes, or parts of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or Terrence Malick’s take on the Battle of Guadalcanal in The Thin Red Line? ‘Secular’ subjects used to be featured alongside ‘religious’ subjects frequently: fieldworkers stood near prophets and saints in medieval cathedrals. There’s nothing non-religious about the ‘secular.’

Rather, the divide is between the sacred and profane in art (and I will not now delve into how/why this divide occurred - perhaps after Easter I will do so). The artist can use a religious subject (Berlioz’s use of Dies Irae in Symphonie Fantastique, Bacon’s Study after Velasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ immediately come to mind) and be profane, and the artist can use a secular subject and aspire to the divine. The older dichotomy, Apollonian vs. Dionysian (before redefinition by Nietzsche) is also helpful. Does it appeal to the divine, or to sinful human appetites? And is art that portrays the sinful less ‘worthy’ of view by Christians because it is reflective of fallen humanity?

There are a group of Christians who want to be exposed to no art unless it is ‘religious’ art with blatant religious themes, or so watered down it is completely innocuous entertainment (art that cannot move someone is not art). Perhaps it is my bias as a systems neuroscientist and my knowledge that a human being is an organism run by neurons communicating with other neurons, that informs my belief that there is no such thing as a ‘religious’ theme. The story of humanity is the story of Christ’s life, from birth to Passion, death and resurrection. Human life is ALREADY a religious theme – it became so when God formed man in His Image and breathed life into him. There is no story, no aural journey, no pictorial that can be separated from Our Creator and Savior. “All things came to be through Him, and without Him nothing came to be” (John 1:3). Art, as a reflection of the aspirations of humanity, always has an attitude towards the Divine and can never be indifferent to God – even if it appears so, God has different ways of reckoning (Rev 3:15-16). I think those who want to place art into a secular category and therefore dismiss it are attempting to hide from humanity.

I’ve heard this argument used: by being exposed to only religious themes, one is seeking to form the conscience. One’s conscience has to be formed separate from humanity? One must be cut off from human life in order to be Christian? Does NOT seeing or hearing really protect one against temptation? The art isn’t the problem; the indulgence in sinful thoughts is. It is a different mission to enter the desert for discipline than it is to enter it to hide from Satan – Satan can find even Christ in the desert. (Those communities that seek to shut themselves off from the rest of the world, be they cults or the Amish, have frightening reports of sexual abuse, particularly of children; let’s not go into the various misdeeds that occur within religious communities.) The problem is not out there in the works that our neighbors produce; the problem is in here.

And yet it seems to me that some want Christianity in a box that they can polish like a pretty trinket and humanity in a squeaky-clean form, and anything less than those presentations of both is inherently bad. Well, fallen humanity is messy and dirty and in need of a Savior. And art, when it works, is the remembrance of Eden, the internal longing for a Savior, and the hope for the Age to Come. It speaks the words: this is how far we have fallen into iniquity, Christ come! or this is what Heaven may be like. We think, we feel, we yearn with our brothers and sisters for what God has in store for us. And in good art, those experiences are poured out for the rest of us to contemplate and be moved. Don’t run away from art, or avoid it because you think it will somehow taint you. As in all things, it is Christ in you that matters.

1 comment:

Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

Perhaps this is why I am now hesitant about the whole theory behind Byzantine iconography. Other than the fact that such authors as Lossky and Ouspensky offer specious theological arguments justifying artforms that may have well been born through unseen historical contingencies, an attempt to exclude humanity from art, to purify and "deify" it, probably does Christianity a disservice in some ways. While I love the Byzantine icon, I cannot love it because it is pristine, totally ordered, and "transfigured" since I as a viewer am none of these. There is room for both, but as I have said before, I prefer praying towards a bloody crucifix than an immaculate Byzantine one. It allows me to see the saying that Pascal wrote in the Pensees:

Christ will be in agony until the end of the world.
We must not sleep the while.