The artist cannot pass lightly over the disorder of the creation without being guilty of colossal self-deception and becoming utterly irrelevant to the needs of a broken and torn world.

—Jeremy Begbie, Voicing Creation’s Praise

A number of years ago, I attended a recital by the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. She began with Anton Webern’s Four Pieces, op. 7, written in 1910. I was riveted from the first note, not only by the music itself but also by the reaction of the audience around me. I witnessed very proper and polite concertgoers quickly turn to their programs, wondering (I can only imagine) if this was really the first piece of the recital or if she was, perhaps, tuning or warming up in some avant-garde manner. Webern’s work, which encompasses four short pieces and yet is less than five minutes long, felt dissonant and disjointed. I had acquired a strange love of the music of the Second Viennese School while in college, but in that moment I noticed something very different about the music (and the uncomfortable reaction to it of my neighbors). This music articulated something of the painful and fragmented experience of twentieth-century life, yet the audience had little desire to hear that fragmentation echoed back to them. The more I thought about this—because this experience inspired the key questions in my doctoral research in the ensuing five years—the more I noticed that the aesthetic of Western art in the twentieth century seemed to be shaped and formed by this “emancipation of dissonance.”[1]

The turn toward dissonance in the twentieth century, especially in Europe, was precipitated by a growing awareness of the complexity of the inner life concomitant with a rapidly changing political and social structure across Europe. What was evident in much of the art of the first half of the twentieth century was a need to articulate the depth of human desire, angst, and lament. This turn toward dissonance was not about being novel or original, nor was it about sounding or visualizing dissonance itself; it was about the need to find new ways to communicate the realities of human experience. Many artists, composers, and poets realized that past forms of dissonance and consonance—line and color, word and form—were no longer sufficient to express the realities of a changing and turbulent age.

At the beginning of the century, Arnold Schoenberg, Webern’s mentor and teacher, believed that this dissonant turn was the most appropriate means to articulate the soul’s desire for God in an era when faith was in flux:

I should like to tell the people who have faith, about the holy fire, and if this will make them salute me in friendship and sympathy, then I want to accept this not as a person, but bestow it upon a cause. I want to be seen above personalities—as the object I am striving to accomplish: to be the expression in sound of the human soul and its desire for God.[2]

Even if the sounds of his compositions do not capture one’s view of the “spiritual life,” Schoenberg composed with the conviction that he was the mouthpiece of the divine, writing music that was pure metaphysics.[3]

By the middle of the century, artists struggled to come to terms with the brutality of war and totalitarianism. Paintings, such as Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, lamented the inhumanity of the slaughter of innocent civilians during the Spanish Civil War. Marc Chagall, similarly, felt compelled to visually lament the plight of Jews across Russia and Europe, from the pogroms to the Holocaust. In his 1938 oil painting White Crucifixion, he placed the crucified Jesus in the midst of the ongoing persecution and slaughter of the Jewish people. Jesus, in his visual lament, became one of the many Jewish martyrs as well as a symbol of God’s presence and solidarity with those who are persecuted.[4] Thus, for these artists, the turn toward dissonance seemed a necessary artistic impulse to create new languages of lament as a way to make sense of the complexities of the inner and outer traumas of human life.

The Miserere etchings of the French Catholic artist George Rouault are similarly emblematic of this twentieth-century aesthetic of dissonance. Though Rouault embraced the turn toward dissonance, he also struggled to hold this form of expression in dynamic tension with the Christian narrative. The Miserere etchings depict the solidarity of Jesus with humanity in the loneliest and most difficult places in life. The images range from scenes of the desperation and sorrow of humanity to the suffering and alienation of the man Jesus.[5]

The etchings were Rouault’s response to his experience of World War I. William Dyrness argues that he wanted “to make the presence of Christ at once more relevant and more all-pervading with respect to the human situation. It was the misery and loneliness of man that was Rouault’s personal and Christian starting point.” In this series, Rouault juxtaposes images of Jesus condemned and suffering with images of humanity burdened with the realities of war and death. Plate #43, entitled “We must die, we and all that are ours,” shows a sagging figure, resigned to the inevitability of death.[6] In plate #2, “Jesus reviled,” and plate #21, “He has been maltreated and oppressed and He has not opened His mouth,” Rouault depicts Jesus in a similar bowed and defeated pose, demonstrating Jesus’s solidarity with the depths of human sorrow and alienation.

Rouault does not, however, show an impotent or inefficacious solidarity. Instead, throughout the Miserere etchings, he picks up on the theme of the sixth station of the cross in which Veronica, identified in the tradition as the hemorrhaging woman, hands her handkerchief to Jesus on the road to Gethsemane and his image is emblazoned on the cloth.[7] Traditionally, Veronica’s handkerchief symbolizes Jesus’s exchange with humanity. As Dyrness describes this, Jesus takes on “the image of human misfortune” on the road to the cross “so a Veronica could take on the image of her Savior by sharing in his humiliation.”[8] In plate 47, “De Profundis [Out of the Depths],” we see Rouault’s visual theology of atonement more explicitly: a dead soldier lies under the image of Christ’s face on Veronica’s cloth, a symbol that Christ has exchanged his life and death for that of the soldier. Thus, we see that Rouault did not shy away from displaying the darkness of the story of Jesus and of humanity. As a result, Rouault showed in his theological aesthetic of dissonance that Jesus entered the theater of human despair and trauma with deep compassion and salvific purpose.

Hans Rookmaaker, in his book Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, holds Rouault up as an example of a Christian artist who did not simply follow the artistic trends at the beginning of the twentieth century but created out of a deep sense of faith and vision. Rookmaaker calls Rouault a prophet who spoke against the hypocrisy and injustice of his era. Rouault’s authenticity and deep faith led him to an artistic style that was a counternarrative to the art of his age. As Rookmaker argues,

Rouault shows that another kind of art is possible. It is an art which is a positive answer to absurdity, surrealism, and existentialism. Yet it does not show the rosy sentimentality, more humanistic than human, that much so-called Christian art has produced. Rouault has shown what it means to believe in God and to love man in this age.[9]

Rouault’s vision of both God and humanity gives us a view into the plight of humanity while showing how we are all held by the love and grace of God in the person of Jesus Christ.

A similar theological aesthetic of dissonance can be heard in the music of the contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan. He has a number of works where he explores musical lament, especially in connection with the triduum, the narrative arch from Maundy Thursday to Easter morning. In his music, one experiences in visceral ways the erratic nature of biblical lament. As biblical scholar Kathleen O’Connor puts it, “laments place emotional extremes right next to each other in seeming contradiction, rapidly shifting from deep unhappiness to heights of confident hope and anticipated joy.” Especially in his choral work Seven Last Words from the Cross, MacMillan captures well the physical and emotional disruption of trauma and death on the cross. Like Rouault, he brings together the cry of the human soul with the reconciling presence of God in Jesus Christ.[10]

We can hear this in the first movement of Seven Last Words from the Cross, which is set to the words of Jesus in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” In this movement, he begins with a lament theme borrowed from his clarinet quintet: Tuireadh (Gaelic for lament). The female voices take up the lament theme to the words of Jesus. MacMillan then juxtaposes this with a jarring theme, with men singing “Rex Israel, Hosanni in excelsis” [“King of Israel, Hosanna in the Highest”] accompanied by a frantic and disjointed line in the violins. The end of the movement then takes up a lament from the Good Friday Responsaries for Tenebrae, which is adapted from the Lamentations of Jeremiah:

They placed me in a wasteland of desolation,
and all the earth mourned for me.
For there was no one who would acknowledge me or give me help.
Men rose up against me and spared not my life.[11]

The juxtaposition of these elements leads me to place Jesus in the midst of the destruction of Jerusalem and thereby causes my understanding of the triduum to shift, as if I am suddenly at a different vantage point. The story of the triduum is suddenly in a broad tradition of biblical and liturgical lament with the person of Jesus taking up the lament of the whole created order.

Kathleen O’Connor’s Lamentations and Tears of the World and Shelly Rambo’s Spirit and Trauma have influenced much of my thinking about MacMillan’s musical retelling of the Christ story. One fall I was reading both of these books at the same time and MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross came to mind over and over again. I inadvertently practiced a kind of “double reading,”[12] a technique that brings out what we miss when we are so embedded in our ways of knowing and being in the world. This way of reading causes us to stop, look (or listen) again, and set aside our assumptions about a text.

That fall, as the music and the theology intermingled in my mind, I heard MacMillan, O’Connor, Rambo, and Lamentations in conversation. As a consequence, my theology of the cross expanded into the entirety of the triduum, with Holy Saturday holding both the extremity of Friday’s trauma and the inconceivable hope and new life of Easter Sunday. Thus, I experienced how theology can help us reflect on musical meaning and how music can broaden and deepen our theological reflection. Moreover, I concluded that how we tell the story of Jesus—especially how the story of Jesus’s humanity is deeply connected to our own stories of celebration and lament, dissonance and resolution—forms who we are as the people of God in significant ways, especially in terms of how we love and move toward others with empathy and compassion.

In the first chapter of her commentary on Lamentations, Kathleen O’Connor argues that the Old Testament book is a critical text for contemporary society, especially for those of us who live in a first-world context. She contends that a neglect of lament in current liturgical practice leads not only to an inability to feel our own grief and sorrow but also to an inability to grieve and respond to the pain and suffering of others.

Later in the book, she shows how this empathetic response to the suffering of another can be seen in the second poem of Lamentations. The two main voices in the first two poems of Lamentations are the narrator, who is detailing the destruction of Zion (Jerusalem), and Daughter Zion, who wears her shame for all to see. O’Connor points out that in the first poem, the narrator is distant, casting judgment upon Daughter Zion. He callously names her sins and notes the depth of her shame. Daughter Zion then interrupts the narrator and cries out for mercy and justice, naming the callousness of her accusers:

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?

Look around and see.

Is any suffering like my suffering

that was inflicted on me,

that the Lord brought on me

in the day of his fierce anger? (Lamentations 1:12 NIV)

But by the second poem, a shift happens. The narrator takes up the cause of Daughter Zion, lamenting with her and bearing witness to her pain:

Without pity the Lord has swallowed up

all the dwellings of Jacob;

in his wrath he has torn down

the strongholds of Daughter Judah.

He has brought her kingdom and its princes

down to the ground in dishonor. (Lamentations 2:2)

O’Connor refers to this as a “theology of witness.” She contends that when there is liturgical space for lament, emotional dissonance has the capacity to move people of faith toward witness and compassion. In the Lamentations example, the articulation of dissonance is a powerful instigator; it enables the narrator to have empathy toward others in the face of the extreme “narrative wreckage” of collective trauma. Dissonance, here, facilitates a kind of emotional capacity to move toward others in their distress and bear witness to the tragedy of trauma. As O’Connor argues,

To be witnesses to the suffering of others requires the gathering up of our passions, something that cannot be done by will-power alone. Only as our spirits find release from numbness, from their marbled protections, and from their passion-quenching denial can we relate to others in solidarity and compassion that does not make them objects of our own needs.

Thus, our empathy and emotional heath are matured and broadened in this engagement.[13]

When I return to MacMillan’s music through the lens of O’Connor’s call for lament, I hear Jesus as the narrator in Lamentations. He takes up the lament of Daughter Zion and “Zion’s pain affects him so deeply that it becomes his as well.” This taking on of the lament and pain of Zion is even more significant in light of O’Connor’s claim that God is silent throughout Lamentations, giving space for the articulation of complaint and sorrow. As she argues, God’s voice would overwhelm the lament of Daughter Zion, yet at the same time “God’s frightening silence is resonant with interpretive possibility.”[14]

This resonant and interpretive possibility comes alive through MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross. In the sixth movement, “It is Finished,” I interpret Jesus as one who does not respond with answers or excuses. Instead, Jesus becomes the narrator and bears witness to the sorrow and tragedy of Daughter Zion. The words here are again from The Good Friday Responsaries for Tenebrae and quote the words of Daughter Zion from the book of Lamentations:

My eyes were blind with weeping,
for he that consoled me is far from me:
Consider all you people,
is there any sorrow like my sorrow?
All you who pass along this way take heed
and consider if there is any sorrow like mine.[15]

In this theology of witness, Jesus reveals a God that sits down in the dirt, tears his clothes, and wails at the top of his voice in mourning, calling out across the ages for all of us to empathetically respond to her plight. Jesus takes up the pain of humanity. Our pain becomes his pain.

Shelly Rambo, in her book Spirit and Trauma, agrees that Jesus sits with us in our pain and suffering. In fact, she goes so far as to use trauma as a theological hermeneutic, choosing trauma as her predominant theological lens. Rambo argues that it is God, through Jesus and the Spirit, who is the primary witness of the death and suffering of humanity.

Rambo warns Christians that if we think about the cross and resurrection too linearly, we run the risk of triumphalism. If we move too quickly past the dark parts of the story, we often, as a consequence, move too quickly past the difficulties of life, especially when our own experiences testify to both life and death in confused and mixed ways. Her overall thesis is that the witness of Jesus from Good Friday to Easter gives space for the experience of the trauma of the cross, the middle ground of the unknowing and remaining of Holy Saturday, and the wonder of resurrection on Sunday. The entirety of the triduum must guide our theological thinking and the way we live into and out of this story. This causes us to rethink theology from this middle space, reimagining reconciliation in a nonlinear manner:

I claim that trauma returns the theologians to our primary claims about death and life, particularly as they are narrated in the events of cross and resurrection. Trauma disrupts this narrative, turning our attention to a more mixed terrain of remaining, one that I will identify as the “middle.” By reexamining the relationship between death and life as it is narrated theologically, I am seeking a picture of redemption that adequately accounts for traumatic suffering, that speaks to divine presence and power in light of what we know about trauma. This picture of redemption cannot emerge by interpreting death and life in opposition to each other. Instead, theology must account for the excess, or remainder, of death in life that is central to trauma. This reconfiguration of death and life, viewed through the lens of trauma, unearths a distinctive theology that can witness the realities of the aftermath of trauma.

Rambo claims that Holy Saturday, in particular, must have a more prominent place in our theologies and practices of human flourishing and being. We need to take time to witness the middle ground between life and death, without a need to resolve or to make everything immediately better.[16]

Rambo argues for a body-centered or imitation model of witness rather than a proclamation model. She holds that this way of embodied witness has more possibility for those looking through the lens of trauma—whether they are trauma survivors or those who witness (remain) on behalf of the survivors. This form of witness, she claims, “is the hinge between death and life, as it is experienced through trauma and traumatic survival.” This way of witness should permeate how we think about redemption in our personal friendships, in therapeutic relationships, and even in how we structure our churches. In many ways, it is a way of thinking through trauma in order to give validity and space for the disorientation of traumatic experience, as Rambo puts it, a way to do theology with what remains.[17] Trauma deconstructs our ways of knowing the story of Jesus, and we are unable to sanitize or diminish the reality of Holy Saturday by moving too quickly to the resurrection.

And this brings us back to MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross. His final movement leads the listener into the contemplative space of Holy Saturday. In this movement, we bear witness to the last breaths of Jesus. The story remains unfinished and undefined. There is no triumphalist jump to resurrection. Instead, MacMillan creates a middle space where life and death merge in the story of Jesus. MacMillan, like Rambo, invites us to contemplate a theology of reconciliation from this middle day.

Rouault, O’Connor, Rambo, and MacMillan encourage us to reimagine reconciliation from this middle space. When I think back on the art of the twentieth century, I am amazed at the power of the arts to articulate and witness to this kind of dissonant middle space to society at large. When we pay attention and participate in this theological aesthetic of dissonance and lament, we, like the narrator in the book of Lamentations, are moved to compassion; we practice a kind of active empathy. Our rituals and liturgies, both sacred and secular, become a place to contemplate our cultural memory. Often artists remind us of the memories we would rather forget, but if we do, we will never really be able to grieve and lament the deepest of our cultural sorrows, sins, and traumas. And if we cannot grieve, then we can never truly love the world around us.

Rouault, O’Connor, Rambo, and MacMillan also remind us that we are not alone in this process of being, feeling, and lamenting. The person of Jesus Christ has already gone before us, picking up the great laments of all of the ages. On the cross, we witness a God who takes on the cares of the world, loves, laments, cries out, and takes the sins of the world to the reality of death. The story of the triduum is not only about the triumph of resurrection; it is also about the sorrow and alienation of Holy Saturday. As Christians, we must be faithful to the whole of this story if we are to be the body of Christ in the world today. To leave out part of the story and work of Jesus is to tell a different gospel.

All of this makes me suspicious of a practice of Christian faith that is resistant to dissonance and lament. By not allowing space for dissonance in our aesthetic, we cut ourselves off from knowing and understanding something profound about our own stories—that dissonance and trauma do not define us, but they do shape us in significant ways. If we ignore dissonance, it lingers at the edge of our minds, tearing away at us bit by bit, moving us to a kind of callousness. Thus, I would argue, that a proper Christian response to dissonance is not simply to find ways to resolve it, but to give it an appropriate articulation in our lives and in our aesthetic.

[1] This essay is adapted from a paper I presented at Yale Institute of Sacred Music for the Forum on Music in Christian Scholarship (now Society for Christian Scholarship in Music) Conference, February 14, 2013. The piece by Anton Webern can be heard here: And the phrase “emancipation of the dissonance” comes from the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg’s description of his first major compositional innovation. Historians and musicologists often refer to this style of music as atonal, but Schoenberg preferred pantonal: “I, who have the hope that in a few decades audiences will recognize the tonality of this music today called atonal, would not then be compelled to attempt to point out any other difference than a gradual one between the tonality of yesterday and the tonality of today. Indeed, tonal is perhaps nothing else than what is understood today and atonal what will be understood in the future. In my Harmonielehre [Theory of Harmony] I have recommended that we give the term ‘pantonal’ to what is called atonal. By this we can signify: the relation of all tones to one another, regardless of occasional occurrences, assured by the circumstance of a common origin” (Schoenberg, Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, ed. Leonard Stein, trans. Leo Black [London, UK: Faber and Faber, 1984], 284). In his later writings, Schoenberg referred to this compositional innovation as “the emancipation of the dissonance”; see ibid., 84, 88, and 216, as well as Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony [Harmonielehre], trans. Roy E. Carter (London, UK: Faber and Faber, 1978), esp. 313–15 and 399–410, for his theoretical justification for his turn toward the emancipation of dissonance.

[2] Schoenberg in a letter to Henri Hinrichsen (March 20, 1914); quoted in Pamela C. White, Schoenberg and the God-idea: The Opera “Moses und Aron” (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research, 1985), 1.

[3] As Schoenberg put it: “The artist is only the mouthpiece of a power which dictates what to do” (Schoenberg, Style and Idea, 396).

[4] To see this painting, go to According to the notes for White Crucifixion at the Art Institute in Chicago, Chagall most likely did not see Jesus as representational of Yahweh but, instead, as a Jewish martyr among martyrs. It is Jürgen Moltmann who brought this painting and Chagall’s Yellow Crucifixion to my attention. See the introduction of Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993).

[5] Rouault designed the Miserere series between 1916 and 1918, but it was not commissioned, finished, and published as a book until 1948. To see the Miserere etchings online, go to

[6] See also plate #18, “The condemned man went away.”

[7] See for example, plates #33, “And Veronica, with her gentle cloth, still passes on the way,” and #58, “It is by his wounds we are healed.”

[8] Dyrness, Rouault: A Vision of Suffering and Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), 186 and 191.

[9] Hans Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1970), 157.

[10] Kathleen O’Connor, Lamentations and the Tears of the World (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 9. To listen to the whole of MacMillan’s “Seven Last Words From the Cross,” go to

[11] O’Connor argues that it is unclear who actually wrote the book of Lamentations. She notes that the line “And it came to pass, after Jerusalem was taken captive and Jerusalem made desolate, that Jeremiah sat weeping, and lamented this lamentation over Jerusalem” was added in the Septuagint translation (O’Connor, Lamentations, 6). For the full lyrics and James MacMillan’s program notes go to

[12] Grace M. Jantzen, Becoming Divine: Toward a Feminist Philosophy of Religion (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999). Shelley Rambo suggests looking on pages 61–64 and especially chapter 3 for this concept. Here is Rambo’s take: “‘Double reading’ involves a careful reading of the initial text, and it looks within that text for the ‘rupture that open up the alternative’” (Rambo, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010], 11).

[13] This insight regarding O’Connor’s contention comes from my former student Hilary Golden, who wrote her integrative project on how to respond to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. She used O’Connor’s work to explore how to build liturgical space to respond to collective tragedy. See Hilary Ann Golden, “What Happens When We Come Close? Toward a Theological Hermeneutic of Suffering and Liturgical Praxis of Compassion,” Integrative Project for The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, 2012. Quotes come from O’Connor, Lamentations, 104–8, 7–8, and 108.

[14] Ibid., 37 and 86; also see 83–95. O’Connor writes that “Lamentations’ haunting power lies in its brutal honesty about the Missing Voice; its brilliance is that it does not speak for God. God’s frightening silence is resonant with interpretive possibility. It makes of the poetry a haven for voices of pain. It prevents us from sliding prematurely over suffering toward happy endings. It gives the book daring power because it honors human speech. God’s absence forces us to attend to voices of grief and despair, and it can reflect, vividly or remotely, our own experiences of a silent God. Surprisingly, the book does express hope, but only in the unsteady, halting, and tenuous way known to survivors of cataclysm, trauma, depression, or loss. Hope appears and disappears, elusive as the future itself. If God spoke, God’s words would diminish the voices of pain, wash over them, and crowd them out. Even one word from God would take up too much space in this book” (86).

[15] See James MacMillan’s program notes at

[16] Rambo, Spirit and Trauma, 6. Rambo mentions the work of Walter Brueggemann, Alan Lewis, and Cornell West in particular as supporting her theological focus on Holy Saturday.

[17] Rambo, Spirit and Trauma, 40. If I were to extend the scope of this essay, I would also talk about her pneumatology. Her concept of the “middle spirit” is critical to her theology of embodied witness. In explaining her views on trauma theory, Rambo writes the following: “Trauma theory, like deconstruction, is a way of reading that exposes the gaps and fissures in the texts. In so doing, it unearths dimensions of the texts that otherwise lie buried. These readings reveal the ways in which language exceeds theory, thus exposing the insufficiency of claims that reduce language to frameworks of meaning. The significance of trauma theory is that it tracks this remainder, this excess” (31).