Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Is culture enough? Christianity and art

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 17 November 2020

The relationship between Christianity and art may be investigated by thinking about what happens when, for example, painting, sculpture and music are taken out of the church context and placed in museums or played in concert halls. For example, I have heard Faure's Requiem in a concert hall performed by the Kings College Choir and at a friend's funeral mass. The first was lovely, but I found that the second, performed with only four voices and an organ, a thing of wonder.

Fauré composed music for funeral rites rather than in the form of a full requiem mass. It was remarkable for the time because it refused to focus on judgment, heaven and hell that is so evident in most requiem masses. cf Verdi's requiem (1874). Rather he focused on eternal rest and consolation. The sequence Dies irae (the day of wrath) is omitted and replaced by a sequence found at its end: Pie Jesus (Pious Lord Jesus, Give them rest). Some have described the piece as a lullaby of death. It was dismissed as a novelty by the priest in charge of L'église de la Madeleine after its first performance in 1888.

When performed in church the music is at home. Even though the composer was a nonbeliever his music was in service to the Word i.e. it was not present for its own sake, but for the glory of God. Congregational listeners respond to the combination of music and the words sung; they are inseparable. The music gives expression to the words. There is no division between heart and head as if the music addresses the heart and the words the head.


When the requiem is performed in a concert hall for ticket holders the music is the same, but the purpose is subverted. This does not mean that it should not be done. The church should be willing to share its artistic riches with the world. However, there are some things that need to be said. Concert goers need to understand that they are eavesdroppers on a tradition of faith, and the beauty they hear in the music comes from the beauty of that faith. There is the danger that the unchurched are reduced to being cultural tourists. They take in the sites and sounds but their experience is shallow.

The church does not, or should not, use music to stir up emotion. Rather, there is something about worship that beckons us to sing.

Benedict XVI says it best in "The Spirit of the Liturgy":

It is the Holy Spirit who teaches us to sing – first David and then, through him, Israel and the Church. Yes, singing, the surpassing of ordinary speech, is a "pneumatic" event. Church music comes into being as a "charism", a gift of the Spirit. It is the true glossolalia, the new tongue that comes from the Holy Spirit. It is above all in Church music that the "sober inebriation" of faith take place – an inebriation surpassing all the possibilities of mere rationality. But this intoxication remains sober, because Christ and the Holy Spirit belong together, because this drunken speech stays totally within the discipline of the Logos, in a new rationality that, beyond all words, serves the primordial Word, the ground of all reason.

So, singing in worship is not just a means of stirring up the faithful, producing an enthusiasm, or, even more doubtfully, a religious experience, but is deeply rooted in the theology of the Church. It is a driven by the third person of the Trinity, the Spirit. But, as Benedict reminds us, Christ (Word) and Holy Spirit cannot be separated. That is why church music is always worded. Certainly Bach, that gigantic figure of church music, wrote purely instrumental pieces but they were not written for worship. That does not mean, of course, that they were not written for the glory of God as all music should be. Neither can we distinguish between our response in terms of religious experience or otherwise. One experiences beauty, period.

I was once escorted around the great ship of the Fens, Ely Cathedral, by a scientific colleague from neighbouring Cambridge, who said to me that such buildings should be preserved for historical purposes. The detractors of Christianity think that they are being broad minded when they recommend the museumification of the faith.


We can trace the museumisation of church art to the process of secularisation aided by the interest in comparative religion. This is religion under glass. Like insects pinned to a board the artefacts of worship are curated in a way that, like the insects, are dead things. Altar pieces are admired for their artistic integrity as Faure's is admired for his modernity. All is grist for the academic mill. As in Descartes' division of all things into res cogitans and res extensa we protect ourselves in the subject/object distinction. Faith becomes objective, a phenomenon studied by psychologists and anthropologists, something we may examine but which is powerless to affect us. We stand in our objectivity immune from the transcendent Word that would set us back on our heels and inhabit us. Sacred music performed in concert halls can be a kind of museumification in which the unchurched, indeed the despisers of the church, can safely experience an artifact of the church.

One of the marvellous things about the gospel according to John is his personalism, the way he indicates the indwelling of Christ in us and we in him. This breaks down our false subject/object distinction. The possession by demons is a common theme in the New Testament. This is not primitive psychiatry. Rather, it is the realisation that demons in the form of the principalities of the world, or personal proclivities or cultural movements may possess us. We lose our freedom. It is only the mutual dwelling of us in Christ and Christ in us that will set us free.

Being inhabited by another corresponds to Benedict's sober inebriation, an ecstatic experience that is ordered to the Word. Of course, all sorts of experience are now on sale, from mass tourism, to music festivals to the drug and alcohol culture. There is a great urge to escape from ourselves. Our self-creation as autonomous beings has resulted in a terrible loneliness and detachment. It is no wonder that we are obsessed with "falling in love". It is the only ecstatic experience available to us. We see the hangover in the urge to repeat the experience that destroys our marriages and leaves us continually unsettled. We long for ecstasy, to be beside ourselves.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

4 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Peter Sellick

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of Peter Sellick
Article Tools
Comment 4 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy