File This One Under “Isn’t It Interesting?”: Thoughts on Music and the Sacred

After listening to a choral performance of a high school group performing the old spiritual, “Give Me Jesus,” I found myself wiping my eyes.  Just moments ago, while viewing a university choir’s performance of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” tears streamed down my face as I wept at the sheer beauty of it.  These instances, and as I reflect, numerous others have made me come to an interesting observation along with a question:  not much in life is as emotionally charged and deeply satisfying as well-trained human voices, singing beautiful music in apparently effortless harmony.  I think about the beautiful music that has been so perfectly crafted by human hearts, and so lovingly performed by human voices, and how the most beautiful of these pieces and performances are almost without exception sacred in nature, as if the spirit responds to rhythm and tone with a different set of rules.  Such an observation is not original, I’m sure, and the question it sparked is almost certainly not original, either, that being, “With so much beauty linked to the sacred, why are there no great pieces that celebrate and elevate atheism?”

A cursory search for “music and atheism” provides no examples.  One atheist site celebrates the great composers who were apparently disenchanted with religion, refusing last rites, or embracing pantheism or some other issue.  It is a matter of record that these sorts of things occurred.  However, that does not take away from the beauty of the music that was inspired in celebration of faith and the sacred.  Of course, there was the commercial element:  a composer has to eat, and therefore accepts the commission from a patron to compose a mass or some such piece.  But even so, there must have been some appreciation of the holy, or else the music would be nothing but a lackluster attempt at commercial mediocrity.  Had they, like Balaam, set forth to curse the faithful, but only blessings flowed from their pens?  I wonder….

When you consider the many genres of music that are distinctly connected to faith and the practice of religion, it is indeed mind-boggling.  Hymns are of course, foremost in the count of sacred music. There are so many beautiful hymns.  But none is more recognized and loved that John Newton’s “Amazing Grace.”  Many know of Newton’s connection to the slave trade and his later conversion to Christianity.  According to one account describing his earlier sea-faring days, “Newton gained notoriety for being one of the most profane men the captain had ever met….Newton was admonished several times for not only using the worst words the captain had ever heard, but creating new ones to exceed the limits of verbal debauchery.”  His poem, written to accentuate the sermon he would deliver on New Year’s Day, 1773, has been described by some as his spiritual autobiography.  It is nothing short of amazing that a man could rise from the depths of such depravity as the most profane man a ship’s captain had known to pen words of such divine beauty and universal appreciation.  Whether sung a cappella, as solo or as a choir, or accompanied by the skirl of a lone bagpipe or a battalion of bagpipes, the music and words are so ingrained in the human soul after two and a half centuries that I wonder why anyone would question the joyful wonder of grace.

The old Negro spirituals are beautiful in their simplicity and sincerity.  The first time I heard “Give Me Jesus,” I was sitting at a university graduation, and I thought that it was rather inappropriate to bring the sacred to such a secular event.  I later heard other versions, choral arrangements, and I grew to truly and deeply admire the song.  Simple, heart-felt, and unimposing, spirituals were songs of hope and comfort sung by an oppressed people.

There are conflicting stories regarding the order of composition, but whether the spiritual song, “Going Home,” was the basis for the Largo in D from Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 or vice versa, it is of little consequence.  Dvorak admitted the influence of African American and Native American music on his work, and suggested that such could be the foundation of a new, uniquely American school of composition.  The Largo in D is one of the most beautiful and moving pieces I have ever encountered.

For years, I was skeptical of the whole genre of contemporary Christian music.  But over the last few years, I have come to appreciate the warmth and encouragement of spiritual themes set to music that 21st century people can identify with.  I know many people would not enjoy this type of music, and I must admit that I don’t care for some of it, but I respect the artists who have met the challenge of bringing morality and faith to a style that speaks to people who may not otherwise listen to anything religious.  Music has power.  If music can open the door, the message of faith and hope may be able to take hold and change a life.  For example, Tenth Avenue North has a song titled “You Are More,” the refrain of which offers the assurance to a girl who has made some bad choices that “You are more than the choices that you’ve made, / You are more than the sum of your past mistakes, / You are more than the problems you create, / You’ve been remade.”  Such a positive message could give hope to hurting people.  That is so much richer than what most music has to offer.

Not to be left out, the classical world has produced many beautiful pieces with sacred themes.  Perhaps none of them is more recognized or celebrated than Handel’s great masterpiece of the oratorio, “The Messiah.”  This ambitious work chronicles the prophecy, birth, and passion of Jesus along with a musical meditation on the “aftermath” of Jesus’s crucifixion.  My favorite parts of this work are probably the Aria from part I, “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted,” and the unmistakable majesty of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Part II.

When I scanned the list of prominent atheist musicians and composers, so many listed were of the punk rock genre or heavy metal.  Both of these types of music seem to have a cynical view of life, so it is no wonder that people with no hope are drawn to music that feeds their dismal outlook.  Perhaps the best known of the atheistic music luminaries that I saw listed were John Lennon and Billy Joel.  Of course, there are many more, and this was just a brief survey.

For the sake of a mental discussion, let’s consider what may be the ultimate popular expression of religious skepticism, John Lennon’s “Imagine.”  He opens the song with imagining that there is neither heaven nor hell, that this reality is composed of only the physical.  Then, in the second verse, he notes that a world without countries would be a world without conflict, and without religion, there would be even more peace.  In the third verse, he notes that greed and hunger would disappear with the advent of the “brotherhood of man.”  All of these sentiments are set to a dreamy melody, and are somewhat hypnotic.

In response to Mr. Lennon, I will accept that many of the world’s problems have originated from, and many great atrocities have been perpetrated in the name of religion.  However, a totally secular world is no better.  Stalin’s purges in the early 20th century and countless other attempts of atheistic communism to eradicate religion are ample proof that extremism from the religious right or the secular left is no different in result.

Will religion lead to a utopian heaven on earth?  That is a ridiculous assertion.  We know from history that we are incapable of such things.  We are weak, and succumb to the temptations of greed and power.  It is human nature to be drawn to such vices—they are next door to the survival instinct.  However, the beauty of a true experience of Christianity is the opposite of that attraction to power and expression of avarice.  It turns the heart’s outlook outward to seek the good of all.  The connection of music with the sacred is deep and strong, and may just be the anchor that holds us in a gathering storm.  While the howling winds of this culture may rail like banshees against God and anything spiritual, and may seek to break our souls, “Amazing Grace” may lead us home.

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