By: Christopher West
If you’re familiar with Broadway musicals, you’ve certainly heard of Spring Awakening. In this rendition of Frank Wedekind’s play, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik make creative use of their modern rock score to explore the inner world of teenage angst and yearning in sexually repressed 19th century Germany.
First performed in the Spring of 2006, the secular press hailed it “an unexpected jolt of sudden genius.” Some religious folk, on the other hand, deemed it an “abomination” with no goal other than to encourage sin. Indeed, the play takes a very frank look at things like masturbation, fornication, sadism, incest, homosexuality, and abortion. A few of these behaviors are portrayed on stage leaving little to the audience’s imagination. Because of that alone, some might expect me as a teacher of Catholic sexual ethics to join the angry bandwagon of those who condemn this play outright. But I’m not going to. Let me explain why.
A Cry from the Depths of our Hearts
In his Letter to Artists, John Paul II wrote that “even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. …Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption” (n. 10).
This explains precisely what I think Spring Awakening offers as a piece of art. It does, indeed, explore some of the “most unsettling aspects of evil.” There where times during the show when I had to put my head down because of the “weight” of grief I was experiencing. But the over-riding theme of this musical, as I saw it, was a cry from the depths of the spirit for redemption, more specifically, for the “redemption of the body” (Rom 8) so often spoken of by John Paul II. With all its outspoken rebellion against religion, I’m convinced that this play — like the sexual revolution itself — is not a rejection of Christianity per se. Rather, it rejects the heretical, puritanical vision (or rather, anti-vision) of the body and sex that so often passes for Christianity. Puritanism says “spirit good — body bad,” and the Catholic Church is the first to insist that this is something everyone should reject!
Puritanism Breeds Atheism
The hormone-laden teens in this play are longing for answers to their questions while parents, teachers, and preachers offer nothing but shaming condemnations. Moritz pleads with his more informed friend Melchior, “Melchi, why—why am I haunted by the legs of a woman?” Melchior responds, “All right then, I’ll tell you. I got it out of books. But prepare yourself: it made an atheist out of me.” It struck me when I heard this line: puritanism breeds atheism — it must. Why? Because those who awaken to the goodness and beauty of human sexuality must reject any god who condemns it.
But such a god is not the true God — thank God! Far from being evil, the Bible actually employs sexual love as its main analogy of divine love. The Bible begins with the union of man and woman and it ends with the union of Christ and his bride, the Church. And smack-dab in the middle of the Bible — literally the Bible’s centerpiece — is that divine ode to erotic love, the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is the authentic soundtrack of Christianity. As great mystics like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila have told us, it is the song that God has been singing to us throughout the ages as an invitation to ecstatic, blissful “nuptial union” with him.
Spring Awakening is an attempt to break the bonds of puritanism and sing what the heart is created by God to sing — the Song of Songs. In its search for that Song, it errs by swinging the pendulum from one extreme to the other. But if Christians only respond with condemnations without trying to understand and, even more, answer the utter cry of this play for sexual redemption, then Spring Awakening’s indictment of what it knows to be “Christianity” is both understandable and deserved. Christ came to teach us how to sing the Song of Songs. Would that that was what the teens in this play were taught by their parents, teachers, and preachers!