Friday, 21 September 2007

Dismissed, Derided and Distorted

A double apology. One, I promised to write more on committees (and I will) and two, this is largely a repeat of the monthly Speculative Faith blog which I wrote this week. I have my reasons for repeating it.

One of the greatest masterpieces of art is the St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is an oratorio for soloists, two choirs and, for those days, a reasonably sized orchestra. It was written for what must have been a very long Good Friday church service in 1727. In length (well over two hours) and in musical style it broke new ground and is one of the towering peaks of music. It is also explicitly evangelical. Through the use of hymns and choruses listeners are deliberately drawn into the events surrounding our Lord’s trial and death. Bach clearly makes the point; it is we who crucified Christ. Even when your German is minimal (as mine is) it is still a moving experience. (Unfortunately there is only really one version in English, and that is rather old-fashioned.)

Now this summer the St Matthew was presented as an opera at the UK’s famous Glyndebourne Festival. In itself, an opera version is not a bad idea; the music is dramatic and you do wonder whether Bach did not dream of something far less static than an oratorio in which men and – just possibly – women stood up and sung. I should say here that I didn’t see the performance but followed the reviews with interest. What happened is that the director set the work in an unspecified modern community (Beslan?) that had been affected by the violent deaths of children, so that the entire work became about counselling the bereaved. Let me quote from the Guardian: “the Passion story is a project that they are led through by four therapists, who form the central quartet of soloists. Every so often, one of the participants gets spooked and makes a run for it; seeing how any genuine emotion from the chorus members is immediately damped down by the insufferably sincere therapists, you can’t blame them.” The Passion was thus interpreted as a prolonged meditation on grief, suffering and loss; presumably with the intention of making it ‘more relevant’. Readers will probably not be surprised to know that the audiences were not impressed: one headline simply read ‘Crime of Passion’. Even non-Christian reviewers sensed that this was not at all what Bach was about.

Now here, long-suffering readers, let us turn to fiction. You see, it seems to me that the unbelieving world has three possible strategies in dealing with Christian art. Firstly, it can be dismissed. So it is a genre that is ‘insignificant’ and ‘not worthy of comment’. The writing of gay and lesbian authors is worth critical comment but not that of Christians: their books go unreviewed. Secondly, it can be derided. We all know the words: ‘old-fashioned’, ‘conservative’, ‘puerile’, etc., etc. Now consider the problem faced by someone hostile to Christianity when they come across a piece of such surpassing excellence that it cannot be dismissed or derided. The St Matthew Passion (one of Richard Dawkins’ Desert Island discs, by the way; there’s hope for him yet) is such a work. Here a third strategy is opted for: distortion.

So despite everything the St Matthew Passion is presented as not being not fundamentally about Christ and the cross but about the universal experience of suffering and loss. And haven’t we seen this elsewhere? No matter how explicit we make our Christian statements, what is written is twisted into something far less spiritual and ultimately, far less significant. Of course, in an age of postmodernism, when the reader, not the writer, makes the decision on meaning, there is even a justification for this: ‘I do not really care what you meant to say; I am only interested in what it does for me.’

It seems to me that because of its use of images and the unusual, speculative fiction is very prone to this re-reading. Remember how Tolkien had to make it plain in the foreword to Lord of the Rings that the book wasn’t about European politics? The voices continue: that lion isn’t Jesus, it’s a universal symbol of hope. And so on.

So how we are to respond? One way is that somewhere, probably outside the books themselves, we need make it absolutely plain that our meaning is not negotiable. It perhaps needs to be written down somewhere for posterity that this writing is not about politics, sexual shenanigans or environmental issues, but about higher matters.

I have no idea whether my own Lamb among the Stars series (I am uneasy mentioning it in the same article as the St Matthew Passion!) will have any sort of long-term success. Equally, I have no idea whether future researchers will have access to what we now write on the Internet. But if, in the providence of God, both happen, let me say something to you who read this (and this is why I have repeated myself in two blogs). It is this. These books are only indirectly about the current political situation or anything else as ephemeral; they are ultimately about the very Christian matters of sin and redemption, hope and courage, judgement and eternity. At the end of the St Matthew Passion Bach appended three letters: S.D.G. Soli Deo Gloria. I have done the same. Readers, producers, directors: take note and please, spare me from your distortions.