In one of my classes this semester, we were assigned Jaroslav Pelikan’s Fools for Christ. Pelikan looks through the eyes of six historical figures to see the True, the Good and the Beautiful in relation to the Holy. In the area of Beauty, he presents Friedrich Nietzsche as his anti-hero – futilely seeking the Holy through the lens of the Beautiful.
Pelikan writes on pages 132-133:
Precisely here has been the danger in the study of churchly arts like painting, music, and liturgy. One could be so impressed with the artistic magnificence of Christian cultural forms that the dynamic which produced these forms was entombed in the forms which it had developed. The perfumed charm of Gregorian chant or the virile tones of the German chorale could become the indespensable condition of Christian culture, rather than one example among many examples of how the dynamic of the Christian faith can become embodied in an art form. The identification of the Holy and the Beautiful has frequently become the identification of the Holy with this Beautiful or with that, so that a particular cultural and artistic tradition was endowed with a divinity it did not have. To be sure, it was more comfortable to live with an art form than with God, and this has been the fundamental temptation of the identification of the Holy and the Beautiful – that in aesthetic rapture I had enough commitment to satisfy me, yet not so much that I lost my self-respect.
The paragraph is worth reading and rereading several times to allow Pelikan’s meaning to sink in.
Thankfully, rather than leave the reader with the somewhat depressing tale of Nietzsche, a man who ended his life in madness and despair, the final chapter focuses on a man who understood both the depths of his sin and the glory of Christ’s redemption – Johann Sebastian Bach. With Lent approaching, I’ll be listening to and writing about Bach with some frequency. I’ll close now with how Pelikan sums up Bach’s approach to the Beautiful:
Bach was led by the overpowering mercy and overwhelming grace of the Holy to acknowledge a new dimension of life and value. … [T]hat Holy which is not the answer to every riddle but itself the enigma in every riddle – that Holy has been made fleesh and has dwelt among us in Jesus Christ.