The Sensational Character of Art
The first force of a work of art is its appeal to the senses. This is direct and immediate. It is the physical effect, almost utterly unescapable whenever there is presented to anyone a vigorous composition in color or in tone or a strong rhythm of song or of motion.
Religion which has disdained the arts as sensuous has not, therefore, escaped sensationalism. It has developed the sensational preacher. He is the man who preaches for a sensuous effect. He has greater success usually in getting people to come to hear what he has to say than in having something worth while to say when they get there. This is not always true but it is so very commonly. Our most thoughtful ministers, those under whose preaching the more serious-minded people desire to sit, are little given to sensational preaching.
Their form is good form but it is not nowadays florid, overly dramatic, or eccentric form. They touch upon timely themes of the day, not as advertising captions but for real discussion. Your true and proper sensationalist develops rhetoric, gesture, perhaps even hair cuts, newspaper themes, and peculiar exercises calculated to rouse interest and produce a momentary enjoyment or excitement.
Sensationalism is necessary for religion, but not this kind. I would rather that my boys should be appealed to by the noble sensationalism of excellent paintings, brilliant music, and noble ritual than by the sensationalism of an evangelist crawling about on all fours like a bear show.
However much we may desire to spiritualize our religion, we are not disembodied spirits, we are compact together of flesh and spirit– “Nor soul helps flesh more now, than flesh helps soul.”
Our view of human nature and of the bodily life is very different from that of the Reformation theology. Our new utilization of the fine arts is to be based upon the new psychology and upon the new theology rather than upon Calvinism.
The impulses of the flesh may develop downward. But also every human instinct may become the root of a possible spiritual virtue. If our task is still partly to mortify the flesh, it is also to understand it and use it for good. If spirtual experience is an incorporeal thing, its beginning is usually something born in the mystery of the bodily being. We do not have the same reasons for fearing the arts that the Puritan had, as he did not have our reasons for using them.
Sensationalism has always been deep and constant in human life and in religion and always will be during the life of earth. The Hebrew prophets not only used abundant imagery in speech but actual physical objects and eccentricities of conduct to capture attention and press home their message. It seems questionable whether Jesus performed his works of healing for this purpose, but hardly questionable that his approach to the city on the Day of Palms was a form of sensational appeal. It may be said of it, as it may be said of other sensational conduct, that it was done for effect. Precisely so, for that is the way to be effective.
Our modern church has rather too little than too much of appeal to the senses. It is not sufficiently interesting or sufficiently thrilling. I do not at all object to the sensational methods of the orator or of the evangelist in their proper place. But the sensational preacher should not be the pastor and teacher of a normal church, large or small. That form of appeal to the senses is in the long run neither so effective nor so beneficial as quieter forms–music, decoration, architecture, and liturgy. The oratorical type may be more thrilling at the moment but less lasting than the rhythms set going by the finer arts.
The older religions all make more effective use of the noble and more commendable forms of appeal to the senses. One would not expect to get the following testimony from a modern free churchman, but here it is: “The Japanese know how to produce effects, they have a sure instinct as to the moods in which a person should stand before a temple or shrine. Hence they study the approaches to their sacred spots almost as much as they do the elaboration of the spots themselves. The Shintoists have their torii or more likely lines of torii before each shrine; the Buddhists love to place their houses of worship and meditation in the midst of great trees or on the tops of hills which they approach by moss-covered staircases of stone…
When one has removed his shoes and penetrated to’ the inner shrine and stands on the soft matted floor before the image of the Great Buddha, the subtle power of idolatry when wedded to high art becomes apparent in an unmistakable way. The sense of solemnity, of quietness, of peace is in the very air, and there comes to one a new sympathy toward those who know only this way of consolation.” These beautiful and skillful arrangements are planned for their direct and immediate effect upon the senses and they are effective.
Nor would one naturally expect the testimony written by one of the most distinguished New England clergymen of the nineteenth century, a leader and representative of the best thought of his day. Dr. Theodore Munger describes the cathedrals and cathedral services of the English Church. And then he adds: “Here lies the secret of public worship; we do not worship because we feel like it, but that we may feel.
The feeling may have died out under the pressure of the world, but coming together from mere habit, and starting on the level of mere custom, we soon feel the stirring of the wings of devotion, and begin to rise heavenward on the pinnacles of song and prayer. This is well understood in England, and underlies the much criticised ‘Cathedral system.’ Here is a mighty fact tremendously asserted; it forces a sort of inevitable reverence, not the highest and purest indeed, but something worth having. It becomes the conservator of the faith, and in the only way in which it can be conserved, through the reverent sentiment and poetry of our nature… The main value of the established church is its lofty and unshaken assertion of the worth of worship–keeping alive reverence, which is the mother of morality, and furnishing a public environment for the common faith.