Monday, February 15, 2010

Christ in the Concert Hall: A Hypothetical Controversy

Imagine, for a moment, that there was a great struggle in the ancient church regarding whether or not music was conducive with Christian worship.  Thankfully, church history records mercifully few instances of this particular debate, but imagine that there was a great one.  Then imagine that an entire wing of the church succeeded in outlawing music.  Imagine next that those who (rightfully) argued that music was consistent with Christianity triumphed, and that following that hard-won victory, an entire stream of Christianity - a very prominent one - arose around the victorious musicophiles, becoming in turn a tradition that emphasized music in a unique and unrivaled way.  This would all be quite natural, as often only when something is threatened do we realize how necessary it is.

Next, imagine that a 21st century music historian, seeking to shed new light on the importance of music in today's church and in the secular concert hall, wrote a book about music and Christianity entitled "Christ and the Concert Hall." The author, appropriately enough, found the aforementioned musically-focused ancient Christian tradition to be a dominant inspiration.  Finally, imagine that in a review of "Christ in the Concert Hall," a gifted musician/author came along and pointed out that the author focused on "only one current" within the diverse river of Christianity.  The reviewer then went on to criticize the author of "Christ in the Concert Hall" for not focusing on other aspects of Christian history. The reviewer, furthermore, seemed to charitably imply that the author was not enough of a Barthian (because the author used abstract principles) or not enough of an N.T. Wrightian futurist (because the author didn't focus enough on hope).  This review would, I hope you agree, be quite peculiar.  After all, when writing a book about music and Christianity, why wouldn't one bother to emphasize that great tradition of musically-focused Christian faith, drawing upon the resources which, in God's providence, that tradition alone could provide.

And yet, when the gifted musician/author Jeremy Begbie reviewed art historian Dan Siedell's book God in the Gallery in the current issue of Image, Begbie appeared - ever so subtly - to take issue that Dan Siedell, in a book about art, limited himself to "one particular current within the Nicene river, the Eastern Orthodox tradition... and the council of Niceae (787 CE), the conference which established the orthodoxy of icons."  Well of course he did!  Especially seeing that this tradition has a history of American neglect, Why wouldn't he?   No wonder Siedell, at his blog, seems a bit miffed about the limitations of the Reformed perspective on art and the necessity of engaging the untapped art historical resources of the Orthodox Church.

I certainly hope the Protestant aesthetic [band]wagons aren't going to circle on the issue of Christianity and art.  The Reformed, among others Protestants, have much to offer in this particular conversation.  They've been contributing, thankfully, for centuries, and especially so in the last few decades (thanks in no small part to Jeremy Begbie).  But the Orthodox have been doing likewise for far longer, and they're far more experienced, and successful, in this volatile arena.  To limit oneself to Protestant resources when it comes to art may bring a satisfying sense of intellectual consistency, but it is also to ensure things get very boring, very fast.  Not as boring, mind you, as when one limits oneself (as does most of the art world) to strictly secular resources, but still pretty boring.

[crossposted at evangel]