If it’s legitimate for composers to have groupies, go ahead and sign me up as Beethoven’s. I love many classical composers, but Beethoven is my go-to, blaring-in-the-car, no-holds-barred passion. As my former piano teacher once said, “I don’t care if he threw soup at the waiter, I love him.” That’s what Beethoven does to people. (Charles Schulz’s depiction of the fanatical Schroeder was no exaggeration. If anything, it was understated.)
So, to a point, I can identify with these words from composer and writer Andrew Ford about an “epiphany” he experienced long ago while listening to a passage from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
It shook me, literally. I was physically affected. There were tears, but there was also something harder to explain, something like possession. I felt the music had taken me over, taken me in. The music was inside me—in my head—but I was also in the music. This must be God, I thought.
He adds, “It is easy enough, 40-something years on, to smile at my teenage self. But something significant had occurred. For a short time, I was serious enough about religion to attend church and get confirmed.”
Art is God’s good gift to us—corrupted by our sinful natures as so many gifts are, but still containing seeds of the Creator’s truth and beauty.I suspect that many of us recognize the feeling of the experience Ford is describing. A transcendent experience of music—or literature, or art—is not uncommon. Probably millions of people, including many reading this, could describe responses similar to Ford’s or to my own. And when transcendence touches you, the divine feels very near.
But what does one do with that feeling?
Andrew Ford and I have arrived at conflicting answers to that question. While Ford’s love of music has grown, his faith has disappeared. “At the time,” he recalls now, “I thought [the transcendence] was something to do with God, now I just think it was Beethoven.”
Ford is far from alone. Not long after I read his article about music and faith, I picked up a book called When Art Disrupts Religion: Aesthetic Experience and the Evangelical Mind. Author Philip Salim Francis interviewed a group of about eighty people who, having once been fervent Christians, found their faith changed—and, in many cases, destroyed—by sustained encounters with the arts. Most of these encounters took place while they were attending Christian colleges.
Francis chose his subjects from two groups: graduates of Bob Jones University’s arts program, and graduates of different Christian colleges who at some point attended the Oregon Extension program, where Christian students are challenged “through fiction and poetry . . . to ask difficult questions of their faith.” As teenagers, Francis’s subjects were fervent evangelical Christians. But many of their stories follow a pattern: An artistic experience during their college years—a transcendent experience similar to the kind Andrew Ford described—propelled them from faith to doubt, from certainty to questioning, and often from belief in God to the belief that art is the pinnacle of experience.
Here’s a typical example:
On an ordinary Saturday at the mini-mall in Dayton, Ohio, in 1989, Holly could be found wearing a fluorescent-yellow Smile, God Loves You! t-shirt—and smiling at every passerby. When anyone would pause to give this cheerful teenage girl the time of day, she would share her testimony with them. . . . In her smile there was hope, and not a flicker of doubt. Just a few years later, right after her twenty-first birthday, a professor put a thick book of Russian fiction in her hand. “The characters in The Brothers Karamazov began to feel like family to me,” she recounts, “and the doubts of Ivan Karamazov slowly saturated my soul.”
Having been through a similar experience himself, Francis wanted to understand why art has the power to dismantle fundamentalist* systems of belief so effectively. I was interested in the question myself, but for different reasons. Many of the most profound artistic experiences of my life have ultimately helped build up my faith in some way, not tear it down.
How to explain this? Why do transcendent experiences of art draw some toward God and push others away? Or, as in Ford’s case, draw them to God and then push them away? Why did Dickens and Beethoven give to me what Rothko and Dostoevsky took away from others?
The answer doesn’t lie in the faith, or lack thereof, of the artist; Dostoevsky, for instance, was a believer in God (and Karamazov was often cited by Chuck Colson as a favorite, faith-bolstering work!). Nor does it have to do with a lack of education or grounding in the faith; the people Francis writes about, as teens, knew their Bible cold. Many of them did door-to-door evangelism and were well-trained to deal with non-believers’ questions.
The incredible irony that emerges from Francis’s pages is that these teens may have known their faith too well. There was no room for ambiguity, for uncertainty, for mystery. These were the unexpectedly welcome gifts that art brought as it came crashing into their lives. More than that, there was a collapsing of barriers. One woman, Rachel, told Francis that literature “humanized non-Christians” for her for the first time.
These people had spent their young lives worshiping God, talking about God, learning about God, yet art gave them a religious experience the like of which they had never before known or even imagined. It was a glimpse of something beyond. It created a sense of awe and wonder that was too great to be contained within their carefully constructed belief systems.
Many of these kids had been told their whole lives that art, aside from that created specifically for and within a Christian setting, was of the devil. But that narrow teaching left them wholly unprepared for what would happen when they were confronted with that “outsider” art. Joe, a Bob Jones alumnus, told Francis, “There were many times when I listened to ‘secular’ music and felt guilty afterwards: Am I desensitizing myself to the influence of evil? . . . But during the actual experience of something like [U2’s] ‘Where the Streets Have No Name,’ there was no thought that this could be from the Devil. It was too beautiful. I was overwhelmed.”
Like Joe, when I look back on my own adolescence, I see myself being pulled in two different directions. There were those who tried to set up such a dichotomy, like the high school teacher who wouldn’t allow a classmate and me to play the title song from The Phantom of the Opera on the piano because it was “satanic.” Sometimes, truth be told, I found myself swayed toward that either-or, black-and-white mindset.
On the other hand, far more authority figures encouraged me to look and listen and explore—like the piano teacher mentioned above, who once told me, when I asked whether something was okay to listen to, that I had enough character to make my own decisions about music.
Words like that gave me freedom, confidence, and a sense of responsibility all at the same time. I grew up believing in the need to use discernment in experiencing and evaluating the arts, and that need helped shape my tastes and ideas. But I also believed in the truth that God created beauty and that it comes to us in all forms and from all sources, even from the pen or brush or voice of secular artists.
It’s true that some artists abuse this gift, creating works that denigrate goodness and lift up evil. But that is not a quality inherent in art. Far from it. Art is God’s good gift to us—corrupted by our sinful natures as so many gifts are, but still containing seeds of the Creator’s truth and beauty. And they’re not always as hard to find as we might think.
For every Andrew Ford, there is a Dana Gioia, who writes of the ancient Latin hymn that helped draw him to faith, “I physically felt enraptured and exhilarated in the act of veneration. As an adult, I can’t accurately judge whether that experience was spiritual or aesthetic. I suspect that those two categories of perception are more interdependent than most people believe, especially in a child.” Even before he understood the Latin lyrics of the Tantum Ergo, its beauty drew him to God.
Art is powerful. And power scares people. It’s not easily controlled or directed; it can pull us into places and mold us in ways we never imagined. But we don’t have to be afraid of it, for God has not given us a spirit of fear. He never intended for us to create artificial barriers between ourselves and one of his greatest gifts to us.
When we see it in this light—not art as the devil, not art as God, but art as the gift of a God more powerful and beautiful than we can imagine—we’re free from false barriers and false choices, able to love both art and God as we were meant to do.
*Francis sometimes uses “fundamentalism” and “evangelicalism” interchangeably. In general, his memoirists, as he called them, came from the stricter side of the evangelical spectrum.