Sunday, April 29, 2007

Mark Heard's Evening at the Coliseum

Today, instead of a song, I am reprinting some of Mark Heard's liner notes from his album Ashes and Light. The thoughts here should give you some insights to his thought processes. Compare the way he looked at the Coliseum to almost any other popular Christian artist. It is clear from this interpretation of Roman architecture that he was far more introspective and observant than most Christian artists today.


I spent the evening hours wandering through the ruins of Old Rome, photographing and thinking. It was a beautiful sunset, behind small cumulus clouds, and I was reminded of evenings spent on the islands off the Georgia coast. As the tourists hustled away, tucking guide maps into the pockets of their Hawaiian shirts, I decided to have a light supper of salami and cheese, with a cinnamon flavored soda to wash it down.

It was already dark by the time I finished the meal and headed for the hotel. After a harrowing street crossing episode on the roundabout encircling the Coliseum, I halted briefly to catch my breath, and as I stood in front of the Coliseum I noticed it was not closed in any way, though it was devoid of touring inhabitants. I decided to go walk around inside, despite misgivings about the safety of such a thing. Walking under the bleachers in the portico, I was stunned by the fact that it was not unlike being at Dodger Stadium late at night long after the completion of a game, and half expected to see snack food prices chiseled into the marble in Latin. I had a scare - I nearly tripped over a cat that was eating scraps someone had dropped among the newspapers littering the smooth, almost asphalt-like floor surface. I was to discover that there were literally hundreds of cats living in the labyrinth of the ruins. Their occasional cries and mating sounds were a strange cacophony indeed, and I scuttled on inside to the boundary of the arena and sat on a fallen marble pillar.

During the hour and a half that I sat there, my mind wandered in a number of different directions as my eyes darted around catching street light reflections from the marble finishing still present on some of the seats. I wondered at the grandeur of the architecture. The care of the artisans involved is plainly seen. The workmanship exhibited in the structure, though in various stages of ruin, was exquisite, and I felt I owed appreciation to the hands that had carved, sanded, chiseled and mortared so long ago; they could not guess that history books two thousands years after their deaths would record their feats, as well as the subsequent fall of the civilization they knew as their everyday environment.

Peering through the darkness at the arena itself, I recounted the things I'd read about: the opulence once exhibited there; the terrible games played there; the Christians who lost their lives in that circumference of marble-coated mud and straw bricks. What an awesome juxtaposition of symbols. How very strange to be able to sit as an uninvolved observer, blessed with the retrospect of history, and feel both the passion of the artisan and the pain of the persecuted.

Questions arose in my mind. "Must one ignore the atrocities done to human beings here, in order to appreciate the gift of creativity bestowed on men - architects, artists, sculptors - by the Creator? Is one to cast out of his mind forever the blessings of the existence of aesthetic potential for mortals made in God's image, in order to truly hate and despise the evil done in this arena, indeed the evil directed at God through the persecution of His children?"

I was reminded of the tension the Reformers felt: There were at that time beautiful pieces of statuary standing in small towns as icons. The atmosphere in which the Reformation was spawned found such iconic symbols theologically revolting. Some of the Reformers even went around to the villages knocking down and defacing the statues, and John Calvin had certain stained-glass windows taken out of the cathedral in which he officiated in Geneva. The fervor of the times demanded action. That action was not against the validity of art, but against what the art represented. In the minds of the Reformers, the statues were symbols of a thoughtform they considered erroneous. It was not the face value of the articles that was despised, but the ideas which were connected to the articles by way of symbolism. (Many of these pieces have been saved and reside in museums today.)

As I glanced again at the marble seats of the Coliseum, I was reminded of stories I'd heard about most of that marble being pillaged by Michaelangelo and his contemporaries during the Renaissance. It was needed elsewhere, and sentiment took a back seat to "progress" in those days, much as it does today.

The cats were still at their night noises while I wondered at the complexity of making value judgments about the world as we know it. To decry the intrinsic value in created things because of their marring by evil would not be fair - we would lose perspective on the true and intended value of beauty and the creativity of God, and of man after His image. To forget the evil and allow the cloud of familiarity to obscure it's awesome ugliness would be unfair as well. We live in a fallen world, but one in which the original face of the creation and its intended purpose may still be seen, and we must not let either fact obscure the other.

Someone once told me that she did not like the works of Vincent Van Gogh because he was such a confused man. But Argumentum ad Hominum cannot change objective things like beauty, though subjective criteria for an entity's value to man may be influenced by it. Indeed, bad art often gains popularity because of a friendly and agreeable image projected by the artist, especially in modern electronic media where image subverts truth in favor of a quick caricature that can be comprehended by viewers and readers at the lowest levels of consciousness. They may like the work of someone they consider likable, even though the artistic standards of the work are not very high.

Perception is more strongly influenced by our preconceived notions than we might realize. People will say that the smoke from a wood fire or a barbecue smells good. They will say that the smoke from a crematory's chimney smells bad, but only if they know what it is, because the actual smells are not that different.

If we knew more about any individual whose art we admire, his deficiencies and his failings, we might lean towards denying the value of his expressions, be they art or conversation. Intimate knowledge of character and subsequent disillusionment with the person are phenomena we know all too well. But we must be careful not to judge conscientious work by imperfect creatures as invalid. In so doing, we deny the very validity of the creative expression which was intended by God for much joy in the human spirit, including worshipful joy.

My thoughts were interrupted by a cat bursting suddenly out of the darkness and rubbing against my leg with an explosion of purring energy, and it took me a few minutes to get the hair on the back of my neck to lay down flat again. When I was finally breathing normally, I thought on: "This stadium has been considered an evil place by some, because of events that were known to transpire here. The Reformers tore down beautiful statues because of what they symbolized. Opponents of creative new forms of art or music today decry the medium because of the lifestyle that has at times, unfortunately, accompanied it. Could Nero's next-door neighbor have listened, appreciatively enthralled by the notes emanating from the violin, unaware of the fire in the city? My friend didn't like even Van Gogh's best work because of the inner turmoil it represented. Christians in the first Century abstained from meat that had been offered to idols before being put up for sale. Did Paul eventually convince them otherwise? Were they then patient with those who were not easily convinced? Do arguments based on intrinsic value do any good when opponents see only the symbol and proponents see only the entity itself? Is it possible to carry on a love/hate relationship with this world in which we live? Is it possible to see both sides of a coin simultaneously?"

I felt my bare arms getting chilled in the night air, and stood up to stretch. The silver, nearly full moon was moving ever so slowly just over the top edge of the ancient stadium. I took one last look around the moonlit interior of the wonderful and horrible place, and felt an appreciation and a sorrow. Then I turned to go. The cats continued their symphony as I walked through the arches back onto the street and faced a world of zooming Fiats, amusing hotel clerks and anonymous-looking magazine stands.

From the liner notes of his album Ashes and Light

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