Music, Art, and the Sublime

Music, Art, and the Sublime

Rev. Christian Iosso

July 18, 2021                                                                                                                                          

Texts: Ezekiel 1: 1, 4, 13-14, 22-28.     Revelation 21: 9-21; 22: 1-5.


The title of this sermon was to tie in to a “Music, Art & Faith Retreat” for high school students. Our teaching team was to be: Jason Kissel, introducing new musical horizons; Sarah Lloyd, introducing art history; and Deborah McCrimmon and me linking these resources of music and art with the moral and spiritual challenges of our community. We were going to speak about the different ways churches are laid out, and how we hear God speaking to us in the music, art, and architecture, as well as scripture and preaching.


You can think of the questions: How do we and other churches, Black and White, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox make space for the sacred presence of God? Why have an organ? Why a spire? Why were stained glass windows developed? I planned to introduce the idea of the sublime as a step beyond beauty, a sense of grace but also pathos, because Jesus’ suffering on the cross is not beautiful, and the resurrection is unexpectedly wonderful if not exactly beautiful – but God’s glory is in that mixture of suffering healed and beauty reborn.


Unfortunately, most church youth programs do not seem to be back up and the vaccination rate for youth remains a problem. Jason, Deborah, and Sarah all warned me it might not work, even though they were good team mates and willing to try. So I pushed and we jumped the gun.


Perhaps I had an inflated idea of how clearly valuable our insights and access to cultural institutions would be on a hot summer weekend. Perhaps the connection between faith and the arts that seems so clear to us is a hard sell, even to many of the adults around us. And perhaps we have not built the connections to our community and other churches that we needed to make such an experiment work.


Today’s texts were meant to be dramatic: Ezekiel’s vision of God’s heavenly throne-chariot riding on a storm, and the book of Revelation’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth with a new Jerusalem full of beautiful gems and pearly gates. These are visions of God’s glory, of splendor, and radiance, overwhelming but still mysterious. The priestly prophets who wrote them down were deathly afraid of idolatry even as they thought in images of beauty from the tradition—the ark, the winged cherubim, angelic messengers of God, the treasures of ancient temples, and the chariots of kings. They do not claim to see God directly–God’s holiness would blind us—and yet they have that ecstatic reason that goes right to the edge of language. God is invisible, yet all things natural and many created can be suffused with intensity, so that solid gold can seem clear as glass.


Ezekiel is a priest in exile in Babylon. We heard part of the first of several visions when he was lifted up in the Spirit and taken back to Jerusalem and taken forward in time. The author of the book of Revelation, a Christian exiled on the island of Patmos, drew upon the imagery of his spiritual ancestor, Ezekiel, in describing his visions of a healed and redeemed future, beyond the Roman persecutions that put him on that island.


How would you explain to high school students why such unusual and extreme visions help us in our own faithful imaginations? What relation does beauty or the sublime have to do with why we get up in the morning? Yet high school students, in fact, may be experiencing loneliness and feelings of exile and longing for communities of safety and nurture—just like adults. Is life all about self-expression and achievement and snarky humor and cheap thrills and vicious or sophisticated bullying? That’s their version of narcissism, exploitation, and polarization. Is idealism either private belief or group think? Is the church only a place for sentimental moralism, for being a good person as if niceness could save?


One story about the need to put together the ethical and aesthetic parts of our life comes from Rollo May. He wrote books of humanistic psychology popular in the 1960’s, ‘70’s and 80’s especially.[i] But one of his last books tells the story of his call.


May graduated from Oberlin College and went on to teach at a Protestant mission school in Greece, Anatolia College. He is a moral idealist, both reasonably devout and reasonably adventurous. This is the early 1930’s and he meets Greeks driven out of Turkey in the massacres of Armenian and Greek Christians. The college was named for the region from which the Greeks were driven out and was established to help the children of those refugees. Many US Protestants were concerned with the Armenian genocide, but many Greek-background Christians were killed as well. He is exposed to tragedy and human evils.


May describes his habits and principles as those of “a typical small-town, mid-western childhood… hard work, fidelity, honesty and so on.” And yet he became increasingly lonely and isolated.  He became too fatigued to teach, and was given a place to stay by a pair of older teachers. One night he “started out walking up the road to … a relatively large mountain about 10 miles away… It was raining when I started out in the night, and as I got higher up the mountain, the rain changed to snow and my clothes froze to me. But I kept going steadily, concerned only with the inner turmoil in my mind and with a certain peace that at least now I was … taking some steps, though I was not sure where.


After about six hours in the darkness, when I had reached… near the top of the mountain, I heard the barking of wolves across the plateau… I could faintly see their dim forms against the grey snow. They came dashing up to me, ran around me a few times, but I was so absorbed in my inner thoughts that I paid no attention to them. After circling me several times they departed, leaping across the snow and ice…”


May describes reaching a village at dawn, managing to get a room above the one café, thawing out, and staying for two days writing thoughts on laundry slips found in a coat pocket. Then he went down the mountain, still deeply distracted. He walks outside again, this time finds himself in beautiful fields of poppies. Then he stops and remembers Wordsworth’s poem about the daffodils. He writes:


“I realized that I had not listened to my inner voice, which had tried to talk to me about beauty. I had been too hard-working, too “principled” to spend time merely looking at flowers! It seems it had taken a collapse of my whole former way of life for this voice to make itself heard. … It is amazing how true Wordsworth’s lines were for me:


‘For oft, when on my couch I lie

            In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

            Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.’”


May then writes about what beauty means to him, as “the experience that gives us a sense of joy and as sense of peace simultaneously. Other happenings give us joy and afterwards a peace, but in beauty these are the same experience. … Beauty gives us not only a feeling of wonder; it imparts to us at the same moment a timelessness, a repose—which is why we speak of beauty being eternal.  Beauty is the mystery which enchants us.”


Is May’s beauty the sublime of the sermon title? Yes and no. For May, his lifelong quest for beauty was a direct answer to his nervous breakdown and the anxiety that was being intensified in the hot and cold wars of the 20thCentury. He believed with the German philosopher Schiller “that beauty is born in play.” He found it in the playing of music and the drama of plays.


The sublime is the sense of greatness or immensity that makes us feel both tiny, awed and humbled, and at the same time exhilarated and exalted, infused and inspired by the greatness of what we see or hear. So, yes, that beauty that takes us out of ourselves is close to the sublime. The effects of the spire and the inner joyfulness of this sanctuary are meant to lift us up and point to God’s greatness.


But the sublime has a potentially terrifying quality, as if you were looking over a cliff, kept from falling perhaps by a force of wind. This sense of the sublime would include May’s temporary insanity of facing wolves without fear, of climbing a freezing mountain in the dark. The sublime connects the mysterious outside us to the mystery inside us, and then to the greater, untamed mystery of God.


The Bible contains many images of beauty and created goodness, but the most powerful images—such as those visions of Ezekiel or John of Patmos—have an intensity based partly on the dangers of evil and the courage faith requires. Rollo May is not the only person out there with a soul so sensitive and thirsty for wholeness that self-destruction tempts. The solidness and beauty of churches and other religious buildings is meant to strengthen and guide us—at their best, they strive to reflect that divine extravagance that helps us survive and overcome the greatest losses, that helps us recover from all forms of exile, including the exile from the soul that is around us today. That a church building should incarnate enough mystery– even some strangeness– confirms that it is God’s house.


It is not our ordinariness, then, but precisely the breathtaking sanctuary, somber chapel, and staggering spire, that confirm this is God’s house. But dwelling in this building, how do we, do you, encounter the sublime? What difference does this aesthetic and mystical experience make to our lives beyond this building and to our life together as God’s people in this neighborhood? To most of Baltimore, this building is hidden in plain sight. As we think of messages for the scaffolding, we need to think again how this architectural wonder informs and reforms us. May this wonder take us again into the world, glimpsing the sublime even in this city and especially in the people we are called to love.


In the name of the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer, Amen.

[i] May’s books include The Courage to Create, The Cry for Myth, Power and Innocence, Existential Psychology, and a book on his mentor, the great theologian Paul Tillich, Paulus.


Not used:

Grand Prince Vladimir/Volodymyr of Kyiv (AD 958-1015) sent his emissaries to tour the world in search of the True Faith. Upon their return they reported to him as follows:

Then we went to Greece [Constantinople], and the Greeks (including the Emperor himself) led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.


It was that beauty that helped the Russia survive the Mongol occupation as a Christian nation.