Onstage in Carnegie Hall in 1965, Phil Ochs, the extraordinarily gifted songwriter of the Civil Rights era, described an effective protest song (with characteristic flourish) as “a song that’s so specific that you cannot mistake it for bullshit.” Ochs’ passion as an artist was history, “to instigate changes in history”; he saw his songs as “subversive in the best sense of the word. They are intended to overthrow as much idiocy as possible.” In the context of a world and a nation that has committed itself to so much idiocy, the art of the protest singer is at least the art of “aesthetic rebellion” against the status quo, an artistry of defiance against the eternal return of the same (Nietzsche). In a culture that has perfected the art of selective remembering, the artist tells the stories we would rather forget, memories that irritate the ruling consciousness and challenge our collective myths.
Yet what intrigues me most is how these public and more subversive aspects of art parallel the subversive and paradoxical truth of the Christian gospel. In both cases something beautiful breaks through even while reconfiguring our very assumptions about beauty and delivering a painful revelatory sting. In an interview for Broadside magazine in 1965, Phil Ochs articulated his artistic vision in words that reflect a wisdom well beyond his twenty-five years:
It’s not enough to know the world is absurd and restrict yourself merely to pointing out that fact. . . . It is wrong to expect a reward for your struggles. The reward is the act of struggle itself, not what you win. Even though you can’t expect to defeat the absurdity of the world, you must make the attempt. That’s morality, that’s religion, that’s art, that’s life.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but it seems to me that there is something of the Gospel paradox in Ochs’ expressly secular but hard-bought vision of things. Perhaps truth, goodness, and beauty are found, after all—or find us most ready to receive them—not in what we win but in “the act of struggle itself,” the willingness to immerse ourselves body and soul in the history we have been given, and thus to be drawn into that same horizon of grace that rendered Jesus’ own struggle unspeakably beautiful, even where it plunges into violence and death on a cross.
Like the Gospel itself, art infused with the contemplative eye of love not only dares to plunge us into the paradoxical and sometimes horrific mystery of the human condition; in doing so, it can help us to bridge the gap between the horrors we witness and the more humane and unfathomably beautiful future into which God draws the whole creation, the Beloved Community toward which we struggle in grace.
Put another way, intuitively the artist understands what theology sometimes forgets: There is no fully human path to the Reign of God save through Jerusalem, no way to Easter save through Good Friday. And in that drama each of us incarnates, at different points in our lives, a range of possible roles: I am Peter, fleeing the violence and ugliness of the cross; I am Mary, weeping at the bloodied feet of her son; I am Joseph, anointing the corpse with oils and returning it with infinite care to the earth; I am Jesus, alone in the hell of God’s terrifying silence. What is most difficult for the Christian is to live in the boundary between Good Friday and Easter, and to be able, through memory and experience, to affirm the reality of both.
“Nothing is more practical,” writes Pedro Arrupe, “than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.” In a world full of crosses, our task is not to run from them, seeking security only for ourselves, our own kind and our children. Our task is to pray for the grace to sit beneath the crosses, to let our hearts be broken, our imaginations be stirred, and our feet be moved into action. Our hope for the reign of God takes on flesh in the attempt itself, and sometimes the failure, to love and be loved, and to repair a broken world.
Whatever might be our particular vocation in society, academy, or church, may God grant each of us the courage to keep our eyes fixed on “the dark tree that springs up in the center of night and of silence, the paradise tree, the axis mundi, which is also the Cross.”