Over the last few days, I have been listening to a collection of astoundingly beautiful music. Arvo Pärt is one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. He started his musical career at the height of serialism's popularity, and his earliest works bear the imprint of the era. Despite the deterministic influences, Pärt even then distinguished himself as having a particular talent for composing particularly compelling, melodically rich and harmonically powerful music.
In later years, he left behind the serialism and kept the impressive force with which he communicates ideas. Whether in his instrumental or his choral works, emotion of the deepest sort tugs at the soul. He somehow pulls reality into the shape of his notes, leaving the soul aching with joy at the beauty of all that is and longing for all that we wait for.
Pärt's music carries such power because it bears the imprint of an influence beyond serialism. The Estonian composer writes from the rich cultural depths of the Eastern Orthodox liturgy. Whatever its theological troubles (and it has a few), the Eastern Orthodox church has remembered the power of mystery, and has held onto the already/not-yet tensions of this age far better than the Protestants generally have. The liturgy provides both template and mold for Pärt's writing: its history and weight have given shape to his thought and language, and it is for the church that he often writes.
Part's music soars with joy because the world is good, and God delights in what he has made. It strains with yearning because, for all that the kingdom of God is among us, we still wait for its fulfillment. Christ has died, and Christ is risen, but Christ will come again. We live in the age of inauguration, when the world to come is breaking into this one, like light shining through the cracks into the dark of our eggshell.
Others have often observed that the liturgical traditions have done a far better job producing world-class artists than the evangelical movement has. Among the various hypotheses offered, I think two bear the mark of truth.
First, the liturgical traditions are inherently loaded with narrative. Indeed, whatever its weaknesses, the church calendar and litany continually remind parishioners of the sweeping work of God—and emphasize that his work is not yet done. The triumphalism that has marked evangelicalism, especially evangelicalism in its culturally and politically ascendant moments, is continually held in check by the weight of tradition. (That weight carries a cost, as well, but evangelicals should pause to learn from it nonetheless.)
Second, the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches have continued to understand themselves to be part of the Great Tradition. Their words and their understanding of the world are, at their best, continually informed by their relation to the rest of the story. Thanks to a sometimes healthy distaste for tradition, evangelicals have tended to jettison this connection to history. Evangelicalism floats, buoyant, on the tides of the time. The liturgical churches are anchored—sometimes more firmly than we might like, but always at least enough to provide stability and context for the artist's imagination.
The two go together, of course: there can be little weight to narratives that are abstracted from the grand tale of history. Without an anchor for the reflecting soul, we are left simply grasping for a way to speak at the current trends of our day. We lose our sense of the eternal—of the glory that is this world, of the way it is shot through with dark horror, of the impending eucatastrophe (to borrow a term from Tolkien) that both has come and will come smashing into our world to end it and begin it all in one. We lose our ties to reality.
For the evangelical artist, the temptation is to run to Rome or Greece as a refuge for drifting souls. We dare not, though. Our convictions are too important to sacrifice for the sake of their anchors, however beautiful. We cannot relinquish the solas, and we dare not minimize the anathemas of Trent. Our differences are serious and substantial (if perhaps still not definitive).
No, we must reforge our own connection to the Great Tradition and remember what the Reformers understood: tradition is an enemy only when it trumps Scripture. Further, we need to align ourselves on Scripture itself. Too often, the Bible has been nothing more than a series of principles to apply to our lives or a ground for theological discussion. It is both of these things, but it is also more. It is the very grounds for understanding our existence. It is the context for our lives, and thus for our art.
The Bible lets fly the most epic and the most mundane aspects of our days. Its poetry sounds the depths of despair, pauses in the struggles of the ordinary day, and clambers to the pinnacles of the twin mounts of triumph and joy. Its doctrinal pronouncements are shot through with streaks of urgency and eschaton, like slabs marbled with fire.
If art, as is so often claimed, is our attempt to communicate transcendence, it must have as its ground the source of transcendence, the Transcendent One. It cannot stand on its own, weightless, any more than evangelicalism can remain stationary in the shifting sea of culture without an anchor. But evangelical art, like the evangelical project on the whole, will succeed when it is captivated by the liberating bonds of Scripture and history—and it will triumph when it sinks its anchor on the priest who sacrificed himself in our stead.