Recently, Mary Lee and I watched The Walk documenting Philippe Petit’s 1974 wire-walking between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The movie was pretty good. Petit was typecast accurately and much was made of his artistic pretensions repudiating any notion he was a mere entertainer. He was an artist.
The movie reminded me of a couple things.
First, this excerpt I’d saved from a 1987 piece in The New Yorker:
One night last summer, Petit gave a special performance at the cathedral, in honor of its centennial. The cathedral was plunged into darkness; then a spotlight shot a beam into the vaulting in the middle of the church, picking out a white-sheathed figure in the air, entwined in a rope and holding a lighted torch. In the religious setting, amid the bare stone walls and the stained-glass windows, the mysterious sight was galvanic. Slowly, the form slid from heaven to earth on the rope. His face strangely rapt, as though he were in a dream, Petit walked down the nave toward the narthex and climbed onto crossed poles fifteen feet high. From them a thin wire rose into the dim heights of the cathedral. Suddenly, Petit leaped onto the wire, his mop of pale hair flying, and rushed over the black-tie audience. The wild, youthful figure balanced a lily on his forehead and slid along the wire while a pianist played Stravinsky. He lay on his back, trickling gold dust to the floor, forty feet below. He sat up and rolled backward. The audience gasped. Flashing a devilish grin, he tangoed, his back arched. The feet, marvelously precise, touched down without error as they returned from space, though Petit never glanced at them. Then they ascended the wire in slow, sure progress. His figure grew smaller and smaller, the balancing pole making a cross against the rising wire. Eighty feet in the air, the wire was too thin for the audience to see. For one chimerical moment, he seemed to walk on air, an angel released from gravity. Then he sprang onto a shackle between columns over the transept, and bowed. The lights went on. Organ music sounded triumphantly.
And what was the religious significance—indeed, the Christian significance—of this showmanship high above the congregation?
Bishop Paul Moore is a man who is well known within the religious community for his daring defiance of the teachings of his denomination in his ordination of various people excluded from the pastoral office, such as avowed and practicing homosexuals. Moore presided over Petit’s performance and had this to say at the conclusion of the performance:
The Right Reverend Paul Moore, Bishop of New York, said, “I get flak whenever the church does anything other than evening prayer. But as soon as the performance began I forgot my worries and was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty: it was one of the finest moments in the history of the cathedral for beauty and deep religious meaning.”1
Second, I was also reminded of this offertory presided over by Pastor Tim Keller in his own worship service almost thirty years later, also in Manhattan (sorry, but we didn’t save the video itself):
The Right Reverends Moore and Keller both mistake entertainment for worship. Of course, Moore and Keller would protest their dancers are art—not entertainment. But pretensions aside, most would agree art is the entertainment of those higher social classes too good to pay attention to NASCAR and the Kardashians.
Art is the worship of decadent societies. Whatever they’re currently defining as “beauty” is their sacrament and the artist is their priest. Note Moore’s ecstasy over Petit’s wire-walking across the sanctuary: “It was one of the finest moments in the history of the cathedral for beauty and deep religious meaning.”
Keller’s ballet offertory is the same idolatrous decadence.
Whether wire-walking or ballet, the artistic expression is the sacrament presented to the congregation by the artist, their priest.
So far, few readers here will disagree since most of us aren’t Episcopal or Kellerites, but one more point before we stop.
The mantra at the heart of classical education today is “truth, beauty, and goodness.” After reading the above, I trust we recognize the danger within our decadent society inherent in this commitment?
Because we don’t personally identify with Manhattan and its forms of beauty at the heart of worship in Moore’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church does not aquit us of similar charges in our own religious worship.
We reject the gayness, the effeminacy, of Moore’s Petit and Keller’s ballet dancers, but the immodest effeminacy is not the worst of it. What we must note is the ease with which beauty insinuates itself into our religious experience, displacing the One Who made beauty and placed it on display across all His creation.
On social media a week ago, I noted Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s recommendation that we copy the Moravian practice of unison singing in worship,2 suggesting some churches might do well to try this discipline.
Immediately, the hue and cry were raised, with one man even claiming his musical preferences were Trinitarian in nature. To be sure, those complex harmonies in Reformed worship today may be said to be more virile than Moore’s Petit and Keller’s dancers, but we must recognize Moore and Keller’s effeminacy in worship was only in service to their idolatry in worship. Do we not recognize how those male cult prostitutes who served the people of God inside the temple of Jerusalem3 thousands of years ago continue to serve us today? The thing to keep track of is not just the sexual immorality, but even more the idolatry.
The Reformation restored truth to the worship of God’s people by restoring preaching to the center of worship and the Word of God to the center of preaching. A necessary correlate to the Reformers’ restoration of truth was the removal of most of Rome’s idolatrous beauty. Start with their beautiful Mass. Move on to their paintings, stained glass images, and statues of Christ, Mary, and the saints. Also there in worship were their ornate vestments and treasuries of gold. And yes, our Reformed fathers removed Rome’s complex and harmonious musical offerings.
This is not to say beauty was entirely absent in Reformed (as opposed to Lutheran) worship. No, some beauty was retained, but the discipline that beauty always had to submit to in Reformed worship was simplicity.
Most Reformed worship today, whether our sacramental liturgies lacking the fear of God, our preaching lacking the proclamation of God’s Moral Law and repentance, or our harmoniously complex musical offerings, has left the Reformation behind. Read the history of Reformed worship and ask why our children are returning to vestments, images, musical complexity, and banners? Why do we have so many Presbyterian churches hosting art galleries and spending a million or two on their organs? Can it be true we are less vulnerable to rendering worship to art and artists than ancient Israel and medieval Rome?
Has any man giving himself to idolatry ever thought he was giving himself to idolatry?
In the end, the problem with Redeemer’s ballet offertory wasn’t that it was ballet, and not four-part harmony. Both Moore and Keller’s failure was scratching the ears of their sheep by giving them beauty as objects of veneration in worship. That is idolatry.
|↑1||Gwen Kinkead, Profiles, “ALONE AND IN CONTROL,” The New Yorker, June 15, 1987, p. 37, 38.|
|↑2||”Because it is bound wholly to the Word, the singing of the congregation, especially of the family congregation, is essentially singing in unison. Here words and music combine in a unique way. The soaring tone of unison singing finds its sole and essential support in the words that are sung and therefore does not need the musical support of other voices.|
With one voice let us sing today
sang the Bohemian Brethren. “With one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1 5 : 6). The purity of unison singing, unaffected by alien motives of musical techniques, the clarity unspoiled by the attempt to give musical an an autonomy of its own apart from the words, the simplicity and frugality, the humaneness and warmth of this way of singing is the essence of all congregational singing” (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; pp. 59-60).