The Parable of Porgy and Bess

by Angie Allport.

At the end of the folk opera Porgy and Bess[1], I found myself yelling in my head to Porgy, “No, let her go, you’re better off without her!”  For those of you who don’t know the story, it’s set in the American Deep South in the 1930s and Bess, a former drug addict, has moved in with Porgy after being abandoned by her abusive partner, Crown.  Porgy is smitten by Bess and she declares she loves him, but Bess struggles with the call of her former life and ends up cheating on Porgy with Crown, who then assaults her.  Although Porgy takes Bess back, she goes back on drugs and then runs away to New York with her drug-dealer, Sportin’ Life.  The story ends with Porgy leaving to take after Bess, and it was at that point that the yelling in my head started, quickly followed by the thought that Bess was a lost sheep and God would have gone after her.  As Porgy sang ‘I don’t care what she says; I don’t care what she’s done’, who was being more God-like, Porgy or I?

There is much in every-day life which can be used as a tool for us to reflect on our practice and thinking as Christians.  The material doesn’t have to be ‘religious’.  Do you ever watch a film, drama or soap opera where you find yourself rooting for the character who’s out for revenge over something?  It might be fiction, but what should the Christian response be?  Revenge makes for high drama and ‘sells’, but how could the story be re-written from a Christian perspective?  How could you locate yourself, as a Christian, in the story?  What might your reaction have to say to you about your discipleship?  How does it fit with what the Bible has to say, church tradition, reason and your experience, to draw on the so-called ‘quadrilateral’?

Asking theological questions through popular culture requires us not only to identify the values, beliefs, practices and experiences of popular culture, but also to think critically about these in relation to our understandings of the teachings of Jesus.  Most writers on popular culture refer back to Richard Niebuhr and Paul Tillich.  Niebuhr set out a fivefold typology for Christians to engage in culture: Christ against culture; the Christ of culture; Christ above culture; Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ the transformer of culture.[2]  For Tillich, religion “is the meaning-giving substance of culture, and culture is the totality of forms in which the basic concern of religion expresses itself”.[3]

It was Oscar Wilde who once said, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”[4].  Wilde saw Art as a means of expressing Life, with Life’s instinct being one of imitation.  We perhaps see this today as girls and young women, for example, seek to get ‘the look’ they see portrayed on television and in social media.  I was hoping (and praying) that Tevye talking to God in Fiddler on the Roof[5] (you’ll gather I’m a musicals fan) would at least get members of the audience who didn’t profess a faith pondering what was going on, even if actual imitation would be a bit of a stretch.

If Christianity is to make sense of the world, thinking about life as it is portrayed in Art and social media may prove to be not so much a secular activity as a theological one.  Indeed, as my opening example of Porgy and Bess showed, we can indeed find, and do, theology everywhere!

 

[1] Gershwin, George (1935) Porgy and Bess

[2] Niebuhr, H. R. (2002) Christ and Culture (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco)

[3] Tillich, Paul (1972) Theology of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press) p.42

[4] Wilde, Oscar (1889) The Decay of Lying

[5] Bock, Jerry & Harnick, Sheldon (1964) Fiddler on the Roof

4 thoughts on “The Parable of Porgy and Bess”

  1. I am not a fan of musicals (except Cats, and that’s because I am a fan of cats, and West Side Story, because that’s sort of Shakespeare, innit?) but I would first take seekers after truth to the theatre – especially the subversive sort – rather than pointing them to sacred texts or inviting them to church. There is usually a more accessible jumping-off point for discussion afterwards, for a start, and theology gets everywhere!

    Though come to think of it, Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell were musicals, weren’t they??

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  2. It’s good to encourage forgiveness and reconciliation in troubled relationships but not to the extent that someone feels they must keep returning to an abusive partner. Sometimes it’s best to forgive and let go.

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  3. It’s good to encourage forgiveness and reconciliation in troubled relationships, but not to the extent that someone feels they must keep returning to an abusive partner. Sometimes it’s best to forgive and let go.

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