Sarah Coakley affirms the spiritual power of great art.
Well, art and music and poetry do this, in my view, better than most theologians can do it. And the greatest theologians are the ones who also draw on the riches of these traditions, which have themselves of course flown out of the inspiration of the Bible and Christian tradition in our Western manifestation of it. So I think there is an irreducibility of truth to be purveyed – religious truth to be purveyed – through the artistic, through the musical, and through the poetic.
And when the church tries to do without these, it always becomes plodding and didactic and ineffectual. That’s why liturgy at its best, which if you think about it combines all three of these in its own propulsions, is actually drawing on levels of the self that a more didactic, propositional form of teaching could not do. It’s not unusual for people to be converted by looking at a work of art. It’s certainly not unusual for people to have their entire faith world transformed by listening to a piece of music.
When I was 12, I was taken to a performance of the Bach St Matthew Passion, which shattered my early adolescent perception of religious truth. I mean I’m still, as it were, feeding on that moment of transformation. It’s something about going through the narrative of the Passion in musical form that is quite unlike even simply reading that in the Bible.