Hearing an unexpected piano piece in church can open doors we didn’t even know existed.
A couple of Sundays ago, I listened to a very talented pianist play a wonderful rendition of composer Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune in a church service. The congregation was transfixed as the impressionistic notes and lilting passages filled the sanctuary. When the last note of the piece faded into a contented silence, the room burst into spontaneous applause, not exactly a common occurrence in church.
Debussy was a pioneer composer in an artistic movement known as Modernism. Many of his works, including Clair de Lune, violated every expected standard of composition. Compared to what music was supposed to sound like, it had no set tempo, its pace fluctuated, its harmonies were unpredictable untraditional and its melody sometimes all but impossible to ascertain. But is it religious? Is it an appropriate piece of music for church? I knew some people sitting there in the pews alongside me that morning were asking themselves that question.
Well, in a word, yes.
The challenge to us, either in a concert hall, art museum or church house is to rise above the demands of the material world. To get away from our culture’s insistence that the utilitarian and the practical are what’s real and are what really matters in life.
Similar to this episode, a few years ago I was surprised to see a ballet performance in a church service at the same church. A young woman in white danced a routine to “Amazing Grace” and something very new and fresh happened to the notes and lyrics of that old familiar hymn. The dancer portrayed what the emotions behind the song looked and felt like: After all, what does one look like who has received “amazing grace?” What does one feel like it when it’s received? Watching her dance answered those questions vividly. The experience disconnected our rational minds from the everyday world and allowed us to realize that through art, we can better perceive the spiritual. So too did the performance of Clair de Lune lift our minds away from the material world we inhabit.
Yearning, elation, relief, joy, grace, transcendence: these are not readily translatable into the practicalities of the material world. Yet these are the emotions that underlie our religious experiences. It is through art—and perhaps only through art—that we can perceive these in a meaningful and potentially transformative way.
Simply put, secular art can fit with religion, because they both remind us that the material world is not all there is.