I’ve been thinking a great deal about the mystery of belief and its relationship to our human experience of integrating rational thought and emotional response as we engage with the world. The idea that belief is in some measure a mystery has been helpful to me to understand how the arts are poised to act as strengtheners of belief, not necessarily as agents of faith’s erosion and undermining. Starting with the first principle of humans being created by God with artistic capacity—necessity even, to fully realize our nature as imago Dei—it is instructive to locate the problem not in the arts themselves, as has often been done by well-meaning church leaders, but in the human heart. The denial of artistic ways of knowing and experiencing God in our church cultures seem to me as destructive to faith as the sentimental 19th century belief that salvation comes through artistic expression.
One of the best books I read last year was poet Christian Wiman’s memoir, My Bright Abyss, published by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. I highly recommend it. The opening of the memoir, appropriately, is a powerful little poem: (p. 3)
My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe in this:
Wiman closes the memoir with this poem also, with one tiny but immense change: the end punctuation becomes a period. (p. 178) This choice, noticed only by careful stewards of the written word, denies none of the mystery of belief invoked by the initial colon left open, but invokes a kind of certainty that is not at all about human adequacy but rather about human trust in unknowable and inexhaustible divine abundance. In my experience it packed a huge punch.
There is much I could say about the rewards from a careful reading of Wiman’s book, but for the purpose of this post, I would draw your attention to my favorite chapter, entitled “Varieties of Quiet” where Wiman asks penetrating questions about the language of modern Christian culture. Two examples:
“What is the difference between a mystery in which, and by means of which, one’s whole spiritual and intellectual being is elated and completed, and a mystery that merely deflates one’s spirit and circumvents one’s intellect?” p. 117
“Does the decay of belief among educated people in the West precede the decay of language used to define and explore belief, or do we find the fire of belief fading in us only because the words are sodden with overuse and imprecision, and will not burn?” p. 124
Wiman, master wordsmith that he is, is exploring the connection between rationality and revelation, eloquently critiquing the unfortunate and baffling poverty of language that has been his experience of the Christian church, an experience with which I deeply resonate. The height of his criticism occurs on page 138 with an admission that on the one hand, “mystical experience needs some form of dogma in order not to dissipate into moments of spiritual intensity that are merely personal,” and on the other, “dogma needs regular infusions of unknowingness to keep from calcifying into the predictable, pontificating, and anti-intellectual services so common in mainstream American churches.” He concludes that all of us, wherever we may place ourselves on the conservative – liberal spectrum of Christian faith, need a revolution in the way we worship, and for Wiman, the crux of such a revolution is that “we must be conscious of language as language.”
I think Wiman is right. Not ultimately separable from, but in some sense preliminary to questions of musical style—which is where most of the worship wars have tended to focus—is the issue of a fundamental under-attentiveness to richness of language in Christian worship, particularly poetic language, most egregious our inattentiveness to the metaphorical richness of the Scriptures. Complete lack of consciousness of language is one of the greatest weaknesses I see in my college students. (I’m speaking here about verbal language, but the oblivion to musical language is strikingly similar in kind.) The fact that we do not even have a word that adequately unites rigorous thought with deep emotional engagement is evidence of the challenge we face in accomplishing the revolution Wiman suggests is necessary in Christian worship. We have learned not only to pretend that intellect and emotion are separable in our experience, but to value that false separation as an essential virtue. This means that we are vulnerable to accepting the scripted words and emotions of TV, film with its manipulative soundtrack, and the raw, feelings-privileged content of pop styles of musical expression, as more authentic and more to be trusted than the emotional content of language (and music) that requires the careful thought of the writer, the performer, and the audience. Trained musicians are able to experience a much less divisible intellectual and emotional engagement with faith in the music of Bach, for example, but feel fairly daunted to envision a church music of comparable integrity for the English-speaking church today.
Speaking of Bach, you’ll forgive one more inspiring citation from John Eliot Gardiner’s book, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, here speaking of Bach’s massive setting of the Ordinary of the Mass, finally completed late in his life and known to us as the Mass in B Minor: “Bach, in the breadth of his vision, grasped and then revealed to us his conception of the universe as a harmonious whole; yet he was composing at a time when the breakdown of social unity was well advanced and the old structures of religion were fast being eroded by Enlightenment thinkers.” That’s as encouraging a word to church musicians facing the challenges of today as I could imagine, lest we be tempted to self-pity, that we labor in more difficult times than Bach did. Gardiner wonderfully describes Bach’s resolve in his setting of the Mass as “not merely [miming] the gestures of belief, not [interpreting] doctrine via music of his own invention, but [extending] the very range of music’s possibilities and through such exploration [making] sense of the world in which he lived and whatever lay beyond it.” That phrase, “merely to mime the gestures of belief” as the negative counterpart to the more positive descriptor of Bach’s creative persona as “the inner poet hiding in the recesses of his counterpoint,” (all quotes found on p. 523), recalled to me Wiman’s call for revolution in worship.
I suspect we may be tempted to underestimate just how radical such a revolution might prove to be. In my view, at least two very large topics lie out of sight of the tip of this revolutionary iceberg: one, the nature of the relationship between a determinedly secular education system and liturgical practice; and two, what cultivating a more mature engagement with liturgy in all the facets of its expression might look like in a parish. I’d like to explore both of these topics in future posts, and hope that others will tackle them also.