The scopes of my column, assigned to focus on “public religion,” often deal with religion in public affairs, particularly politics, economics and the like.
There, one spots most media coverage of religion, but for many believers and onlookers the focus is different.
They encounter it in worship, education, prayer, study, acts of mercy, personal spiritual struggles, family life and the arts. This week let’s glance at an example in the arts.
Much public notice is being given and much more will be given to the new oratorio by John Adams, who is recognized in the front rank of serious music composers in our time.
Reviews are appearing of his “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” premiered in Los Angeles last Thursday, under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel, whose conducting of the Los Angeles Philharmonic helped certify the importance of the event.
Adams fuses stories from the biblical Gospels with texts written by Louise Erdrich, Dorothy Day, Hildegard of Bingen and other disrupters of serenity and messengers of justice.
The family of Mary Magdalene – at least, her family as Adams and many others choose to designate the “Mary” of the famed “Mary and Martha” duo of sisters and their brother Lazarus – is the feature. Curiously, Jesus, the central character in the Gospels, does not show up, but he is quoted.
In a comparison that should make every living composer uneasy, Woolfe adds that the work “evokes Bach’s form and craft but not his sustained intensity.”
As for the lead characters, Adams poses Mary as “suicidal and self-dramatizing,” while Martha is “quietly responsible and overburdened” and Lazarus is “cipherish.”
This is a work in progress, to be staged and not merely sung next March, by which time it can be cut and refined. Woolfe has also some good things to say along the way, but we must move on.
“I’m in no way a religious person.” He states that “he neither goes to church nor reads the Bible much.”
Those two admissions are hardly peculiar to non-believers. He is aware that the Jesus story has engrossed most major Christian-world composers, artists and writers.
Adams is drawn to Jesus, the “image of a man who’s stubborn,” because of his integrity and mission of justice and mercy.
Many professed believers, according to critics within the Christian camps, could well take some lessons about this Jesus and not only the one who is always sweet and consoling.
Many noticers of artists and creators like Adams seem surprised that a non-believer is so taken with the Jesus story and the issues of faith. But he has plenty of precedents.
Decades ago when I gave strong attention to liturgical arts, I read something by the great Abbé Paul Couturier: “Better a genius without faith than a believer with talent. Trusting in Providence, we tell ourselves that a great artist is always a great spiritual being, each in his own manner.”
With that outlook, he encouraged major non-believing artists like Matisse and Le Corbusier in their production of art for the church.
Johannes Brahms and Ralph Vaughn Williams, among others, were skeptics, but moved by the stories and the humanistic depth of Christianity. Believers might regret their inability to believe but then say or chant “thank God for them.”
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.