zondag 15 februari 2009


verschenen in Studies Interreligious Dialalogue



Is religion in danger of being pushed aside in today's societies? One won¬ders first of all what or who is threatening whom or what? Is it reli¬gion that is in danger or is it rather the opposite: Is religion or are religions a threat to our contemporary society, as some argue at the present time? The two questions are interrelated and I will address them both.

Is religion, in particular the Christian religion, in the West or more partic¬u¬larly in Europe on the way out? And, if so, is this something about which one should be concerned? What does that mean for the norms and values usually associated with those religions? Are they in the process of leaving our planet? Is that a threat or a liberation? On the other hand, if religion is good, what can be done to keep it among us or to revive it?

I will first deal briefly with the question of whether religion is a threat to our societies. This means that I have to bring up the issue of fundamental¬ism(s). Secondly, I will try to tackle the main question: is there a danger that religion will be pushed aside? This is the issue that is usually indicated by the term sec¬ularisation. I would like to deal with the possible causes: is it unwillingness, indifference, ignorance or just lack of imagination? Are these the causes for the danger that religion will be pushed aside in our con¬temporary European culture? Thirdly (this of course suggests and already presupposes that my an¬swer to the second question is in the affirmativeCI do think that there is a problem with the devaluation of religion in our societies) I will address the question what can be done about it. In this context I will consider the extent to which it is possible to communicate about religion in relationship to or in connection with art, literature and music. Fourthly, I will make some final ob¬servations.


In Europe and in the West we live in what is usually called a secular soci¬ety. Religious norms and values are receding. On the other hand, in other parts of the world religion, it seems, is undergoing a renaissance. In par¬ticular the rise of Islamic fundamentalism comes to mind, but there are also the fundamental¬isms of other religions (Jewish, Christian and Hindu). Sam¬uel P. Huntington caused a stir with his article AThe Clash of Civilizations@ in the periodical Foreign Affairs in which he predicted that after the fall of the Berlin wall (1989) and the collapse of Communism the coming world con¬flicts would take place between different cultures. In his later book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (1996) he elab¬orated his views further. Huntingdon distinguishes eight great civilizations. He sees two of themCthe Confucian civilization (China, and the related civilizations of Vi¬etnam, Korea and the Chinese communities elsewhere in Asia) and Is¬lam as the main rivals of the West. One of the most important problems be¬tween the West and the rest of the world in his view is the discrepancy be¬tween the missionary drive of the West to propagate its own culture and its decreasing success in doing so. In particular, Asian countries and Islamic civilization areCin his opinionCcon¬vinced of the superiority of their own culture.

In other words, is the threat of religion to our society not greater than the danger of religion being pushed aside? It is remarkable that it is precisely the fundamentalists who are raising this issue and it is they who claim that religion is being pushed aside in their societies by the wicked secular forces of Western societies.

It is not my intention to join the fundamentalist camp when dealing with this topic. I do not want to defend a fundamentalistic point of view. On the con¬trary, I see fundamentalism of whatever kind, as aCmaybe even theCthreat to authentic and true religion.

One might wonder how to interpret what is happening today in many coun¬tries with this revival or renaissance of religion. Is there a kind of revanche du sacré, the vengeance of the sacred? Here I am referring in particular to so-called Sacred Violence: the glorification of aggression and destruction. Unfor¬tunately, violence has been a well-known phenomenon in the history of religion Cin all religions. Moreover, religious violence is not something belonging to the past alone: there are too many examples of this in our own day.

Violence can occur in the name of Christianity. A Dutch poet living in the USA stated in an interview that somewhere in the Netherlands he was read¬ing from an edition of his poems called Psalms. During the intermission a smiling gentleman came up to him and asked him if he believed in the ori¬ginal psalms of the Bible. The poet confessed to having a profound dislike for those psalms and the requests they contained for God to destroy the Philis¬tines. The other man's response was to say: ABut they were destroyed, weren't they?@

Violence can be preached in the name of Judaism. In 1994 Baruch Gold¬stein, an American Jew who had only recently moved to Israel, killed sev¬eral Mus¬lims in the Mosque of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the West Bank. In the name of the God of Abraham he did not allow any place for those other children of Abraham, >the friend of God' (as both the Bible and Qur'an refer to him). The Arabic name for Hebron, Khalil, means >friend.'

There are of course Muslim fundamentalists who condone violence. There are those who claim to be of God's party (Hizbollah), his Front of Libera¬tion and Armed Group (FIS and GIA in Algeria) and think that they are waging His (i.e. God's) war (djihâd).

Religious violence is committed in the name of Hinduism. In the name of the God Rama Hindu fundamentalist groups killed Muslims and destroyed the mosque in Ayodhya (India) because Rama is supposed to have been born there.

Already before our Common Age the poet Euripides fulminated against this kind of speaking and acting in the name of God and/or of religion. Greek mythology includes a story about Tantalus (from whose name the words >tan¬talization' and >tantalizing are derived). Tantalus was the beloved of the gods. In his boldness he wanted to put the omniscience of the gods to the test. Just to find out if they really knew everything, he invited them to din¬ner and served them his son Pelops for their meal. All of the gods, except Demeter, saw through his wiles. Euripides writes:
So I consider also untrue
the dinner of Tantalus, and that the gods there
were eating then the flesh of his child.
No. But a people of murderers as one finds here
did ascribe their own cruelty to the gods.
For no god ever did something inhuman.
It is this kind of religion, this fundamentalism, that poses a threat to our societies. I firmly believe, as Anton Houtepen has said, that AIn God there is no violence.@ By stating this, I already have made clear as to what I consider to be authentic religion and what not.

Possible Causes of the Decline of Religion?

How does one talk about the role of religion (or of God) if one does not choose a fundamentalist approach? If we want to deal with true authentic re¬ligion, we come to the question: what are the reasons that religion(s) in our Western and European societies is or are disappearing or at least threatened by secularisation?

One notices today that in the Western world many people have only a mini¬mal knowledge of iconography and symbolism. Many people live in a kind of reli¬gious symbolic vacuum (De Visscher, 1996, 15,17,187) and display symbolic illiteracy. Or perhaps one should speak of a replacement of reli¬gious symbols by secular symbols. A survey of 7,000 people across six countries in the sum¬mer of 1995 showed that the most well-known inter¬na¬tional symbol was the five intertwined circles of the Olympic Games. Of the 7,000 people inter¬viewed 92% recognized the Olympic symbol and 88% the Shell and McDon¬ald's logos. But only 54% correctly identified the Christian cross. Is it simply ignorance or impotence which leads to the fact that ques¬tions concerning God are seldom raised today? Or is it perhaps unwilling¬ness or rather a lack of interest?

In one of his most celebrated paintings Rembrandt painted all that one can read in the nineteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. One sees people draw¬ing nearer to Jesus, particularly the sick, the crippled and the injured; a rich young man (who had just asked Jesus, ATeacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life,@ is now sitting pensively because he does not want to give up all his wealth); a group of scholars are in heated debate on what they are to do with Je¬sus. One can see all that in that one drawing. But then one finds (typical for Rembrandt) a person who is not found in the Gospel story: he is standing there in front with his hands on his back: he is a spectator, he is an observer. He is indifferent; he does not get involved. This person repre¬sents a universal phe¬nomenon: those who do not want to get involved in reli¬gion and religious ques¬tions.

Or is it a case of unwillingness? This is, indeed, again a universal problem. Jesus compares his own contemporaries with children: AYou are like children shouting at each other as they sit in the market place: >We played the pipes for you but you would not dance; we sang dirges, and you would not mourn'@ (Matthew 11:16-19). Jesus tells this parable to make clear to his hearers how they looked at him and at John the Baptist. Jesus was for them a spoilsport, because he kept company with publicans and sinners whereas they wanted him to be strict. But John the Baptist was a preacher of repentance and of fire and brimstone and they did not like him either. They found John to be too much of an ascetic and Jesus to be some¬one who enjoyed food. In their eyes, he was a glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Luke 7:34). In other words, they were not moved by one or the other. Is religion disappearing because there are peo¬ple in our modern agnostic and atheistic culture who just do not want to play?

Someone in the Netherlands recently wrote in a weekly wondering why he was unable to believe. All people, he wrote, believe in a power, a force, or an entity beyond humanity. Why was he unable to believe? Is it something one feels, something one sometimes hears being said? But where? In one's head, stomach, heart? What is that kind of feeling like? Why did he not feel any¬thing, even if he tried? A novelist (Henk van Teylingen) replied with the following suggestion: if you really want to get to know God as He really is, then He gives you all op¬portunities to do that. Just push the button in your mind so that you can turn to a more pleasant program like the Sermon on the Mount or the Bhag¬avadgita.

But it may not always necessarily be unwillingness that makes people give up religion. A great deal of literature illustrates how people became dis¬gusted with the old religious programs presented by churches, mosques and synagogues. Ignorance, indifference or unwillingness may not be the only reasons for the decline of religion: it may sometimes be sheer superficiality. There is a story of a German professor in the eighteenth century who spent only one day in Leiden (the Netherlands) where he had been appointed to a university chair. The next day this Romantic offered his resignation Abe¬cause he could not en¬tertain any (higher) mythological notions in such a flat country.@

A century ago the painter Vincent van Gogh wrote in his letters: AFor, look, people used to think that the earth was flat. That is true today for the road from Paris to Asnières, for example. Yet science shows that the earth is round, which no one denies today. Despite that, people today think that life is flat and runs from birth to death. But life is probably round and, as far as its extent and possibilities are concerned, much greater than the hem¬isphere that we know today@ (Letter nr. 635 (to Emile Bernard B8)).

If these are the causes of religion's decline, what can be done to stop this decline? This is a question which any minister, rabbi or imam can ask.

Possible Solutions

In the last century the French writer Victor Hugo stated, AReligion disap¬pears, but God remains.@ If this was true then, is it still true today? Very long books have been published lately about The History of God (Karen Arm¬strong) or The Biography of God (Jack Miles). Miles called his book Aa topper.@ Can one speak again about Him or Her in today's secular world? How should one then speak of what Martin Buber once called Athe most soiled of all human words,@ i.e. >God'?

The reason, perhaps, is that in our secular Western culture we cannot avoid raising the three basic human questions which remain of crucial im¬portance for all of us: the quest for God, the fact of death, and the question of the meaning and purpose of life. If one wants to speak on this subject to¬day, one needs to remove a great deal of dust and dirt in order to see clear¬ly. Jack Miles, the author of The Biography of God, sees himself as some¬one who is cleaning the soiled stained-glass windows of the cathedral so that the sun can shine through again to illuminate the treasures hidden within.

But if one is able to overcome all those barriers of the lack of knowledge, in¬difference and unwillingness concerning the religious message, what con¬tri¬bu¬tion can one give in order to make the religious message (including, for a Christian, the Gospel message) more comprehensible and imaginable in our contemporary world? What can be done about the decline of religion? Is there any way of overcoming this threat?

Can we learn from the history of the (early) Christianization of EuropeCthe most important religion with which Europe was confrontedC(How the West was Won, so to speak) and draw lessons from that history in order to con¬front the de-Christianization of Europe today? In this context I want to say some¬thing briefly about the significance of myth and how in the past the re¬ligious mes¬sage was related to the myths and stories of Europe and how it could be done today in order to overcome the threat of the disappearance of religion in our societies.

In our (Western) languages the meaning of the term myth has become am¬biv¬a¬lent. On the one hand, a myth is considered to be a story that is not true; on the other, it is viewed as a story with an ideology. Remaining aware of the dangers and the necessity of deconstructing false myths in our own time and culture as well, I would nonetheless like to plead for the signifi¬cance of myths in a positive way in order to overcome the threat of the decline of religion.

Mythical thinking is spontaneous, imaginative, and creative; while scientific thinking is systematic, rigorous and logical (Brockway, 1993, 6). One of the (four) functions of myths mentioned by Joseph Campbell is pedagogical: myths can teach one how to live a human life under whatever circum¬stances (Camp¬bell, 1988, 39). The plot of a story is an invitation to partic¬ipate in a fund¬amental discussion about one's own life. It belongs to the na¬ture of a plot that it is always told against the background of a greater story. Telling is building the community. To tell the story (rites) is a build¬ing stone for the continuation of the community of story-telling in other and new situations. Each story con¬veys norms and values which the narrator finds important for the continuation of the community for the sake of the children; each story recreates the com¬munity. Of course, for the most part biblical stories still form the >mytho¬logical universe' of Western civilisa¬tion (Stolk, 1996, passim).

The first, negative, meaning of myth (a story which is not true) remains the most prominent view of myth in these days. In the twentieth century the ani¬mosity toward myth in the second sense, as a story with a message, is growing as well. Allow me to illustrate this from my own history. At the beginning of 1995 I happened to read a book on Celtic myths that cited an the view that for some people >myths' are Ahighly poetical talk about the weather@ (Loomis, 1993, 39). What struck me when I read it was that at the time Holland was threatened by the floods from its major rivers. Something similar but even more serious happened forty years earlierCin 1953. Interestingly enough, how¬ever a considerable shift has occurred dur¬ing these last forty years in the response to such an event. If the flood of February 1953 had been seen by many in the Netherlands as an instance of divine providence, the flooding of the rivers and the danger that the dikes would break in 1995 were interpreted in a completely secular way: now it was the governments in the Hague and Bonn which were responsible. My point is: is it not possible that those myths deal with something more pro¬found than only the weather?

This prevalent modern negative approach to myth seems to have been char¬ac¬teristic for the Church of the early period in Europe. Myths were seen as >pa¬gan'. The Church responded more to philosophy and made use of it as an instrument to defend and present her faith. With gratitude the Church used the criticism of the ancient Greek philosophers against Greco-Roman myth¬ology for their own purposes. In recent decades the one-sidedness of this negative approach and its implicit dangers have been studied. The German theologian and psychoanalyst Eugen Drewermann, for instance, has referred to the nega¬tive aspects of the demythologisation approach with regard to the communica¬tion of the real content of the Gospel (1986, 127). He even goes so far as to say that the psychological consequences are that this ap¬proach created the conditions for rejecting the Gospel story/myth today (Drewermann, 1984, 277-78). Already at the beginning of the Enlighten¬ment, this one-sided placing of reason in the forefront was resisted by the theologian Johan Georg Hamann (1730-1788) (cf. D. Sölle, 1994, 147).

This animosity towards myths and mythology in the early Church was sig¬ni¬fi¬cant. But that is not the full story. In many ways the early Church did use the myths and stories of her time. It exploited those myths as vehi¬cle, as instru¬ments for the transmission of its message.

One can provide numerous examples of how the church used the myths and stories in Europe related to Holy Times, Holy Places and Holy Persons to con¬vey its message. Christmas was connected with the festival of the in¬vincible sun on the 25th of December and the name Easter is taken from the spring goddess Ostara. Many churches were built on pre-Christian Holy places: the cathedral of Chartres is built on the site of a Celtic religious centre. Mary, the mother of Jesus, replaced Juno, Venus, and other god¬desses; the Holy Saint Birgit replaced the goddess of the same name.

However, one can ask if this is relevant today? One could perhaps ask why people at that time had such need of holy places, holy times and holy per¬sons? Is that still true today? Is this need felt less todayCat least in the Western worldCthan in the past? In my opinion, these examples of the past show that throughout the centuries right up until the present all people are in need of holy places, mountains, rivers, even if that >holy place' is a certain corner in one's own house. For spiritual survival, we need to set aside certain times (during the day) and to look to exemplary figures in or¬der to be able to contin¬ue our pilgrimage through life.

To answer the question as to what can be done about the threat of con¬tinued religious decline, my next point concerns how one can learn from these kinds of examples in order to relate to our contemporary culture? I would now like to discuss this relation to literature, art and music. A poet and scholar (the late Jan Willem Schulte Nordholt) stated in his last lecture (AAbout God and Me@) that, when he wanted to know who God was, he did not look to theo¬logy. He did not penetrate into the secrets of existence by means of philosophy but by means of poetry (Nordholt, 1989; cited in Van de Loo, 1996, 148). In theo¬logy (the theology of Karl Barth) he did not find any room for imagina¬tion.

It is often said that we live in a time when the grand narratives, in the sense of systems which could given us a kind of overall answers to all kinds of ques¬tions about life and death, have ended. In what way did the church make the link with literature and how can we relate the Story to today's myths and stor¬ies?

Every mythology, however traditional it may be, is changed by the alchemy of a writer. The true writer is always somebody who changes myths or in¬vents them (Steiner, 1992, 237). Franz Kafka once said, AA book must be like an axe to break the ice of the soul@ (cf. Sölle, 1994, 138). What George Steiner said about Sophocles in his Antigones is true for any im¬portant great piece of art: this ancient tragedian deals with the eternal themes of conflicts between the divine and human law, between the indi¬vi¬dual conscience and the public de¬mands, between old and young, between woman and man, etc. (quoted in Steiner, 1991, 16; cf. Steiner, 1984).

Literature is very important for the church in many ways: AOne can learn more theology from creative writers than from the study of religion@ (Brock¬way, 1993, 100). Modern people look in such books for what they found in the past in Athe dusky vaults of the churches directe upwards. He does not kneel down any more, he reads the riddle of his existence, of his unsought ex¬istence@ (K.H. Miskotte, quoted in Borgman, 1994, 117).

Many biblical stories are or could be mirrored in contemporary literature (cf. e.g. Gilhuis, 1990). Different examples could be given to illustrate how the connection between Gospel and literature could be madeCnot as two op¬posed entities, i.e. not Gospel or literature but Gospel and literature and perhaps sometimes literature as Gospel. For example, novels like Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, Thomas Mann's Mountain of Purification and James Joyce's Ulysses are often quoted as modern literary examples of the quest.

The most important myths in the work and personal life of the Russian writers Tolstoy and Dos¬toyevsky were, according to George Steiner, reli¬gious. Throughout their lives, both writers wrestled like Jacob with the angel and de¬manded that this angel reveal a coherent myth about God and a verifiable story about God's role in human destiny. Tolstoy and Dostoyev¬sky were reli¬gious artists in the same sense that the builders of the cathe¬drals were or Mi¬chelangelo was when he painted the image of the eternal on the ceiling of the Sistine Chap¬el. These artists were possessed by the idea of God and trav¬elled throughout their lives (like Paul) on the road to Da¬mascus (Steiner, 1992, 243). In Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, one brother, Ivan (the athe¬ist), mainly talks, whereas (the Christian) Al¬yosha acts. Dostoyevsky was con¬vinced that in the last analysis rational arguments were powerless in theo¬logical questions: AAlyosha therefore does not reason with Ivan, Zossima with the old Karamazov nor Christ with the Grand Inquisitor, but they re¬spond again and again with acts of love. Not arguments are advanced against each other but ways of existence@ (Küng and Jens, 1986, 225, 229). An important aspect of Dostoyevsky's fiction was to explain the New Testament (Steiner, 1992, 292).

James Joyce carried the visions of his home and the emotion of his earlier faith of his native Dublin everywhere with him. He called his short stories and sketches published under the title Dubliners >epiphanies', using this religious term for the appearance of a divine being to refer to the mani¬festation of sud¬den insight into life given to an artist. He continuously looked for myths that transcended time and were part of the life of people everywhere. APeople in general not people in particular are Joyce's sub¬ject.@ In his Ulysses Leopold Bloom is a Dublin Jew, but he is also the wandering Jew and Stephen Dedalus, the Dublin poet, acts out the eternal search of fathers and sons to find one another (cf. article on Joyce in Brown, 1956, 239).
Stephen is the image of Lucifer, an outcast out of his own free will and irreconcilable until his last gasp. Bloom is Christ (or as the book says an other, a >stranger') .... The pil¬grimage of Joyce, his effort to build an ecclesia for civilization ... ended partly, ac¬cording to Steiner, in frustration. (R.P. Blackmur, quoted by Steiner, 1992, 319).
One can refer to similar examples among Jewish writers such as the American Jewish writer Chaim Potok. Arabic literature provides us with Mus¬lim ex¬am¬ples. The Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfuz, the 1988 Nobel Prize winner, is a case in point. In their own way, all of them are examples of writers who deal with ultimate questions: the meaning of life, and death and the quest for God.

Religion and Art: The Example of Vincent van Gogh
My second example is taken from art. Vincent van Gogh is often seen as someone who was an evangelist and pastor for a short time but abandoned his re¬ligion. He is an early example of what happened to so many Christians in the twentieth century.

Did he break with his Christian faith, as is often suggested? Is there a dis¬continuity between the first >active' part of his life (1870-1880) and the second (1880-1890)? Did he start to hate and despise the God of Scripture and of the pastors and did he turn to the God of nature? Did he want to establish a new community (cf. the ecclesia of Joyce) Athe yellow house@ under a new God, the sun of the Midi (southern France) (Kodera, 1988, 163)? Did the >sun' take the place of Christ? Did father Millet (the painter) and father Jules Michelet (the writer) come to replace his own father the pastor? Does literature (French literature, for example) replace the Bible? Does art replace religion or did art even become his religion?

I would like to defend the thesis that Vincent van Gogh, who began as an evangelist in his youth, remained one as a artist and painter. He did not give up his Christian faith, although it did change. In my view, these questions are false dilemmas. As an evangelist and as a painter Van Gogh wanted to comfort people. Like Jesus, he was moved by the weary, the poor, the downtrodden and oppressed people living in >Hard Times', as Char¬les Dickens termed the situation of people in nineteenth-century England.

One of the examples with which I wish to >prove' my point is his painting Still Life with Open Bible. In this painting one sees a large >dark' copy of the Bible, an extinguished candle and, in the foreground, a shining yellow copy of Zola's La Joy de Vivre (The Joy of Living) with the title clearly legible. Some claim that here the dark Bible has been done away with, the light extinguished and replaced by the yellow light of literature that brings the joy of living: not the Bible but literature. This interpretation of this painting is wrong. The Bible is his father's, who had just passed away a few weeks previously. The exting¬uished candle refers to the extinguished life of his father and does not refer to the Bible at all.

We know that Van Gogh was very well acquainted with the content of the Bi¬ble. In his youth he was an ardent reader of the Bible and in later life as a painter he continued to speak appreciatively of it. In this painting the Bi¬ble lies open at Isaiah 53Cone of the so-called ASongs of the Suffering Ser¬vant.@ It is completely impossible and unthinkable that Van Gogh intended to play down the significance of this passage. Several times in his letters to his brother Theo he refers to this passage. It is striking that during his stay in the Hague, where he took care of Sien, as she is called, a prostitute with her child, he depicts her in her naked misery. The English title for this sketch is Sorrow. Can one not say that he intended to depict her as >a Wo¬man of Sorrows'?

Then, next to the Bible is Zola's Joie de Vivre. To suggest that this book re¬places the Bible is incorrect. On the contrary, Van Gogh uses Zola to in¬terpret the Bible. In one of his letters to Theo (nr. 161) in which he speaks of the authors Jules Michelet, Harriet Elizabeth Beecher Stowe, Thomas Carlyle and George Eliot, he writes that the Bible remains forever. Those authors, like many others, are not saying that the Gospel is not of any value any more but showing how it can be applied in our time. Six years later (1887) he tells his sister to read works by Guy de Maupassant, Francois Ra¬belais, Henri Roche¬fort, Voltaire's Candide, books by the brothers Edmund L.A.H. and Jules A. de Goncourts (Germinie Lacerteux and La Fille Eliza), Zola's L'assommoir and Joie de Vivre and those by Jean Richepin, Alphonse Daudet and Joris-Karl Huysmans. He continues: AIs the Bible not enough for us? In these days I believe that Jesus himself would say to those who sit down in melancholy. It is not here, get up and go. Why are you looking for the living among the dead?@ (cf. Edwards, 1989, 51).

Still Life with Open Bible affirms that significant novels express the truths of the Bible to a contemporary audience (Edwards, 1989, 49). In one of the fig¬ures in Zola's novel (Pauline Quenu), Van Gogh sees an incarnation, like the Suffering Servant, of renunciation, sacrifice, and charity. ABut it was fitting that Zola expressed the Servant mission for a new age in the form of a new age@ (Edwards, 1989, 50).

The Role of Music in Religion
The ancient Greeks ascribed to music magic and therapeutic powers. It could heal wounds and it could move blocks of stone: the singing of Amphion (cf. the role of Orpheus), son of Zeus, was said to have enchanted stones to build the walls of Thebes of their own ac¬cord. The historical figure Thaletas of Gortyn (seventh century BCE) tried to drive the plague from Sparta by singing (Eliade, 1995, 205).

In what way did the church relate to music in the past and how could it be done today? Music is a means of expressing feelings more accurately than the word (F. Mendelsohn).

The revelation of God on Mount Sinai was accompanied by music: AOn the morn¬ing of the third day there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mountains, and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled@ (Exodus 19:16). The walls of Jeri¬cho fell through a liturgical, musical conquest (Joshua 6). The prophet Elisha was also prophetically inspired by music: ANow bring me someone who can play the lyre and as the musician played, the hand of Yahweh came on him@ (2 Kings 3:15). King Saul's evil spirits were exor¬cised by the music of the young shep¬herd David on the cither (1 Samuel 16:23).

Early Christian gatherings were sober affairs, but very early psalmody was in¬troduced into the Church through the inspiration of its use in the synagogue. Ambrose (339-397), the Christian bishop of Milan, introduced hymns (Koenot, 1996, 195). Augustine (354-430) was in favour of music (Koenot, 1996, 196). The Western church witnessed the development of Gregorian music (Mudde, 1959, 225). Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), who founded religious com¬muni¬ties, also composed music and wrote liturgical songs. She saw herself as an instrument of the divine Spirit, Athe sound of the trumpet of the living light@ (Marjolein De Vos, 11 October, 1996 in NRC). She drew much inspira¬tion from The Song of Songs. Psalms and hymns, according to her, remind us of the bliss of the uncor¬rupted state at the beginning of creation and make us receptive to the pres¬ence of God. For her, there was a connection between word and the human¬ity of Jesus, while music was related to the spiritual and harmonic unity of the divine Trinity (Koenot, 1996, 198). Martin Luther saw music as a gift and a servant of God as a work of the Holy Spirit and therefore an essential element in worship and preaching.

One could refer in this context to the importance and use of the organ in the Church. Once used in the secular market place, it became an instrument for church services. Certain secular tunes were Alifted up to a new level@ at the time of the Reformation. Charles Wesley the brother of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism in Great Britain (or perhaps it was William Booth the founder of the Salvation Army) is quoted as having said: AWhy should only the devil have good music?@ AMoody and Sankey Favorites@ were very pop¬u¬lar: about a hundred years ago a clown in a circus in London mocked these songs, at which the audience began to sing them one after the other until the clown was forced to leave the ring.

The Role of Pop Music
In our society pop music is very important to young and even to not so young people. Those who do not feel completely at home on this earth, unable to set¬tle anywhere but always on pilgrimage find solace in a song. Music brings life to a mortal existence. Many talk of the wholesome work of music. Pen¬e¬tration, participation and transcendence occur in music through the miracle of hearing. The ear makes another reality possible: the other reality of music Aenters, penetrates in my inner being and I become a citizen of the space of music.@ Pop artists are situated in the middle of the mystery of life, wrestle with it and seek to confront the dark deadly forces in their search for real life. The rock fan does not sit down lazily, for the music makes him get up, rise and go out into the adventure of life. Such music invites to confront our feel¬ings, our own love (or weariness) of life, our own disappointments, our pain. The best music includes both devasta¬tion and reconstruction. The stories of Joshua from the Bible and Amphion from Greek mythology illustrate these functions. In the story of Joshua and the conquest of Jericho the walls tumble down at the sound of the trumpets (Joshua 6). Amphion needed only to play the magic flute to have the stones move together to build a wall around him. Rock music unites these two functions: Joshua and Amphion at the same time. This happens in any con¬cert: by the passion of the trumpeters of Jericho the old environment is torn down and by the magic of Amphion the new wall is built. Musicians do with sound what painters do with images (cf. Koenot, 1996).

Final Remarks

Is it possible in this attempt to relate Gospel and Culture (through literature, art, music) to single out criteria for what is or what is not acceptable when overcoming the threat of the continued decline religion or when trying to re¬vive it? From where does one derive the criteria for deciding whether some¬thing is authentic, true religion? When are myths true and when are they false? How can one relate the myths or stories from the Bible to the stories of human kind today?

One has to be conscious of the ambivalence of each culture, including Eur¬o¬pean and Western culture. Myths and stories can become merely emp¬ty, shal¬low stories. They can also become dangerous idols and ideologies. Do we un¬derstand what we read? Do we understand what we see? In both cases we need an interpreter. How does one deal with and think about >Religion and Culture' with respect to literature, art and music.

The Church father Jerome (d.420) can be quoted as an ex¬am¬ple of how the Church wrestled with the question how to relate the Gospel to cultureCin his case to classical profane culture. He was, of course, known as the translator of the Bible into Latin, the Vulgate. He was a pupil of a famous Roman gram¬marian (Donatus), who was the author of an extensive com¬mentary on litera¬ture, especially Virgil and Terentius, the comic writer. In his turn, Jerome became the interpreter of the Bible. According to him, it was possible to build a bridge between profane erudition and the Gospel. Not everything should be rejected and elements of the Graeco-Roman cult¬ure can be taken and used in the spread and deepening of the Christian faith. Did not, Jerome argued, Paul also make use of classical authors (he had several direct quotations from pro¬fane literature)? In order to explain the way in which he made use of classical literature he used the image of bees which take honey from some flowers and fly past others: when the Jews left Egypt they robbed gold and silver from the Egyptians and melted it to make vessels for worship. Jerome follows a fixed profane scheme. Profane examples and authoritative statements precede the biblical and Christian ones. In his use of arguments he uses a certain measure. He uses the examples but the main point remain the Christian examples. Je¬rome does, however, contrast the eloquentia (eloquence of pagan literature) and veritas (the truth of the Christian faith): AWe are pupils of the piscatores (fisherman) not of the oratores@ (Bartelink, 1995, 100-02, 104-06). But Chris¬tians who had had some education were to a certain extent bored by the fisher¬man's language (sermo piscatorius) of the Bible (Praet, 1995, 111).

The tension Jerome felt between profane and Christian literature was char¬ac¬teristic of his life. His life became dominated by a dream in which he saw himself standing before the throne of Christ where he was reproached for hav¬ing been more Ciceronian than Christian: Ciceronianus es, non Chris¬tianus. He then took an oath not to read any more profane writers. He kept this vow for the rest of his life (Bartelink, 1995, 100).

The Example of Art: Image Culture and the Religious Message
In the West a wall was constructed between word and image, whereby a paint¬er like Van Gogh is disqualified as a theological source. AThe Western pre¬judice in favor of >God as Word' has probably led to the avoidance of one that took seriously >God as Image'@(Edwards, 1995, 189). In art and literature but also again and again in ordinary life, as Jesus did in his parables, one can find imaginative stories and suggestive images.

An example of such a contemporary story is the following. On Friday, 26 April 1996, the explosion of the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl ten years before was commemorated. On television I saw an impressive interview with one of the survivors. He was shown with his wounds which required daily care. Only with the help of a drive in Germany to raise funds for exorbitantly expensive medicine was he kept alive. What he told about the events of the day of the ex¬plosion was moving. He was off-duty when it oc¬curred. He could have stayed away but without any protective clothing he had entered the plant in order to save his friends. He found a wounded and dying friend and carried him on his shoulders out of the nuclear reactor. The deadly radiation entered his body through the points where the body of his friend rested on his own body. One can ask if this not a modern, new and authentic story, an iconCa modern myth Cin which one hears/sees what real service to GodCwhich is al¬ways at the same time service to fellow human beingsCmeans? AThere is no greater love than this, that one lay down his life for his friends@ (John 15:13).

In a television program about Jesus and images of him today, the title song constantly repeated the phrase, Adescription unknown.@ But is he really un¬known? Or is it indifference, lack of interest, unwillingness which make one want to get rid of this telling example? Any child could see the face of the victim of Chernobyl lighting up. Does not the world continue existing because of people like him?

Culture, including modern European culture, is ambivalent. One should be careful in claiming to know what is authentic and inauthentic in religion. Some modern myths are false and one has to combat them. There are nega¬tive myths. One has to be critical of the image culture (the >coverage' of the sec¬ond Gulf War by the media in 1991 is a case in point). And this culture has its own victims.

In the 1930's K.H. Miskotte comparedCand rightly soCin his Edda en Thora (a comparison between the German and Israelite religion) the revived German paganism and the Gospel (1939). Alfred Rosenberg's The Myths of the Twen¬tieth Century has been called the reverse of Edda en Thora (Wil¬lem van der Meiden quoted in: Van Troostwk et al., 1994, 58).

Examples were given how the church in the past related to music. Yet it is also well-known how the Nazis usedCor rather misusedCmusic, as de¬scribed in Günter Grass's novel Blechtrommel. The wordless myth of music can in our culture after the word (Steiner) and without myths also express spiritual longing, consolation and inspiration (Koenot, 1996, 170). This also reminds me of a pop song by the group Oasis that expresses indestruct¬ible hope. In this song one hears the protest against the inner and outside powers that make that young people let the dreams they had be washed away by the gods of this cen¬tury, particularly love of money.

As a child, according to this song, someone wanted to become a spaceman, but this dream was taken away and the person was compensated for the loss of these dreams with money. But the pop song ends by making clear that it is yet not too late to become a spaceman:
It's funny how your dreams change as you're growing old
You don't wanna be no spaceman, you just wanted gold,
All the dream-stealers are lying awake.

But if you wanna be a spaceman
It's still not too late.
When there is no hope any more, the world becomes a hell. According to Dante in his Divine Comedy there are people in hell who cannot use verbs in the future tense any more: AOne can speak of eternal damnation when we are not able to use the grammar of the future any more, that is the grammar of hope@ (Steiner, 1991, 46). But why should we not, if we have lost that gram¬mar, be able to learn that grammar of hope anew and thus overcome the dan¬ger that God, i.e. true humanity, is disappearing from our society?

Anton Wessels 1998

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