returning beauty and art to worship...

One of the blessings of a smart phone is being able to send yourself a "message" that is saved for another day. I find that I must do this regularly with articles and memes that I want to ponder when I'm not on the go. One such extended reflection, "Why Art?" by Peggy Rosenthal, included this quote by Greg Wolfe of The IMAGE Journal:

Art's method is precisely to search out a new form to help us see the content we already know as if for the first time.  Art thrives on shocks of recognition. Some are truly shocking, with an immediate effect. Most are subtle, time-delayed fuses that detonate deep in our subconscious and move something that needs dislodging. In a sense, every encounter with a great work of art is a conversion experience.

Art provokes a sensory meeting with wisdom or pathos. It evokes and embodies truth within us and in real time and we can never be the same. Unless, of course, like those who enjoyed a Beethoven sonata before breakfast and then went to administer the atrocities of the gas champers, we are stubbornly committed to denial. "Art shapes the ordinary so that we're struck dumb by it," Rosenthal writes, "so that everything starts to matter."

Art gives shape to our experience. Without it, our days would sludge along like a long, slow mudslide. But with art, the sluggish flow stops; we see a human figure carved in the mud, the clay. It's a figure of pride... or of pain... or of reaching, longing, stretching toward the meaning without which our lives are clogged with sludge." (Rosenthal)

The musician, Peter Gabriel, echoes that insight when he notes: 

Music opens up channels of feeling dammed by habit, excessive individualism or the demands of daily life... The philosopher Hegel argued that music is so necessary because it rehearses in the language of the body concept and truths we are in danger of losing touch with when they reach us only through our rational functions. Music is the sensuous presentation of the crucial ideas.

When I was ordained into Christian ministry 35 years ago, I knew that the integration of music - and all the arts - into worship was important - I just didn't know why. I had no philosophic wisdom about the function of music nor any profound theological awareness. I simply felt in my gut that music "takes an ice pick to the heart" (as Nietzsche wrote) I would see it happening during Sunday worship in Cleveland when our organist played Bach's "Sheep Safely Graze" upon receiving the news that one of our flock had passed into life eternal. When we began experimenting with new Good Friday liturgies - using disturbing or challenging contemporary secular music in the retelling of the Passion narrative - old insights were unlocked and brought to the surface, too. 
(NOTE:  I have been exploring the Good Friday venue for 15 years. After fretting and fussing about why so few Protestants came out for that service - in my tradition it has always been the worst attended event in the sacred calendar - I started to use U2 and then the blues followed by other experiments of lament and grief to reconnect our souls with the eternal wisdom of this story. This year we will weave some vocal tunes through the instrumental improvisations of John Coltrane's masterwork, "A Love Supreme" for Good Friday.)

Art, in general, and music, in specific, has the power to awaken us in creative and compassionate ways. Kathleen Raine writes:

Strangest of all is the ease with which our vision is lost, consciousness contracts, we forget over and over again, until recollection is stirred by some icon of beauty. Then we remember and wonder why we ever forgot.

John O'Donohue writes in the introduction of Beauty: Rediscovering the True Sources of Compassion, Serenity and Hope: "Beauty is the endless and elusive theme. What beauty is can never be finally said. This exploration is limited and tentative."  I have discerned that a renewed commitment to the quest for beauty is an essential ingredient for worship - and new liturgies, too - especially in our Reformed tradition that is woefully ignorant and often antagonistic to aesthetics. Small wonder that so many have abandoned the faith when it is simultaneously ugly, boring, and shaming. The same might be said for the "new" churches that worship in antiseptic auditoriums or warehouses and speak only of the gospel of prosperity. They, too, do nothing to awaken pathos and are impotent in the face of tragedy and despair. Peter Gabriel got it right: "Music (an art) opens up channels of feeling dammed by habit, excessive individualism or the demands of daily life."


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