When Art Becomes God

How do you write the "political history" of a piece of music? The idea isn't as farfetched as you might think. Music professor Esteban Buch did just that in his book Beethoven's Ninth: A Political History. And it's an intriguing, thought-provoking history. Beethoven's magnificent setting of the Ode to Joy (the tune to the hymn, "Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee") appeals to people everywhere -- and it seems to mean something different to each one. One could argue that people love the symphony simply because of the lyrics that celebrate universal brotherhood, the beauty and emotion of the music, and the inspiring story of the man who overcame his deafness to compose it. But Buch thinks there's more to it than that. He writes, "The career of the Ode to Joy . . . can be read as a fable on the moral value of Western art. All who have invoked the Ninth Symphony have begun by experiencing its beauty and ended with the need for its morality; because they revered the Beautiful and because they believed that they knew the Good, they have made that Beautiful the symbol of the Good." But as Buch goes on to explain, there's one small problem: Everybody has a different idea of what 'good' means. Thus, "the communists hear in [the Ninth Symphony] the gospel of a classless world, Catholics hear the Gospel itself, democrats hear it as the voice of democracy. Hitler celebrated his birthdays with the Ode to Joy, and yet the same music was used to oppose him, even in concentration camps. . . . It was the anthem of the racist Republic of Rhodesia, and it is today the anthem of the European Union." Lenin even said that Beethoven's music was dangerous because it made him want to be kinder to his fellow human beings! There's an important lesson here. As I've said before, we need art to inspire and educate and delight us, to train our imaginations and open our minds, even to point us toward God. But even the most inspiring art cannot take the place of faith. Many of the nineteenth-century Romantics made the mistake of replacing belief in God with belief in art. People do it today. Art was to be the new god, raising humanity to a whole new level. Sadly, the century that followed dashed their hopes. It turned out that the art that was to make us all moral human beings could easily be used by evil men for their purposes. Instead of changing their hearts, it was twisted to promote their own perverted concept of goodness. The Romantic view of great works like Beethoven's Ninth, elevating faith in mankind above faith in God, ultimately leads to pessimism and despair. Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon wrote, "If we lose the 'dream' of the Ninth Symphony, we will have nothing left to balance against the crushing terrors of modern civilization." But that's only true if there is no god higher than Beethoven -- a notion the composer himself clearly understood. It's only when art is seen with a proper perspective -- as a reflection of the glory of God, not as a god in itself -- that it can truly inspire and uplift us. For further reading and information: Esteban Buch, Beethoven's Ninth: A Political History, translated by Richard Miller (University of Chicago Press, 2003). Ivan Hewett, "Universal song," New Statesman, 7 July 2003. Jan Swafford, "The Beethoven Mystery," Slate, 30 June 2003. This article contains several links to clips from the Berlin Philharmonic's 1963 recording of the Ninth Symphony. Associated Press, "Final manuscript of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony brings $3.47M," Charleston Post and Courier, 23 May 2003. Peter Adam, "Bach and Beethoven: grappling with God's will," Melbourne Anglican, April 2003. BreakPoint Commentary No. 040219, "Idolizing Art: Honoring the Created above the Creator." James M. Kushiner, Creed & Culture: A Touchstone Reader (ISI Books, 2003). The BreakPoint "Christians in the Arts" kit includes It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God by Ed Bustard (editor), William Edgar, Makoto Fujimura, and David Giardinieare (Square Halo Books, 2000), and Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts by Steve Turner (InterVarsity Press, 2001). Both are great resources for Christians involved or interested in the arts. Visit BreakPoint's Christians in the Arts page for more resources and links. Also visit the Wilberforce Forum page on the arts. Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall We Live? (Tyndale, 1999). See especially chapters 41-45. Patrick Kavanaugh, Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers (Zondervan, 1996 edition). Russell Martin, Beethoven's Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved(Random House, 2001). Jan Swafford, "Speed Freaks Do Bach," Slate, 5 September 2003.


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary