Friday, February 7, 2020

The not-so-great divorce

I just sent away for Quentin Faulkner's book "Wiser than Despair," a book whose existence I just discovered despite it being published some eight years ago. In it, the university professor will, as I understand it, share a number of observations, quotations, and thoughts about the church and the arts. I've been a sucker for books like that for at least a decade, because it seems rare that anybody would wish to discuss an amalgamation of the two areas.

The church and the arts seem to have parted ways three or four centuries ago, although even then they had a tenuous relationship. Now most serious artists practice their craft outside the walls of the church, frequently on a purely secular basis, even though art by definition asks the great questions of existence, which, according to some theologians, is exactly the point of religion. Only the church doesn't like the questions; it is more about giving the answers, and keeping people under control. Artists, like prophets, tend to get in the way of that. Experience with the arts can provoke strong emotional responses, which are frowned upon in many Sunday meetings, and cause one to think, which can also be a danger to an institution that often insists it has already done your homework for you.

Inside the church, there are arts with a small a. Music is generally allowed, although organists recognize that anything instrumental is often banished to before and after the service, while people are talking over our efforts. What is welcomed as a part of worship is mass participatory music, which has to be simple and repetitive, though sometimes a choir, still the subject of controversy because its anthems can be complicated, will be in the mix. The visual arts make minor appearances in only a few churches, and very occasionally even dance is allowed. But this is rare. And in any case, simplicity is the rule. It is probably just as well the Creator hid some of his stranger creatures thousands of miles under the sea--we don't seem to warm to the idea that diversity and complexity might actually be a part of the created order.

Hiding the arts from people may have been one of the wiser things the church did in terms of seeking mass popularity, which is clearly the aim here. Some of us will feel that a great deal has been lost in the process, but we would be in the minority.

The book should arrive in about a week. Most of its predecessors have, while interesting, not changed my life in any measurable way, but at least the authors have been interesting traveling companions. There have been sketches about Christian art, though eventually each has to admit that not much of it is practiced inside the walls of the church.

We are an interesting species. We have to have rituals, and a sense of predictable security. The arts tend to rouse us outside of that comfortable slumber. Occasionally we will respond positively--at a safe remove. The rest of the time it is the artists who had better be at a safe remove, like the mystics and the thinkers that the church has always found a place for behind the walls of their own institutions where they can't hurt anybody.

Still, they are there. I wonder how people can sleep at night.

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