DECEMBER 24, 2001
Music and the Church
-- Martin E. Marty
Last week Sightings spotted a New York Times writer saying nice things about some Southern Baptists for their charity. This week, on Christmas Eve, we look back to another Times seasonal story, and find it saying things naughty -- not nice -- about Christians, for their uncharitable attitudes toward music.
In a December ninth article Richard Taruskin was taking aim at Daniel Barenboim, who directed Wagner in Israel and offended many Holocaust survivors. Taruskin also criticized the Boston Symphony Orchestra for having scheduled parts of the John Adams pro-Palestinian opera "The Death of Klinghoffer," though it later withdrew them. He did not call for censorship but for forbearance, self-restraint, all the while pointing rightly to the emotive appeal of music.
So far, so possibly good, depending on your views of Wagner and Klinghoffer, of Barenboim and the BSO. But while leading up to his main point, Taruskin aims hay-makers at Christians for the attitudes of some greats in the past to the music that they found offensive. Augustine, John of Salisbury, Protestant reformers, the Orthodox patriarch of Moscow, John Chrysostom, and Puritans become guilty-by-association with the Taliban, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Goebbels, "totalitarians." Here is how he leads into his paragraph on those Christians, immediately after citing the Taliban and the Ayatollah at their worst: "But our own Western tradition, is just as full of suspicion toward music, much of it religious." He attacks Augustine, for being self-critical after enjoying the sensuousness of music, and Chrysostom who found music by "painted girls" devilish.
Of course, one can find "anti-almost-anything" expression in any tradition. Sometimes for no good reason, sometimes for good reason, e.g. "anti-Wagner" and "anti-Adams." Didnt some of the ancients criticize some music for good reason? Christians and others who find much "rap" and "hip-hop" offensive are not necessarily being censorious when they keep their distance. But Tarushkin allows for no subtlety here.
There is a certain irony in his selective quotation of anti-music outbursts in the very month when Christians contributions to music ring forth in orchestra halls, cathedrals, and -- admittedly more ambiguously -- shopping malls. If Augustine had reservations, the Augustinian Martin Luther rated music next only to theology, and seemed to like music more. Puritans did not sing one kind of hymn, so they set psalms to classic tunes. In many ages, it was the church that kept music vital, produced high art and "audiences" for it. They deserve equal time in any appraisal. One needs no holiday spirit. The appraiser need only be balanced, to speak the truth.