Art That offends(Column)

Article excerpt

Being a Baroque sort, not a Renaissance person but a Renaissance buff, and having a cloistered mind, I am sometimes asked to comment on art, music or literature that expresses Baroque, Renaissance or medieval Christian themes. Would I comment on catalogs or programs about Christian works that might offend? How does one provide a context for themes from long ago for people in the here and now? Many of the texts and images of historic Christian art seem anti-Semitic--and some, taken out of context, and some, taken in context, are.

Some offensive Christian art of the past is not worth preserving. But what about such great achievements as Bach's Johannes-Passion? Its penultimate chorale, "Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine," offers unmatched serenity; it evokes tears from Christians and aesthetic awe from the nonbelieving public. Its ultimate chorale, "Ach Herr, lasz dein lieb Engelein," is sung at every Marty Memorial Eucharist--and will be at mine. Serenity, tears and hope....

The text of the St. John Passion is from the Fourth Gospel and poetic meditations on it. The three main casts of villains are the wavering disciples proto-Christians?), "the Jews" and the Romans. We Christians are taught from childhood to recognize ourselves in the faithless disciples and the crucifiers. The Romans have no heirs in sight. But Jews are heirs of victims of Christian anti-semitism, fueled by the misuse of John's Gospel.

Musicians sing the Passion as performance, not as an act of worship. So do all great choral groups, including some in Israel. …