Religion and art

Reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets lately, I find it impossible to dismiss or ignore entirely the Christian, and specifically Anglican, dimension of these poems. While the reader of these poems doesn’t necessarily have to share Eliot’s religious belief, only a perfunctory reader can afford to ignore it — reject it or not, that belief has to be engaged. In part I suppose this has to do with explicit intent: Eliot wants to explore hope, and especially redemption, in a fallen world, a hope that inheres only in the Incarnation.

It’s overly convenient to separate out the religious and the art from religious art, and we may be doing both a disservice if we do. The same goes for contemporary composers like Olivier Messiaen, Eliot’s approximate contemporary and similarly an artist driven by belief, specifically Catholic belief. In “Religious Symbolism in the Music of Olivier Messiaen,” Siglind Bruhn wrote, “[Scholars] note with some amazement that his musical language remained strikingly uniform throughout his long life. This constancy arises from a central truth in Messiaen’s character and philosophy. What never changed was the purpose of his creative activity: to praise God, and to share through his music his profound enthusiasm for the Truths of his Catholic faith.”

I needn’t be a professing Anglican or Catholic to enjoy and appreciate Eliot and Messiaen of course; I can do so with my agnosticism firmly in place. But unless I allow Eliot and Messiaen to question and even challenge my agnosticism, I can’t ever fully open myself to either of these artists, because there is the chance — even if, in an age which disparages traditional Christian faith, one insists on remaining faithless if only to be modern — that they’re right. After Eliot and Messiaen, the New Testament?