An excellent little walk through sacred art.
Many believers would question whether non-believers can truly comprehend the meaning of religiously inspired art. We can, however, turn this round and ask a different question. What is it that is “sacred” about sacred art? For religious believers, the sacred, whether in art or otherwise, is clearly that which is associated with the holy and the divine. The composer John Tavener, who died at the end of last year, was one of the great modern creators of sacred music. A profoundly religious man – he was a convert to Russian Orthodoxy – Tavener’s faith and sense of the mystic suffused much of his music. Historically, and in the minds of most people today, the sacred in art is, as it was with Tavener, inextricably linked with religious faith.
Believers and non-believers do hold this view but this is not nearly as universal as the author would like. My mind wanders over to a recent post over at Mere Inklings.
All the books were beginning to turn against me. Indeed, I must have been as blind as a bat not to have seen, long before, the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader. George MacDonald had done more to me than any other writer; of course it was a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity. He was good in spite of it.
Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity. Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough, he had the same kink. Spenser and Milton by a strange coincidence had it too.
Even among ancient authors the same paradox was to be found. The most religious (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil) were clearly those on whom I could really feed.
On the other hand, those writers who did not suffer from religion and with whom in theory my sympathy ought to have been complete—Shaw and Wells and Mill and Gibbon and Voltaire—all seemed a little thin; what as boys we called “tinny.” It wasn’t that I didn’t like them. They were all (especially Gibbon) entertaining; but hardly more. There seemed to be no depth in them. They were too simple. The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books. . . .
The upshot of it all could nearly be expressed in a perversion of Roland’s great line in the Chanson—Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores. The natural step would have been to inquire a little more closely whether the Christians were, after all, wrong.
I think C. S. Lewis’ story is particularly well-told, and deserves replication in part, yet he is hardly novel or alone. There is something about art, and perhaps something particular about sacred art, that captures the mind. I do not need to be a Catholic to appreciate a cathedral of space, or Jewish to appreciate Heschel’s Jewish cathedral of time. I doubt that if I became atheistic that would change. Sincerity has a quality all its own and there seems something particularly sincere about the sacred. Why is that, dear reader, I leave up to you and your experiences.
If you have any other popular instances of conversion on account of religious art I would appreciate the links. I have a few in mind, but I’m always looking for more.
Two parting notes. First, my criticism shouldn’t deter you from visiting. The article is excellent and is perfect for someone who wants to look at interesting things. Second, I hope you can forgive me for such long quotes. I try to be more than a compilation of choice quotes but apparently I have failed today.