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Essay

The following lecture was originally delivered in London in October 2008, marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Sandford St. Martin Trust, which promotes excellence in religious media programming in the U.K. It was later broadcast on BBC Radio.

HISTORY HAS an annoying habit of sneaking up and mugging the certain and the convinced. In European societies, for example, the process of secularization has led to a triumphalist assumption on the part of campaigning atheists that a war has been won by the forces of the grand secular project. A closer look, however, reveals that religion has not been beaten into the pulp that some might have hoped for, and in fact features in our ongoing cultural discourse in surprising new ways.

In fact, the stridency and vehemence of atheist campaigners could be interpreted as an increasingly desperate and panic-stricken recognition that religion is and will continue to be, for good and for ill, a constant in humanity’s narrative about itself. These campaigning atheists, as opposed to the live-and-let-live variety, are raising their voices because they recognize that they are losing; the project to establish a narrow secular orthodoxy is failing.

So far, these campaigners have been given a fair wind by powerful allies in the media, but most of the media snipers are so ill-informed about their target that their challenge is rendered lean. The most vocal hecklers have little real comprehension of religion, and no intention of remedying this. As Madeline Bunting wrote in a recent London Guardian piece:

The ignorance in the media is, to some extent, to be expected; this is the frontline between believer and skeptical secularism, and most journalists have a sketchy understanding of the complexity and history of theology that make up a religious tradition, and even less sympathy or interest.

The media’s poor understanding of religion has implications for the nature of our pluralism. The ignorance-fueled hostility to religion, widespread among liberal elites, is in danger of coloring society’s value-free “neutrality” in ways that are both bland and naïve. They are also impractical, unattractive, and, I would suggest, oppressive. A true sense of difference, in which a genuine pluralism could thrive, is under threat of being reduced to a lowest common denominator of uniformity and conformity, where any non-secular contribution will be regarded as socially divisive by definition.

From within this stultifying vacuum, there emerges an historic task for the religions: to speak for a more genuine pluralism in which the Christian church could rise to become an honest broker. That claim will, of course, be met with some justified skepticism. It is relatively new for Catholicism, for example, to talk about a God of justice and love who affirms difference. (This celebration of difference is not just new for Catholics—it is a fresh project for all of us.) But that celebration is now here. The historic doctrines of creation and the transcendence of God enable the religious to create a real space for others, where all can be enriched by difference, and where it may be nourished in utmost seriousness.

To do this first requires the building of bridges. But how can this be accomplished? In 2005, a YouGov poll asked the British public, “Would you consider yourself to be religious?” Although 71 percent of the general public said yes, only 21 percent of the television industry was as positive. If this is the case in television, you can be sure it is the same for the metropolitan art, cultural, and media elites. These are people who speak only to themselves and have convinced each other that the entire country thinks just like them. They are wrong.

Substantial anecdotal evidence points to a widespread discomfort felt by religious people in this world. They confront ignorance and prejudice, because to be religious, according to the new secular, liberal orthodoxy, is to be reactionary, bigoted, and narrow. A smug ignorance, a gross oversimplification and caricature that serve as an analytical understanding of religion, are the common intellectual currency. What kind of bridge can be built to this precious and introverted milieu? To abandon secular liberals to their increasing illiberality would be a disaster. The democracy they affect to defend would not survive the erasure of the spiritual perspective from the public square. The bridge has to be built by Christians and others, by firm resistance to increasingly aggressive attempts to still their voices. They must go on speaking the truth to power, expressing their insights and creativity from a confident understanding of their traditions and beliefs. Only this will make for honest and informed debate, and a bridge built on sure foundations.

But what about the specific case of an individual artist? In all this artificial pluralism, can a religious artist still be understood and affirmed? Can that person be celebrated for what he or she brings to our common humanity and society, or are religious artists destined to be marginalized and derided?

For myself, I found one inspirational answer in the 1999 Letter to Artists from John Paul II. The letter’s subtitle fascinates me. It reads: “To all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may offer these as gifts to the world.” This openheartedness and generosity of spirit point to art itself as the bridge which will heal the wound of division created by our current culture wars.

In paragraph 10, the late pope says this:

Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.

There are, perhaps, many secular artists who will simply shrug this off as meaningless and irrelevant. And in modern times there are some forms of art in which connections with the numinous are difficult to discern. But my particular form, music, seems to share a veritable umbilical link with the sacred. Through the centuries, musicians have proved midwives of faith, bringing their gifts to the historic challenge of inspiring the faithful in worship. Modernity brought with it a breach in the working relationship of composer and church. It also brought a series of crises in the very aesthetic of serious music itself. We are witness to a disengagement between the living composer and the wider culture.

The first writer to notice and confront this was the German philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno. As Simon Frith, a professor of popular music at Edinburgh University puts it: “Adorno’s is the most systematic and the most searing analysis of mass culture, and the most challenging for anyone claiming even a scrap of value for the products that are churning out of the music industry.”

Though he is closely associated with Marxist analysis of culture and society, Adorno is nevertheless able to reflect on the spirituality of our contemporary predicaments. His conclusion is provocative. He noted that the colonizing power of popular culture is made invincible by its ability to fill the vacuum created by “spiritual disenchantment” in the West and the gradual disintegration of religious culture and ideas. His essential point is that the “culture industry” of global capitalism, a system where entertainment is linked inseparably with the goal of massive profit-making rather than what we might call human flourishing, has swamped popular music. Notice today that the defenders and propagandists for popular music still refer to it, unapologetically, as an “industry.”

Adorno’s analysis is that the music of this industry is superficial, consumed by unthinking hearers who buy in vast numbers and are utterly beguiled by predictability, cliché, and sameness. He sees the passive masses colluding in their own manipulation. Today, one has to admit that Adorno, who wrote in the thirties, was prophetic in his vision of “culture industries” that could come to create, control, and exploit musical tastes. Popular music has emerged in parallel with advertising, breeding, as Adorno would see it, immature and ultimately powerless individuals. The Scottish theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie suggests that this is a culture that “can offer no effective critique of its society: it offers at one and the same time escape from life’s banalities as well as confirmation of them, its twin functions being distraction (in effect, a kind of drug) and affirmation (it can only maintain the status quo).”

Begbie finds an echo in the American theologian Albert Blackwell, who observes: “Mirthless promotional photographs betray no sense of irony over rock groups who struggle to project individual disaffection and social nonconformity by endlessly reiterating our musical culture’s three most conventional chords [I, IV, and V].”

Some may claim that pop culture is harmless. But its ubiquity has become an imperialistic force, edging all else out, a cuckoo in the nest. The main casualty is the innate curiosity of the young. They are discouraged from making discoveries in music—and much else. All they get is what is flung at them through the usual, sanctioned, and controlling media. Popular culture, in spite of its protestations of the opposite, seems to curtail and limit natural curiosity, and can lead to conformity and narrowness, the very things that pop culture claims to be against. The meaning and significance of art music seems now only to baffle the wider culture. Its power of communication eludes many who have been weaned off the importance of sustained concentration and deep, active listening.

In his book Music and the Mind, the psychiatrist Anthony Storr makes some bold claims about what great music can bring to our experience. He suggests that our feelings and emotions are given structure, fluency, and order when exposed to the abstract constructs of music. Music, as the deep mathematics of creation and cosmos, connects our over-stimulated modern lives with an archetypal sense of order in nature. When music speaks directly and profoundly to the psyche, it becomes a transformative force, acting on our physical, intellectual, and spiritual lives. These different aspects of human reality are given shape, substance, and direction when the ears are genuinely opened by the complexly discursive language of music, in full and fluent action.

Deep in our cultural traditions, we have felt the truth of this. From Pythagoras to T.S. Eliot, thinkers have recognized that a life without an active listening to and awareness of serious music is a life diminished. The lack of it damages countless individuals, and leads to a damaged society. We see this all around us, every day.

And yet, even in our supposedly post-religious society, even the most agnostic and skeptical music-lovers will occasionally lapse into spiritual terminology to account for the impact of music. One hears of lives transformed by it, of moods and perspectives altered, of attitudes shifting and renewed meaning and purpose taking root in lives touched by music.

The active listening required by classical music, for example, may be said to be analogous to contemplation, meditation, and even prayer. This kind of listening demands our time. The complex, large-scale forms of serious music unfold their narratives with an authority that cannot be hurried. Something of the essence of ourselves is sacrificed to music. Whether we are performers, composers, or listeners, we are required to give something up: our precious time.

Music gives us a glimpse of something beyond the horizons of materialism, or our contemporary values. What is music, after all? You can’t see it; you can’t touch it; you can’t eat it; but its palpable presence always makes itself felt, not just in a physical way, but in ways that reach down into the crevices of the soul.

What is music? Is it simply the notes on the page? If so, how can we equate those strange, black, static symbols with the vivid, sometimes convulsive emotions provoked when the resulting sounds enter our ears, our brains, our bodies, and our secret selves?

Here are three more clues. The musicologist Julian Johnson, in his book Who Needs Classical Music? suggests that “neither the word ‘intellectual’ or ‘spiritual’ captures music’s essential activity; the projection of that definitively human awareness of being more than the sum of our parts.”

To which the Scottish Jesuit John McDade would add that, “Music may be the closest human analogue to the mystery of the direct and effective communication of grace.” This suggests that music is a phenomenon connected to the work of God in the way it touches something deep in our souls and releases a divine force.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in a sermon he preached some years ago at the Three Choirs Festival, summed it up as follows:

To listen seriously to music and to perform it are among our most potent ways of learning what it is to live with and before God, learning a service that is a perfect freedom…. In this ‘obedience’ of listening and following, we are stretched and deepened, physically challenged as performers, imaginatively as listeners. The time we have renounced, given up, is given back to us as a time in which we have become more human, more real, even when we can’t say what we have learned, only that we have changed.

Serious music presents a living challenge to the dead hand of things as they are. The boundless vision of composers through the ages points to the realization of ourselves as something greater than we think we are. This is why lovers of music call it the most spiritual of the arts.

Because of the general assumptions made about the triumph of disbelief in our culture, some misconceptions have arisen about modernity and the sacred as they relate to classical music. Sometimes it is more than misconception that is the problem, though. Sometimes the problems are spin and bias.

A fly on a wall told me an interesting story recently. The fly was at a meeting of the committee that runs one of the major university presses in the United Kingdom. A proposed series of books on music in the twentieth century was being discussed, seen from different perspectives—economic, political, nationalist, gender-based, and so on. Someone suggested that the series should include a book on music and religion. This was abruptly dismissed. “What had religion got to do with music in the twentieth century?”

These were leading, highly intelligent academics. Somehow the religious dimensions of many significant musical figures of the last century had not ever been part of their consciousness, although the development of art music in the twentieth century saw the most serious resistance to the anti-religious consensus found elsewhere.

Major modernist figures of the last hundred years were, in different ways, profoundly religious men and women. Stravinsky was as conservative in his religion as he was revolutionary in his musical imagination, with a deep love of his Orthodox roots as well as the Catholicism he encountered in the West. Schoenberg was a mystic who reconverted to practicing Judaism after the Holocaust and pondered deeply the spiritual connections between music and silence. This is probably the reason John Cage chose to study with him. (Silent Prayer was Cage’s original title for 4’33”.) Messiaen was famously Catholic, and every note of his unique contribution to music was shaped by a deep religious conviction and liturgical practice.

The list of recent composers radiating a high degree of religious resonance is substantial, covering a whole generation of post-Shostakovich modernists from behind the old Iron Curtain—Górecki, Pärt, Kancheli, Silvestrov, Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Ustvolskaya. In the United Kingdom, after Benjamin Britten have come Jonathan Harvey, John Tavener, and many others. Far from a spent force, religion has proved a vibrant, animating principle in modern music, and continues to promise much for the future. It could even be said that any discussion of mainstream music of the past century would be incomplete without a serious reflection on the spiritual values, belief, and practice at work in composers’ minds.

This truth is a great encouragement to a composer like me, who have drawn inspiration from the deep reservoirs of Christian liturgy and theology. I have used that liturgical insight in works like my recent Saint John Passion and the Seven Last Words from the Cross. But it has also been a significant motivation in purely instrumental works like Veni, Veni Emmanuel, a percussion concerto which charts a kind of journey from Advent to Easter, and in my almost-completed Third Piano Concerto, which seeks to revive the practice of musical reflections on the Rosary.

Many people in the West think it strange and undesirable to seek to make and shape art according to religious belief and practice. But art can have many strange origins, so why should liturgical experience, for example, not be a catalyst for further exploration and creativity?

And yet the bias against religious thinking can be pervasive and stark. I once shared a pre-concert talk platform with another composer and a well-known presenter who was asking us questions about our music in the program. The other composer had set a Latin liturgical text, interlacing it with Jewish and Islamic texts. When asked about this, he was very keen to make clear that he was not religious, and in fact quite hostile to what he termed “organized religion.” He wanted to show in this work that in spite of the divisiveness that religion brings to society we are all essentially the same, bound together by our common humanity, and that if we could only ditch all this outmoded, reactionary, spiteful mumbo-jumbo, what a wonderful, peaceful world it would be. Just look at the Middle East, Northern Ireland, he said. Isn’t it time we all started thinking rationally and put this murderous medievalism in the dustbin of history?

And then, with no sense of irony at all, our interlocutor turned to me and asked, “And James, when you write your music, do you consciously set out to convert people to your point of view?”

Many prefer to regard a Christian intention and inclination as a dubious business. How, then, must we now view the artistic heritages of Europe, deeply rooted as they are in Christian belief and tradition? Are the profoundly religious sensibilities of Josquin, Palestrina, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Bruckner all now merely to be appraised through the dusty detachment of the museum? Can we only see their work through the prism of modern or postmodern aesthetics, where the original, “extra-musical” motivations are dismissed as the inevitably primitive instincts of a redundant sensibility?

If so, then the arrogance and ignorance of secularism has surely triumphed. For it is imperative to the secular project that our Christian heritage must be seen through an objective separation in which a work of art can be appraised without ever having to consider the historic, philosophical, or religious ingredients which shaped it. This allows the cultural elites to bury our religious heritage in the earth of history, while robbing the grave of its beautiful artifacts. This is cultural imperialism writ large. It is as depressing in its nihilism as it is skewed in its propaganda.

There is another way to see the tradition and practice of shaping art according to religious belief, and that is to see a living culture still in evolution and growth. When we come to analyze the steady search for the sacred in modernity, and especially in the music of the last hundred years, we can see that faith has not withered. In music, more than the other arts, there has been a constant stream of composers who were, or still are, religious.

In different ways, we can see a unity at the core of the search for sanctity in the work of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Messiaen, Cage, Britten, Poulenc, Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Ustvolskaya, Penderecki, Górecki, Pärt, Kancheli, Tavener, and many others. Seen from this perspective, the religious principle is part of the essence of musical modernity. To the militant atheist, who seeks to command and control all of European culture, music’s ongoing search for a spiritual paradigm may seem undesirable. But in the wider context of the past, it is hardly strange. In spite of the willful amnesia of some and the aggressive maneuvering of others, the religious artist will continue to be an essential part of human flourishing in our brave new world.

Some might even say that the bravest, most radical and countercultural position a creative person can take today is the celebration of a timeless spirituality. The re-sacralizing of our world has been made manifest through the unsung, subliminal, and subconscious project of musical modernity. If modernism has also brought in its wake a desecration of the human spirit, we must penetrate the mists of contemporary banality to restore the idea of the sacred, in which our true and fullest freedom resides. Without it our lives will become meaningless. I believe it is God’s divine spark which kindles the musical imagination now, as it has always done, and reminds us, in an increasingly dehumanized world, of what it means to be human.


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