The recent discovery of over 1,400 works of art in Germany, supposedly stolen by the Nazis from museums and individuals, is rather astonishing, and good news. Mostly modern paintings – though not entirely – the paintings were what the Nazis called “degenerate” art, apparently believing the works did not portray the noble characteristics of Aryan people. Years back I visited East Berlin, still then under communist rule, and some of the parks were filled with triumphalist art – that grand arrogance of Soviet Russia. It was the same in Bucharest, Romania, and the megalomania of architecture there during the time of the dictator Ceaucescu. It is true in the spectacles in North Korea, and even in the strutting in the US Congress.
The origin of evil is the belief that we are more than we are, or better than we are, and better than others. Pride does come before the fall; arrogance does breed violence. Thinking that we are always right, that there is no other way to be than the way we are; believing there is just one way to salvation, one true faith, one pure race – these are the roots of violence and injustice, of terror and evil.
Art is one corrective to this. The purpose of art is to illuminate the world, to bring greater understanding into our lives. Recent studies have claimed that reading literature – that is, fiction – increases empathy. (Here is a bugbear of mine – of course it does. What else has the worlds’ great literature done? We have always known that, and it is just another example of the triumph of scientism – that nothing can be true until it is quantified somehow.) This is why we have music in worship and why I read poetry often – they humanize us.
Yet, in an item of bad news, the number of humanities majors is way down. I think this is of great concern. We need much more education in the arts, every bit as much (if not more) as in math and science. Shakespeare is worth all the Algebra II in the world. Organic chemistry might lead to better medicine but won’t help us understand how to be compassionate and just – but reading Alice Munro can do that. We need both.
So, here is my suggestion: put down the non-fiction books and read a novel a month, or some short stories or a collection of poetry. Not the entertaining type – though I love that reading too – but the serious stuff, the stuff intended to shed light on the world. Listen to music – modern as well as classical, country as well as jazz. Go to an art museum at least four times a year. See at least one theater production a year. Say a prayer of gratitude for English majors; encourage your children to read or make up stories.
And be sure to come to worship.
-Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson