Sanctity and the Secular: Have contemporary artists lost the idea of holiness?
When a revival of Robert Bolt's marvelous play "A Man for All Seasons” opened on Broadway last October, the New York Times critic Ben Brantley, usually reliable for intelligent insights into theater and serious reflection on dramatic themes, wrote a strange review. Brantley seemed uncomfortable with the saintliness of the main character, Thomas More-namely a singlemindedness that involved a heroic commitment to Christ and led to a martyr's death. What I can only describe as the critic's uncustomary myopia set me thinking about a number of plays, films and novels that since the "secular 60s” either successfully or unsuccessfully have attempted to depict holiness. Those that failed have lacked an essential component: a character whose life is centered on God.
Some artistic creations have confused sanctity with a loss of sanity. The classic example is Peter Shaffer's play, "Equus,” which enjoyed a revival at the same time as Bolt's play. In "Equus” a psychiatrist (a contemporary secular man no longer showing any passion for his profession or indeed for anything) envies the passion and excitement of an extremely neurotic, perhaps psychotic, young man who has gouged out the eyes of several horses, confusedly identifying them with a "divine stare” that viewed his sin of fornication in the stables. The horses’ gaze is like a Sartrian stare that provokes guilt without absolution.
The psychiatrist is emotionally and spiritually dead. He has no purpose or cause to give his life significance. One of T. S. Eliot's "hollow men,” he lacks enthusiasm for his vocation, not believing that he has been called by an Other. Jealous of the young man's passion, which will disappear once he cures him, the psychiatrist in a closing soliloquy says: "In an ultimate sense I cannot know what I do in this place-yet I do ultimate things. Essentially I cannot know what I do-yet I do essential things. Irreversible, terminal things. I stand with a pick in my hand, striking at heads&amphellip. I need-more desperately than my children need m-a way of seeing in the dark. What way is this?... What dark is this?... I cannot call it ordained of God I cannot get that far.”
That contemporary artists have difficulty depicting sanctity should not be surprising. There is much testimony, both scholarly and anecdotal, that we live in a thoroughly secular time. Charles Taylor's weighty tome, A Secular Age, is one of the more recent studies tracing the loss of a sense of the divine. Years ago in his study of existentialism, Irrational Man, William Barrett noted that even if there were a genius in the contemporary world the equal of Dante, he or she could not write The Divine Comedy, because the intellectual atmosphere in which the world is looked on as sacramental no longer exists to nurture such a creation.
A few years ago I attended a memorial for a well-known Broadway director. Producers, writers and actors extolled the extraordinary talents of the deceased. What came across to me was the director's sense of mystery, his almost mystical relationship with the theater. Yet in all the talks at the memorial, the word "God” was never spoken, nor did anyone make a reference to a life beyond the grave. When the ceremony ended, I said to my companion, an actress, "Am I mistaken, or have all these people substituted art for religion?” Without a second's hesitation she replied, "Yes, of course.”
In his recent book, Do You Believe?, which contains interviews with 18 celebrities influential in our culture, Antonio Monda asked two questions: Do you believe in God? and Do you believe in a life beyond the grave? Though some articulated a vague notion of the divine, almost none indicated that any religion attracted them. Most amazing was that some were surprised that Monda, who is a practicing Catholic, found the two questions important.
On PBS not long ago, Salman Rushdie, being interviewed by Bill Moyers, stated emphatically, "I am an atheist,” yet Rushdie found religious music moving and perhaps a provider of something more, though he seemed at a loss to speak further on what that "more” might be.
The novelists Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy were very aware of the danger in our culture of writing stories with a religious dimension for fear that even critics, supposed experts, might not detect that dimension. O'Connor described her remedy, by for creating religious stories with the sacred at their center: "You have to make your vision apparent by shock-to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”
O'Connor followed her own dictum. In the short story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” she creates perhaps the strangest Christ-figure in all of literature, a psychotic murderer aptly called "The Misfit.” Just before he shoots one of his victims he responds to her plea for mercy:
Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead-and He shouldn't have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what he said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can-by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.
Each of us may be able to think of a play, film or novel that successfully portrays holiness. I think of the film "Evelyn” (2002), the only film in the history of cinema whose plot solution relied on the theology of the Trinity. Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy (1991) and Mark Salzman's Lying Awake (2000) beautifully contrast the extraordinary happenings in the spiritual life like the stigmata and mystical visions with the less dramatic, but no less deep, dedication to God's will.
Perhaps as a guide for artistic depictions of the saintly, the best path is offered by Bolt, an agnostic, in a line of dialogue he gives St. Thomas More. In response to family pleas that he act reasonably and sign the oath of succession to recognize King Henry VIII as the head of the church, even though this will violate the saint's conscience and his commitment to Christ, More says, "Well, finally, it isn't a matter of reason it's a matter of love.”