For Glory and For Beauty

Week of Monday, October 1, 2001

For my birthday this month it was easy to tell my wife what to get me: volume seven of the Philips Complete Works of Mozart (piano concertos). I don't know lots about music, or even read music. I can only claim to be what the Catholic theologian Hans Kung called a “committed listener.” In recent months I've started listening my way through everything Mozart composed (about 250 CDs in 45 volumes). It's getting expensive, and around the house my kids roll their eyes and crack jokes. I recently read four biographies about Mozart, and this summer visited his birth house in Salzburg at Getreidegasse 9, a poster of which hangs in our kitchen.1

In my essay two weeks ago I suggested that in the wake of the terrorist attacks it was important to remember that despite all the evil in the world, we still see and experience a stubborn residual of moral goodness. Similarly, despite all of the violence and ugliness in our world, we need to remember that our world is full of beauty. Mozart's music reminds me of this.

In our modern world which gives pride of place to technological achievement, financial success, and scientific advances, the arts take a very distant back seat. A filmmaker friend in New York City recently told me that after a long struggle he has given up his artistic ambitions because of financial constraints, in favor of the academic route of teaching, which at least provides a meager income. The “starving artist” is not just a stereotype. In his controversial book Who Killed Classical Music? (1997), Norman Lebrecht explores why most all of our country's 1600 orchestras struggle to survive. They are expensive, of course, and appeal to a small minority of people (market share for classical music labels shrank from about 7% in 1987 to about 2.9% in 1996).2

I suppose it is some consolation that things were not much better in Mozart's day or even in his own life. It is strange to walk around the jam-packed streets of Salzburg today, knowing how much Mozart loathed the place and how feebly the city supported him. In a letter to his father (June 9, 1781) he recounts the famous incident when he was dismissed by Count Arco, the chief chamberlain of the Archbishop of Salzburg, with a swift kick to his behind. Mozart spent most all of his adult life groveling to obtain a secure post, something he never achieved. He died at the age of 35, was placed in a reusable coffin, then buried in Vienna in an unmarked, common grave after a funeral which almost no one attended.

Our Christian communities today typically give little, if any, place to aesthetics. This is not entirely the case in Catholic and especially Orthodox communities (think of the role of icons), but it generally characterizes we Protestants. I remember how a professor in graduate school once remarked that one of the first acts of the Protestant Reformers was to “whitewash the walls of the churches.” Or do this experiment. The next time you are in a Christian book store, see how many titles you can find that deal seriously with the role of the arts in Christian life and thought.

In the last chapters of the book of Exodus we read the rather tedious instructions about exactly how the Israelites were to build the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant, and so forth, when we come to the instructions for making the liturgical garments of Aaron and his sons. A certain phrase in this otherwise arcane account has always fascinated me: “You shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty....And for Aaron's sons you shall make tunics; you shall make sashes for them, and you shall make caps for them, for glory and for beauty” (Exodus 28:2, 40). The breastplate itself, comprised of four rows of precious stones, sounds like a garment more befitting of Liberace than a priest. Around the hem of the garments were tinkling bells. Altogether, when you add the incense, these sights, sounds and smells of the priestly duties made for an aesthetic, sensory extravaganza. Clearly, there is an important role that beauty should play in worship.

Beauty, furthermore, can be wonderfully evocative and psychologically powerful, making us more fully and truly human. Try to imagine the poverty of a world without the strains of Mozart and Beethoven, the works of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, or the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Finally, we must pay attention to the artists, says Polkinghorne, “for the fact that the world is a carrier of beauty is surely deeply significant...Beauty is not just a sort of froth on the surface of things, it is a window into reality.” In music, painting, sculpture, film, and the like, we discover, if we but have eyes to see, traces of the transcendent (Kung), rumors of angels (Berger), or whispers from the wings of the stage (Buechner). Does it make sense, asks Polkinghorne, to understand music as nothing more than vibrations in the air, a painting as merely specks of chemical compositions, or any powerful aesthetic experience as nothing more than an emotional byproduct of brain chemistry?

Art does not prove that God exists. But as with science, which evokes wonder at the structure of the universe, or morality, which intimates ultimate goodness, so too “our experiences of beauty are a sharing of His joy in creation” (Polkinghorne). One of the attractive features of the theistic world, in other words, is its ability to bring together these deeply human experiences of science, ethics and, yes, even beauty.

How do you cultivate a sense of beauty in your life? Perhaps it is hiking in the hills, walking on the beach, growing flowers, enjoying an opera, or taking an evening course in painting. A favorite book of mine on the subject is The Creators; A History of Heroes of the Imagination (1992), by Daniel Boorstin, former Librarian of Congress. Failing these suggestions, I recommend a Mozart symphony.

  1. Peter Gay, Mozart (New York: Viking Penguin, 1999), Hans Kung, Mozart; Traces of Transcendence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), Maynard Solomon, Mozart, A Life (New York: Harper Collins, 1995), and Robert Spaethling, Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life (New York: WW Norton, 2000).
  2. See the review article by Lionel Basney, “Who Killed Classical Music?,” Books and Culture (September–October 2001).

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.