At the heart of religion are mystery and terror; peace, joy, gratitude, and forgiveness, all the nice and comforting things that comprise what might be seen as religion's attractions, aren't free goodies but are rather byproducts of, responses to, our encounters with the divine, which is maybe just another word for the awful, irreversible, unexalted realization that we are huge-spirited animals who will nevertheless die alone in misery and pain—or, as a former colleague of mine, Tom Jacobs, recently put it, much more sanguinely:
What makes the challenge of living so goddam exciting is that we have limited resources, a limited amount of time, and an infinite imagination.Why would we respond with peace and gratitude—or, in Tom’s formulation, excitement—to the terrible truth that we will unavoidably dream big and perish small, that our reach will ever exceed our grasp? Actually, we don’t all respond so nicely to this paradox, but that’s where the religious sensibility comes in, for me, at least: In facing the basic truth of temporal existence, which is that it is temporary, we are liberated to live in it; we’re freed of our anxious myopia and self-concern; we can see clearly the absurdity of desire, of striving for gain, of doing anything more important than holding and helping each other through this vale of tears. And in that freedom is a kind of resurrection, a rebirth, a living in eternity now—which is in turn a kind of tribute, a gesture, to the divine, to that which is outside the time that marks and measures our lives.
These, at least, are some of the thoughts that have tumbled around in my head in the weeks since I saw/heard/experienced The Gospel According to the Other Mary at Avery Fisher Hall, in a one-night-only visit during Holy Week by the L.A. Philharmonic under the exuberant leadership of Gustavo Dudamel (and the L.A. Master Chorale, directed by the tireless Grant Gershon). This arresting Passion play by composer John Adams and librettist/director Peter Sellars, a kind of sequel to their Nativity oratorio El Niño, was appropriately much more high-stakes dramatic than its predecessor, which wrung as much conflict and wonder as was possible out of Jesus’ portentous outlaw birth. Gospel was also much more thoroughly staged, with three dancers and six singers enacting the drama on a raised platform in front of the violin section and around a table nearly in the midst of the cellos.
The texts, as with the previous oratorio, wove together an eclectic mix: Alongside the evangelists’ accounts was writing by Louise Erdrich, Rosario Castellanos, June Jordan, Primo Levi, Hildegard von Bingen, and Ruben Dario, in a sometimes jarring, sometimes revelatory, never less than stimulating stew; the opening has Mary Magdalene (Kelley O’Connor, with short-cropped hair and a ravaged look) singing, “The next day in the city jail we were searched for drugs. We were stripped naked. We were given prison clothes and put in cells” (according to Alex Ross, this is Dorothy Day recounting an arrest in her youth). A later section has Martha (Tamara Mumford), cast in a more explicitly Day-like role as a sort of den mother for the dispossessed, including a certain itinerant preacher and his disciples, lead the chorus in recounting, with granular specificity, a mass arrest in conjunction with a United Farm Workers strike.
This anachronistic patchwork, coupled with the Venice-Beach-casual costuming of the performers—a trio of countertenor angels looked for all the world like squatters fresh from the dispensary—had a disarming more than an off-putting effect. And the score struck me as a jagged, swelling sonic wonder; I couldn’t identify everything I was hearing, and I was as frequently surprised as I was moved by just the sound of it.
But it was the intent, unapologetically intense approach to the gospel, what Ross has perceptively pegged as Sellars’ “devotional irreverence,” that got under my skin and kept me awake. This Gospel didn’t just mine the material’s pith and drama—in Magdalene’s prostitution, in the brutal Roman occupation, even in Lazarus’ resurrection, Sellars’ texts and direction embodied their contemporary resonance in visceral, even gritty ways. It also found its way to depicting the Passion and the Resurrection with a tremulous immediacy, terror, mortification, and mystery—and that is as much as even I, who consider myself a believer, can bring to a contemplation of these incomprehensibles.
Sellars and Adams, who are not believers in any orthodox sense, may share the rough liberal consensus about Jesus—that he was a cool, radical dude who preached love and forgiveness, and was tortured and killed for it, and that much of what Christians have taught and believed since has been delusion, embroidery, or even mischief. But in reckoning with the story’s irreducible essence (which the non-Biblical sources somehow only sharpen and crystallize), Sellars and Adams went beyond mellow hippie Jesus and created, through this wracked Mary and her fellow witnesses, a gospel as wrenchingly apocalyptic, and as cathartic, as any I’ve experienced.
Related posts: Atomic Implosion, Purpose-of-Art Quotes.