How does high culture, particularly the fine arts, relate to the Christian faith? Is it part of Christianity’s vision of culture or is high culture rather something ephemeral, extravagant, and superfluous?
I recently wrote about the necessary interrelation of faith and culture. The Bible’s vision of culture is rooted in the Old Testament in the cultivation of the earth, the exercise of dominion; in the New Testament this vision is one of a way of life centered on living out the Gospel.
Ultimately, human work and culture should imitate God’s work, as we see in the example of Moses: “According to all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it” (Exodus 25:9). The ark, tabernacle, and vestments were made from the precious materials despoiled from the Egyptians in order to represent the heavenly on earth. Later the construction of the Temple shows the same exuberance in offering the best materials for the worship of God: “Solomon overlaid the inside of the house with pure gold, and he drew chains of gold across, in front of the inner sanctuary, and overlaid it with gold” (1 Kings 6:21).
Culture ultimately should seek to replicate the pattern of heavenly truth, goodness, and beauty, making it accessible on earth. In the sense that high culture is the medium for making these transcendentals a part of our way of life, then, yes, it is necessary for Christian culture.
Here are some reasons, drawing from the Popes, why high culture, through its expression in the fine arts, is important in shaping our daily lives:
1. Art initiates us into the living tradition of Catholic culture and Western civilization. Great works of art are part of our identity and help us to understand our lives. At the close of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI appealed to artists to keep alive the treasures of the past so that we can make them our own: “This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart, and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration. And all this through the work of your hands . . . Remember that you are the custodians of beauty in the world” (Dec. 8, 1965).
2. Great art ennobles us and helps to form and shape our emotions and tastes. In a reflection on beauty for Communion and Liberation, Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) expressed that “the encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgment and can correctly evaluate the arguments.”
3. As we saw in the Old Testament, we should give our best for worship. God deserves the most beautiful, which will also lift our minds more readily to contemplate divine things. In the same reflection, Ratzinger bore witness to the power of a particular piece of Bach’s music he had heard: “‘Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true.’ The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration.” Great art moves us more readily and powerfully toward God, assisting us in our worship of him.
4. Finally, high culture immerses us in beauty. As Pope Benedict articulated in his “Meeting with Artists,” quoting Dostoyevsky: “Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live.”
Why is beauty so important, so necessary? Pope John Paul II describes the sacramental quality of art, which, through beauty, makes present to us the deeper mystery of life:
Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable. Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colours, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery (“Letter to Artists”).
The poverty of our culture is in large part a poverty of beauty. We no longer see the world as sacramental, revealing and manifesting deeper spiritual truths and mysteries. Without beauty we are less likely to look upward and we lose a powerful impetus toward faith.
Here are two final objections to the role of art in the life of faith.
First, isn’t high culture simply something extravagant? However, if our lives are simply mundane and quotidian then we will remain culturally impoverished. Maybe high culture is extravagant, but at the same time, maybe we need something extravagant in our lives—an extravagant experience of the true, good and beauty (but not an extravagance of sensible pleasures).
Second, is high culture inaccessible? The claim is that fine art can be too sophisticated and difficult for people to appreciate. On the contrary there is nothing more accessible, engaging, compelling, and necessary than beauty! We need to experience an epiphany of beauty to be inspired to seek after the higher things and to be refreshed from our toils and trials.
This epiphany, radiating both from the world and the Holy Spirit, is expressed well by a great Catholic poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, in God’s Grandeur:
THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.