Lilian Nordica

Note: For the purpose of this series, the term “artist” is being used inclusively to refer to musicians, painters, fiction writers, poets, singers, and to those who work in the entertainment industry.

Yesterday, I was listening to a 1937 Episode of the long-running radio classic show, Cavalcade of America and it brought to mind a long running conflict between the church and artists.  

This particular episode profiled Lilian Nordica, a great opera singer of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  Because of her musical talent, her family had relocated from Maine to Boston and she’d become a regular soloist at area churches.  A great  singer was in town and Lilian had the opportunity to be the warm up act.

Her father was opposed to the idea, believing that theaters and concerts were sinful. Her grandfather (the great Revivalist John Allen) asked if she would be speaking on stage and when told she wasn’t, stated that only acting was a sin, so she went ahead and performed. Her father relented but then wrote her a letter when she was in Europe stating that her appearing in opera would bring shame on the family name, leading her to accept a change to a European last name for the clout it would provide her as a perform.

The story brings to mind to bygone days when extra-scriptural legalisms were put upon believers that were never part of scripture. Most of these today seem, at best, quaint. At worst, it can seem a horrible burden to put on the life of believers. Today’s most conservative Protestant Christians often treasure and value the Golden Age of  Film and radio which the most conservative Christians of that ere condemned.  If we’re perfectly honest, Protestant families who enjoy these golden age arts owe a debt of gratitude to the Catholic Church for creating an environment where these films could thrive as Protestant and Evangelical leaders  in particular were AWOL, more likely to write cinema off as wicked than to uphold the good and condemn the evil.

But we would be doing these Saints of old an injustice if we assumed they were merely eccentric or judgmental. There were reasons for the historic opposition to “worldly entertainments.”

First, I think it must be acknowledged that (for various reasons), there was and is a strong preponderance of very worldly, ungodly people in the entertainment industry with some awful practices far too prevalent.

Second, that the lifestyles of the average artist is often not very wholesome.  Madam Nordica had two divorces and her third was headed that way when she died.  This was hardly a common experience at the turn of the 20th century. Drinking, carousing, and use of illicit substances happened to actors then and now.

Third, Content of performances was often a problem. The issues were far less of an issue than you would find in say a typical College theater schedule. Nonetheless, many forms of entertainment represented serious problems that ran contrary to Christian doctrine.

Fourth, there’s a legitimate concern about worldly things distracting us from the spiritual. And we must truthfully acknowledge that they had a point as we’ve become one of the most over-entertained cultures in history.

There are perhaps more reasons now than ever for Christians to abandon arts and add the eleventh commandment, “Thou Shalt watch nor participate in the arts.”

Yet, this would be a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water. If one looks to scripture, you can see art in action in God’s word and with God’s people. Look at the Old Testament prophets particularly Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. These men were not the typical seminary material. They were artists. Isaiah and Jeremiah were poets and storytellers.

And all three could be said to be performance artists.  If I told you about a man walking around naked, next to another man who tied himself to an oxen yoke, next to another man who was lying on his side eating dung for six months to illustrate a point, you would expect to find him at a high end Brooklyn Art museum, not in church.

The scripture is filled with the poetry of David and the other Psalmists. Christ himself used stories to bring home the truths of God in often shrouded ways.

The story, the song, the play, the picture: these are not inherently wicked. Rather, they are arts which God has used to His Glory to draw men to Himself. The challenge of the church is to understand how to support and nurture artists rather than driving them away. I can’t help but wonder if Madam Nordica’s family and church had upheld in her love rather than heaping legalistic condemnation, if her life could have had a different outcome.

We’ve seen what happens to the world’s great artists apart from God: we see great musicians dead, their lives wasted on drugs and alcohol. We see a pattern of multiple failed celebrity marriages and children left to suffer through mom and dad’s egotism. We see the hundreds of ways that artists can stumble and fall.

But there have been artists who have lived their lives and emerged with a love for God and love for man and created beauty and wonder that is a blessing to all mankind. The challenge of the church is to support, encourage, and uplift those.

Of course, the problem between artists and the church is not one sided. In the next piece, I’ll examine the problems that many Christian artists bring to the table.

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