Even He Can Be Redeemed

Sam Brown is a medical researcher, ICU physician, and author of several books, including In Heaven As It Is On Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death.

I love Richard Wagner’s music. Love it. My wife hates everything about Wagner. Hates him. She dry heaves when I forget and mention some opera of his I’ve enjoyed. I guess I don’t blame her. His music is loud and muscular. If you’re not in the mood, he sounds a bit like a glamour metal band resting its weary haunches on power cords, hoping to stir up faint echoes of adolescent passions. But his music is much more than that.

I first encountered Wagner, as I suspect did many of my generation, through the brutal surf scene on the beach in the disturbing Vietnam war film, Apocalypse Now. The Ride of the Valkyries is dizzy, wild, frightening stuff. I was hooked the moment I heard it blaring from the speakers installed on the outriggers of the army helicopter.

It helps that Wagner’s a bit medieval in his musical sensibilities, as if J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elven worlds had been arranged for the orchestra. There’s something outright fun in this campy enthusiasm. It can be addictive. I’m aware of all his social and political troubles. I’m not naïve. I hate that he was a German nationalist and that his art was later put to malignant purposes by National Socialists. Those aspects of his life and legacy nauseate me.

Wagner’s awful character flaws notwithstanding, several of his operas stir me deeply. They have been vessels of divine wisdom to me, Tannhauser most of all.

The clownishly simplistic plots of opera are the latticework for a stunning efflorescence of music and passion. In Tannhauser, the protagonist is a musician who has been seduced by the goddess Venus to live with her in a purely sensual world. Tannhauser breaks free of Venus’s too-satisfying grasp and returns to Germany, where the lovely and virtuous Elisabeth has been awaiting his return. He tries to reintegrate into human society but immediately violates Elisabeth’s trust and publicly humiliates her. He can’t help himself. Elisabeth’s friends and peers turns against him in anger, swords drawn. They even appear to be calling for his execution.

Elizabeth, the wronged person, throws herself between the swords and her besmirching beloved. She says, in essence, that Tannhauser is not beyond redemption. Whatever their rage tells them, this fallen musician can still be redeemed. She thus spares his life. He disappears into pilgrimage, where he learns that he is as likely to be made whole as it is that a wooden staff will bloom like a live tree branch.

Elisabeth dies, grieving Tannhauser’s apparent failure. Tannhauser finally disavows Venus and dies of holy grief on discovering her death, just as we hear the Pilgrim’s Chorus return to us the exciting and promising melody of the overture that began our journey with this odd musician. The pilgrims have come to announce that the Pope’s staff has in fact sprouted as if it were still alive. Two impossible events have occurred: Tannhauser was redeemed, and dead wood came to life.

There’s a lot to process in Tannhauser. The plot is thin and idiosyncratic. The kinky ballet at the beginning is a bit distracting. The music is beautiful. The story is sad. And there’s a fulcrum in the story that binds me.

My mind keeps returning to the moment when Elizabeth throws herself between Tannhauser and the angry crowd clamoring for his death. I remember the woman brought to Jesus for judgment in John 7-8. She’d been found having sex with a married man, or so the crowd reported. They hoped that this Jewish holy man would sanction their decision to lynch her. In a cryptic way that has stymied centuries of interpreters, Jesus told the mob that this woman was not beyond redemption. Whatever law she might have violated, she could be made whole. The community could not expel her.

In some sense, that is the whole story of Christ’s ministry. It is to discover the possibility that we broken human beings can be made whole. None of us is beyond God’s powerful love. Not even the worst of us.

My professional life is spent in the intensive care unit, the “ICU.” These strange wards deep inside hospitals are technological marvels in which complex machines maintain life despite every biological indication that death has come. Often, although not always, we win this strenuous contest with death. That is the exciting, dramatic side of the world of the ICU, the part they like to show on TV. But this story forgets, as so often, the spiritual side of our work. In the ICU we are striving to be true to Elisabeth’s example. The patients who need my services are often a Who’s Who of the people Christ loves when no one else seems to. Drug addicts and alcoholics, homeless individuals, people with terrible psychiatric illnesses, people with advanced cancer or other signs of oppressive physical weakness. Many of them have intentionally done themselves harm and are struggling to imagine that their lives could have any worth. They are the weak who, some say—with increasing fervor in recent years—would be better off dead anyway.

As I returned to work after encountering Tannhauser, I realized more clearly than ever that I’m not just called to operate life support systems with technical precision. I’m called to protest that these weak and unloved people are not beyond redemption. I must sing with Elisabeth, who sings with Christ, that I will be a witness to their hidden dignity. I will see the light that shimmers in and through them, whatever their physical attributes or situation.

In my personal life, too, I am called to realize that if I want to be like Jesus I will need to sing Elisabeth’s song. Tannhauser is not beyond redemption; my most troubled patients are within the scope of love and respect. No one is beyond redemption, not even Wagner.

I’m still not as good at this calling as Elisabeth was. I’m prone by nature to avert my eyes, to walk away, to refuse to see some people who cross my path. My blindness often intensifies in response to what I instinctively perceive as people’s benighted cultural or political views or their violence to self or others, or their capacity to demand beyond my ability to serve. But I am trying. I hear her song, I see her face, and I work a little harder.

I know that the context for observations like mine has changed in the last couple decades. The battle lines of our culture wars continue to harden, like the sclerosing arteries of an ailing diabetic. I can see how easy it will be to misunderstand. Warriors from either side may be tempted to force Elisabeth’s call into the well-worn paths of mutual recrimination and spite. Some may want to abandon the very notion of redemption as a remnant of colonialism; others may hate the possibility that calls to extend redemption are poorly disguised advocacy for entire moral relativism. Neither side is wholly wrong, but the life of God dances between such extremes with energy and grace.

I know that we must make judgements about the nature of the good life, about the choices that stand before us. I know that refusing to sit in judgment of others can be seen as an abandonment of principles. I know that at the far end of that road stands a kind of narcissistic nihilism that does none of us any good, weak or strong. And yet, as I recur to that encounter between Elisabeth and Tannhauser, I can’t help but think that when my eyes alight on a stranger, a sufferer, an antagonist, I am called to say, “He is not beyond redemption. She is not beyond the pale of the self-emptying love that flows from our heavenly parents and, if I will open my heart, through me.”


  1. Kristin Brown says:

    I worked in ER and saw many of these patients as well. Reading this post was a wonderful and uplifting way to end my day.

  2. your food allergy is fake says:

    The parallels between our time and the early 20th century rise of fascism are interesting to contemplate, and I like the way you have made Tannhauser the answer to our current troubles, to those who nefariously co-opted Wagner and perhaps to Wagner himself. But that music though, not easy on the ears. It only works as part of the larger multisensory uberdrama.
    More BCC posts from Sam please!

  3. “No one is beyond redemption, not even Wagner.” Agreed. Thank you.
    Some can’t get past his flaws or his bombast (maybe that is a flaw, maybe not) — just as some cannot get past unsavory aspects of LDS or Roman Catholic or Protestant church history (or current events). Interesting that the scene from “Apocalypse Now” had you hooked. That scene has been highly offensive to others; it strikes them as an ultimate perversion of the original – in the nature of musical pornography. I think they were thinking of the way Wagner used the music — the Valkyries carrying the dead heroes from the battlefield to Valhalla.
    BTW, the distracting ballet in Tannhauser was not in Wagner’s conception but was required by the rules of the Paris opera house for which Wagner made a number of changes at the request of Napoleon III.

    I think I first encountered Wagner, as I suspect did many of my generation, in LooneyTunes 1957 short “What’s Opera, Doc.” (You can find it on Vimeo, maybe Youtube.) There the theme is set to the text “Kill the wabbit”. Can Elmer Fudd be redeemed despite his perversion of the original?
    Others’ first acquaintance was the bridal march from Lohengrin, popularly “Here comes the bride…[censored]” Sometimes it is difficult to get past one’s initial associations with music.

    The heart of your post, however, is not Wagner or his music, but theme of redemption through love represented in Tannhauser by Elisabeth. Thank you for calling that and divine love to my attention yet again.

  4. Bro. B. says:

    “Some may want to abandon the very notion of redemption as a remnant of colonialism; others may hate the possibility that calls to extend redemption are poorly disguised advocacy for entire moral relativism. Neither side is wholly wrong, but the life of God dances between such extremes with energy and grace.” So well put. Seems like a difficult dance that we as humans and Gods children are also asked to do.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Very nice, Sam, thanks.

  6. On a tangent from fake food allergy: ” [Wagner’s music] only works as part of the larger multisensory uberdrama.” It ain’t necessarily so. As a multisensory uberdrama, e.g., Tristan and Isolde is really bad — instead of showing any action, the script has the characters just standing around singing about what happened in the past or off-stage. Occasionally the sailors trot in or out for a chorus. But when Wagner took the overture, connected it to the final scene (and left out the singers), he created an orchestral masterpiece that needs no other drama of any kind. Of course, my attitude about the opera might be influenced by my having attended most of a production in Frankfurt with horrid 1950s costuming, a string-mop style wig on Isolde, a constantly out of tune piccolo, and an extremely high temperature in the 3d balcony. But there is really no cure for the libretto.

  7. Sam Brown says:

    JR, I love these stories about Wagnerian misadventures. Bro. B, that dance was precisely the image that drew my mind most powerfully.

  8. your food allergy is fake says:

    JR, fair play on the innovative importance of Tristan. I still find it annoying to listen to on its own, but I guess I feel that way about a lot of overly programmatic music.

  9. Love this. Thanks, Sam.

  10. Excellent post, Sam.

    As I’ve studied issues related to criminal justice reform, the thing I keep running into is how punitive we are as a society. I think it’s a human tendency to expect fairness and therefore be emotionally invested in seeing that wrongdoers are punished. I see that in myself. But the good news of the gospel is that none of us has to receive the punishment we (as sinners) deserve. I recently read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, which is not a religious book, but it talks about brokenness as the thing that makes us human, and “embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy.” When we truly humble ourselves and see how unworthy we are before God, we understand how merciful God is and are more inclined to see our shared humanity with other sinners.

  11. Nicely put, RJ.

  12. Amen, Rebecca.

  13. east of the mississippi says:

    Well said, Rebecca, I’ve also recently read Just Mercy and would recommend it to anybody.

  14. This is a great post! Medical stories have such a powerful way of teaching gospel principles. I have seen lives redeemed through medical care: Parkinson patients who can walk again, epilepsy patients who can drive again, painful neuropathy patients who can sleep again. Practicing medicine is a wonderful redemptive work.

    Doctors see people at their extremes, and extreme situations have a way of clarifying the boundaries of a problem. As I have said before, disease can be one of God’s most powerful refining tools, not only for the patient but also for the introspective doctor.

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