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Thursday, January 9, 2003

But can art save?

In response to my musings on Bach's St. Matthew Passion, Phil B. wrote:

Bach's passion notwithstanding, evoking intense emotional feeling at the sound or sight of crucifixion scenes does not translate to Jesus' bodily resurrection to save us from our sins.

You're right. I don't believe that Jesus' personal experience of crucifixion or his bodily resurrection saved us from sin. I don't even think that Christian scripture or tradition actually requires that one believe these things. But in the liturgical or aesthetic experience of the crucifixion and resurrection — say, during Holy Week — where one feels almost inside the story, I do think something happens. I think that there is something "true" in the experience.

Aristotle thought that dramatic tragedy effects a catharsis in the audience, a change that he believed helped us work through violent feelings (and a host of other complex emotions) without actually doing violence. In some sense, I think this is what religious art — including worship — does for us. It helps us confront and find meaning in aspects of experience that are not in themselves confrontable or meaningful.

(A funeral or memorial service doesn't do a thing for the dead person, but it can help "redeem" the experiences of the people who have lost someone close to them. The redemption in this case may not even be related to the explicit interpretation offered by the officiant; I've been to meaningful funerals led by misguided and theologically objectionable speakers, for example.)

I don't believe that God intended the historical crucifixion. I don't believe it was part of some divine plan. I don't think the crucifixion as an event in the past does anything for our sense of estrangement from God. It doesn't fix anything. The crucifixion that killed Jesus was nothing but barbaric and cruel. It destroyed a human being and was an act of deliberate terrorism against his community. That's all true.

But here's the central paradox for me: in the church's very existence — in our experience of God's recreative power in our communities, in our experience of the ongoing resurrection, you might say — something transformative is happening. It happens to the community that is drawn to God through Jesus' life and even through his death. God does offer redemption in the "risen body" that is the church.

I have come to interpret most "atonement theology" — including Romans, Hebrews, and Revelation — as post-resurrection attempts to understand what God was doing for Jesus' followers. They are partial explanations, drawing on the Bible and on other ideas of the times, to get at what God seemed to be doing in their midst, even after Jesus had been killed. They are creative, even inspired ways to redeem his murder.

By trying to approach these interpretations as art more than as philosophy or history, I'm trying to experience Christianity as a bit of a drama, I suppose, but for now it's helping me. I am not saying that a powerful emotional or aesthetic experience constitutes a test for the truth of a doctrine in historical or philosophical terms. That's why I said I don't agree with Bach's libretto. But in spite of that, I find that the experience of the music helps me understand and feel things that I would not otherwise know.

(Originally posted to UUCF-L)

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 9 January 2003 at 5:16 PM

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