Christmas: a time of special music, plays, movies, Nutcracker ballet, decorated trees. A flourishing of art, you might say. Does all of that beauty help save lives? Or does it heighten the disparity between those secure enough to enjoy art and those profoundly insecure in some way?

Christmas: a time of special music, plays, movies, Nutcracker ballet, decorated trees. A flourishing of art, you might say. Does all of that beauty help save lives? Or does it heighten the disparity between those secure enough to enjoy art and those profoundly insecure in some way?

Let’s go back to the claims that art creates and saves lives. And to the doubts.

“Shakespeare, we like to forget, largely invented us.” That’s Harold Bloom, from The Western Canon, defending the idea of a canon—books and their writers that most significantly shape a culture. He begins and ends with Shakespeare, the author who cannot be contained by any theory or ideology; who, in fact, contains (anticipates, critiques, embodies in characters) almost the whole range of thought and action.

Not that he invented you exactly, but if you read enough you’ll find pieces of yourself throughout his plays. Interestingly, you won’t find Shakespeare himself. No scene, play, or single character seems to give us a full view of the author.

John Keats said something like poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Not that they pass laws or even get elected to office. As if. But they are the antennae of humanity, sensing more of what is going on around us and inside of us. Constructing their poems, instead of laws, they know that we construct what we call “reality.” In fact, one Romantic poet (Coleridge?) argued that insofar as we join images and ideas that are not naturally together, we are poets inside ourselves.

OK. Bloom, Keats, Coleridge (and I) are enthusiasts, given to hyperbole in their love of the creative arts. We too exaggerate. We desperately want the arts to become more central in our society, probably because we see them diminished in the rush for better test scores, better jobs, more money, and success.

A former colleague became known for her statement, “Art saves lives.” I agreed, and could think of instances where a dedication to music or literature or painting or photography or drama gave students’ lives a shape or a stable place from which they could move on. But as my history colleagues could certainly point out, there are periods where art benefitted only the elite few, at the expense of the many.

Rousseau’s Social Contract advocates a society where the General Will of the people governs all legislation, where the citizenry actively participates in the political process. He seems to elevate the Athenian city-state as his primary model. The problem is that much of the political activity and high culture of Athens was made possible by citizens (male) who were freed from the necessity of laboring in the fields and marketplace. He asks, then, whether such high culture and civic engagement can only be achieved through the support of slaves.

His answer? “Perhaps.”

Art saves some lives?

Or, more darkly, what do we do with our belief in the saving graces of Art when confronted by the fact that the nation with arguably the highest attainments in music and philosophy, known for excellence in other arts, became the means of a genocide that killed millions in World War II? (And, oh yes, the church was a powerful factor in German life as well, birthplace of the Reformation.) There was a rather grim account, made into a movie, about the Holocaust prisoners lucky enough to be drafted into a concentration camp orchestra, playing and surviving while their less talented brethren were being gassed. Bluebeard’s Castle, I think, has an essay or two on the awful irony of the most cultured country in Europe becoming the most barbarous.

Of course the church is in the business of saving lives too, sometimes welcoming the enticements of art, sometimes suspicious of art’s appeal. From illuminated lettering of Bibles, rose windows, gothic towers, and an organ thrumming a Bach cantata to the spare Protestant sanctuaries and plain congregational hymns, art is present in some form.

The key question has always been when is art more of a distraction than a way of enhancing the worship experience. When are sculptures and stained-glass windows so attractive that they quite draw one’s focus away from what they are supposed to represent? One solution in the late Middle Ages was to put dramatic and musical pieces that were major performances—plays and oratorios—out of the church and into theaters or halls. If you were a Puritan during England’s Glorious Revolution, you weren’t even comfortable with that solution. You might smash the beautiful windows and figures in traditional churches. As well as banish Christmas.

Today, the debate goes on as many churches have made their peace with media and youth culture. In place of stained-glass windows and sculpture, a series of natural scenes with Bible verses on the big screens; an electronic keyboard backs a massive choir singing in unison, or a rock band leads the “contemporary service.”

Following the lead of some large churches, my church once tried two services. If you counted total attendance, we were larger; if you counted each service attendance, we were two smaller congregations, worshiping separately. The idea that we would come together as one during the Sunday School between the two services never quite came off. As a result, we moved back to one service, more traditional, but open to new music and performance pieces. Seemed to suit most of us.

I was once asked in a forum whether I thought Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ could operate as a means of salvation. To conceal my utter recoil from that film—well done though it was—I was not quite honest: I said it needed the context of Scripture, particularly the saving message of Christ. Implied was my judgment that the picture focused entirely too much on the serrating of flesh, the torture of the body, and too little on the resurrection and birth of the church thereafter. The film about what happens to nonbelieving actors who stage the Stations of the Cross for a church in Jesus of Montreal is much more meaningful.

Art saves lives? Sometimes. Not always. Art as a portal for the salvation of souls? Sometimes. Not completely.

Bill Hagen is a retired OBU professor. He lives in Shawnee with his cat. Contact him at billha47@hotmail.com.