Saturday, December 29, 2007

The very best Idol ever

On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me…
…my first opera?

Yesterday I sat through Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, which is quite an intense fete: not only are 1950s operas characterized by harsh tones and absence of melody as a principle, but I had to follow the various strands of antimelody with German subtitles.

In the Jewish composer’s interpretation of the brothers, I was surprised to be given another submersion into the thrill of the Christmas season we are celebrating. Schoenberg characterizes Moses as a Platonist, who opens the play by chanting, “Eternal, omnipresent, invisible and unimaginable God.” Throughout the opera he refers to God as “the Idea,” and writes triumphantly upon the wall “I think God.” He comes across very harshly, loathing fleshly depravity and holding to God’s intangible holiness.

Aaron, on the other hand, is the man who knows how to work the crowd. He sings the closest thing to melody Schoenberg composed, and writes “I love God” upon the wall. When the Israelites reject Moses’ intangible God in favor of their Egyptian gods who have image and substance, Aaron gives them tangible signs and wonders that they can see and touch. If Aaron is the spokesperson for Moses’ God, the people finally conclude, we will follow him into the desert.

The opera spins out of control when Moses does not come down from Sinai after forty days, and the people cannot keep following this unknown, unseen Idea that Moses had declared to them. Aaron gives in to their demands and gives them an Image that they can touch and hold and love, something that meets their present needs and cares: in Schoenberg’s interpretation, he gives them a golden ICH, the German for “I.”

In the confrontation between Moses and Aaron at the end, Aaron insists to Moses that people will never be able to follow an intangible God, nor could they ever love him. They need images. They need idols. They need to touch God. Moses is left in despair, on his knees, still clinging to his defeated Platonic notion and pleading for “the Word.”

Enter the Incarnation: the Word became Flesh.

We are a weak people, as Schoenberg’s Aaron argues to Moses. We people demand signs in the desert; we worship the bronze serpent on a pole; we demand a king to Samuel. The astounding thing that God does is that he ultimately meets their demand for an idol. Christ is the very very best Idol ever, the best tangible Image of the Idea. The people demand to Aaron that he give them a god they can see; God finally enters the world and says “Here I Am.”

I expected to come away from the opera ashamed of all the ways I have bowed down to various bronze serpents when God didn’t seem real and tangible enough to me. I find instead that I walk away bewildered by Love. God has met my frailty by providing the idol I require; when I bow down and worship relationships and feelings and ambitions, it’s really more ridiculous than depraved. God has not condemned my idolatry as Schoenberg’s Moses would expect: God has sanctified it.

The Word became Flesh, fashioned in a virgin’s womb into a crying baby. This is your God, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!

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