Familiarity perhaps blunts us to the oddness of the fact that it is three intertextually related books
that are the starting points for religions which now claim as followers more than half the global population. Don't get me wrong: I love books, and books are a large part of my life. What I mean is that it’s odd that the visual arts and musical texts have not generated similar bodies of faith. Don’t works of music move us and inspire us just as much as works of writing? Indeed I’d say that, traditionally, music has enjoyed a greater reputation for putting the human listener in touch with numinous, transcendent or metaphysical states of mind. Yet no religion, to my knowledge, has been predicated on a sacred musical text or a sacred visual artefact.
Naturally, music has often been written in the service of religious practice, from Mozart’s Requiem
and Taverner’s Akathist of Thanksgiving
, from hymns to Christian pop. Similarly the visual arts have been marshalled with great vigour and often great success to the service of religion, from church frescoes and stained glass to rich and lengthy traditions of sculpture and painting. But this is not the same thing. However often works of music and works of visual art have been fashioned as adjuncts to religion, but no religion has been founded in the first instance upon a work of music or a work of visual art. Books, for some reason, are different. Why?
The salient detail here is the fact of mere bookishness; which is to say not necessarily the fact of Great Book-ishness. It so happens that the Koran, the Torah and the New Testament are great works of literature, consistently striking, powerful, poetic, uplifting. But this is not, it seems, a necessary prerequisite of a founding religious text. Some very widespread religions, belief-structures held sincerely by millions, have been founded on excessively feeble books: the Mormon testament, for instance, which reads as a desperately thin pastiche of King James’s Bible, or the dreadful writing of L Ron Hubbard, patched together from orts and scraps of Pulp SF and the discourses of popular self-help, but which have nonetheless inspired and continue to inspire many hundreds of thousands. Whatever it is that fills peoples souls with joy and meaning, it is not (it seems) literary or aesthetic quality in and of itself.
It's worth contemplating the counterfactual, I think. Why aren’t there widespread religions founded upon a markworthy visual artefact, or a stirring piece of music? Why do the musical and visual arts follow after religion, rather than—as is the case with the Torah, the New Testament, the Koran—determining religious faith in the first place? I’m interested in this question precisely not because I’m religious; because literature, music and art play so large a part in my life.
Ideas are important for human minds, but the visual arts are clumsy at expressing ideas. Ideas expressed in iconographic form are famously subject to misinterpretation. And music expresses almost no ideas at all. What music and the visual arts are good at is the affective: the emotional, stirring, exciting, moving, cheering, depressing and calming registers of the aesthetic experience. Written art can do these things as well of course—perhaps not so all-embracingly as music or the visual arts, but nonetheless—but words are really the only medium for the thoughtful, intellectual, metaphysical and ideational registers. I’m tempted to deduce from this that religion, so central a facet of social and individual human experience, derives in the first instance from the intellectual rather than the emotional requirements of homo sapiens. But that is so striking and peculiar a sentence that my fingers almost rebel against typing it: because whilst (of course) it is true that religions offer people intellectual and even metaphysical satisfactions it has become almost a dogma of recent theological studies that the religious experience very specifically is not reducible to and indeed goes beyond rational discourse. Many people, religious and otherwise, would concede that science provides us, by and large, with better intellectual explanations of the world in which we find ourselves than do religions. But Faith, it seems, does not seek to compete with Science on those terms. For instance, it concerns the sort of experience we can summarise with a word, ‘mystery’, a word which carries with it profound and particular theological connotations. But ‘mystery’ is better captured by music and the visual arts: by the music of John Taverner or the pietas art of the Christian tradition—better captured precisely because these forms of art need not be too specific in their construction.
Indeed, there are artists who have considered this question of the mystery of (say) creation and have come down on the side of music rather than a verbal legislative programme. J R R Tolkien, a very religious individual of Catholic-Christian stripe, created an imaginary cosmos which he figured as sung into existence. This is where the Silmarillion begins: Tolkien’s fictive God and angels singing a beautiful harmony, which in turn becomes materialised as Middle Earth. The original Evil enters the picture when Morgorth (Tolkien’s Lucifer) departs from the harmony to sing his own song, creating a dissonance in the divine music. C S Lewis, Tolkien’s pal, did something similar in one of his Narnia books (The Magician’s Nephew, of course). These are both touching and effective pieces of imaginative writing, but it’s just hard to see how such a cosmogony would work, given that music lacks the referential specificity to be able (say) to separate out water and land, or conjure animals and plants. A God who says Let There Be Light is one thing. We can understand that the utterance will lead to Light. But a God who whistles a pleasant melody? What sort of specific creation would follow from that?
Another way of putting this would be to say: religion manages to elide on the one hand a need for iron specificity and on the other the requirement not to be too literally or deadeningly specific. The letter killeth, after all. It is the spirit that keepeth alive. Or again: if we said of any statute law ‘this law captures and celebrates the essential mystery at the heart of justice’ then we’d in effect be saying it was a bad law. The purpose of law is to be as precise and unambiguous as possible. We maintain enormous and ruinously expensive social structures (courts, judges, lawyers) to mill Law as fine as it can be milled precisely for this purpose.
But it seems to me, from my outsider’s perspective (and setting aside, for a moment, the centres of barmy religious fundamentalism, populous though they be) that for many believers nowadays religion is no longer the Law. Religion is no longer statutes, but a melody, an aesthetic numinous in excess of the rational. It could be argued that the Christian holy text includes two, rather incompatible, myths of creation, as many many students of the Bible have pointed out. In Genesis the world is shaped, moulded or sculpted into existence by a hands-on creator—a world first illuminated, then landscaped, a world, in other words, that is primordially sculpture
, both visual and palpable. John, on the other hand, insists that the world begins with the logos
, verbally, that the world and God Himself is of a type with God’s holy book: in short, that it is literature. The Christian saviour, Jesus, shares this double identity. He is a carpenter, a practitioner of the plastic arts, a guy who heals people by laying on his hands. But he is also a story-teller, a shaper of parables and prayers. Christianity, in other words, elaborates a myth balanced between the sculptural and the verbal.
But surely Christianity as a religion is premised on the word, and not on the plastic arts? Imagine a particularly fine and aesthetically inspiring table, made by Jesus himself, paraded around the Mediterranean in the middle years of the first century AD. Imagine that the sheer physical beauty of this artefact converts millions, and eventually billions, to the faith. Surely this is an absurd supposition. But why should it be?
To be clear: I’m not talking about the medieval tradition of (in effect) worshipping shreds of Christ’s body or fragments of his cross: for those, like altar pieces or stained glass windows, are post, not prior, to the faith. I’m trying to make a different point. It is, I think, inconceivable that somebody could be moved heart and soul to give up their lives to Christ on the basis on some blood liquefying in a vial without the contextualising literary superstructure of gospel and myth. Can we imagine any non-literary artwork so profound that it would move people to give up their previous beliefs and adhere to a new god?
I’m not sure we can. Moreover it is something specifically abdured by both Christianity and Islam (I mean the worship of artworks, something which known as ‘idolatory’ and supposed to be injurious to the soul and the prospects of post-mortem reward). Worshipping the word is a different matter. There is a broad and long-standing Islamic tradition of extreme reverence for the actual material body of the Koran, the paper upon which the holy words are printed, as well as for the meaning of those words.
Is music a different case? Can we imagine a piece of instrumental music upon which a functioning religion could be premised? But I don’t think we can. For instance: a piece of music, composed by Christ himself, is played in many locations around the Mediterranean in the middle years of the first century AD, and the sheer physical beauty of this harmony converts millions, and eventually billions, to the faith.
I'm grateful to Bill Benson for drawing my attention to this foreword, written by Martin Luther’s to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae (a collection of chorale motets published in 1538):
I, Doctor Martin Luther, wish all lovers of the unshackled art of music grace and peace from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ! I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God. The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them.... In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits ... Our dear fathers and prophets did not desire without reason that music be always used in the churches. Hence, we have so many songs and psalms. This precious gift has been given to man alone that he might thereby remind himself that God has created man for the express purpose of praising and extolling God. However, when man’s natural musical ability is whetted and polished to the extent that it becomes an art, then do we note with great surprise the great and perfect wisdom of God in music, which is, after all, His product and His gift; we marvel when we hear music in which one voice sings a simple melody, while three, four, or five other voices play and trip lustily around the voice that sings its simple melody and adorn this simple melody wonderfully with artistic musical effects, thus reminding us of a heavenly dance, where all meet in a spirit of friendliness, caress and embrace. A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvellous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.
The point, bracing Germanic rudeness aside, is that music like the verbal arts (but -- as the bower bird teaches us -- unlike the plastic arts) separates us from the beasts. Luther goes on:
If one sings diligently with skill and application, then music can make man good and at peace with himself and his fellows by providing him a view of beauty. Music drives away the devil and makes people happy; it induces one to forget all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and other vices, quia pacis tempore regnat musica (for music reigns in times of peace].
John Emerson adds a fascinating datum: 'music is processed through a track of its own. Aspergers people, for example, are oblivious to human relationships and have a flattened affect, but their appreciation of music is undamaged'. He cites Discovering my Autism: Apologia Pro Vita Sua
(1999) by Edgar Schneider. In this memoir, Schneider 'explains how in order to experience "emotions" such as grief, sympathy or desire, he must intellectualise or aestheticise them. Dispassionately, he examines his difficulties with relationships, his high pain threshold, his lack of concentration and his highly absorbent intelligence, all of which are related to his autism. He also describes the pleasure he derives from art, music and literature [and] the importance to him of his religious beliefs.'