A few weeks ago, I went to see the Met Live in HD production of Richard Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal (1878). Originally, I had intended to make a return trek to NYC to see it, but due to my procrastination (my foremost spiritual gift), I couldn’t make it work. Like a Nun in Lent, I dutifully resisted the urge to listen to any recordings of it, so beyond the Prelude and the Good Friday Magic music, I experienced it “live” for the first time. I didn’t even read the provided synopsis that day. I was summarily shaken to my core, spent the entire third act weeping and came out of the theater barley able to walk (I wish that were an exaggeration). It’s now my favorite Opera of all time, surpassing even Tristan und Isolde.
On first glance, Parisfal is a Christian Opera. After all, it’s about the Knights of the Holy Grail — not the ones who “impersonate Clark Gable” — and their efforts to win back the Spear which wounded the crucified Christ. There is a Communion service (of sorts) at the end of the first act and even a baptism in the third. Kundry is forever cursed to roam the world only laughing and never crying because she mocked Christ. Jesus is never mentioned, but there is lots of talk of “the Redeemer”. Yet, there are lots of non-Christian parts, too, and the Met’s production did a nice job of emphasizing those Buddhist and Eastern elements.
Once I had my bearings and drove home, I cracked open Bryan Magee’s The Tristan Church: Wagner and Philosophy (2002). Fantastically accessible and well written, I heartily recommend it to you if you’re curious about these things. In the chapter on Parsifal, Magee works hard to dispel the myth that Parsifal is a Christian work of art. Yes, it has Christian elements (and Eastern elements), but Parsifal is an embodiment of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer — not Jesus. You might recall I once referred to Schopenhauer as “Ecclesiastes for Atheists”.
But, what really struck me was this quote from one of Wagner’s essays, “Religion and Art” (1880):
It is reserved to art to salvage the kernel of religion, inasmuch as the mythical images which religion would wish to be believed as true are apprehended in art for their symbolic value, and through ideal representation of those symbols art reveals the concealed deep truth within them.
For Wagner, religion is a ship wrecked by a literalism and clerical infighting. Religion was no longer about truth and mystery, but devolved into being about particular dogmas. Unlike other Atheists, however, Wagner believed that underneath all of this, there was still much value in religion. Art saves this kernel of religion from the clutches of the fake magic of doctrine, returning faith to it’s rightful role in transformation and the numinous.
Art’s job, therefore, is to rescue religion from itself. And I can’t help but wonder if he was right.