by Jay Johansen | Apr 19, 2008
In a previous article I discussed an atheist, James Randi, who attacked Genesis, but who clearly had not actually read Genesis or found out what it said before ridiculing it.
In the very same article, he attacks Christian art and music even though he apparently never actually looked at or listened to any Christian art and music.
Spare me the argument that we owe so much of our art and culture to religion; that's a misattribution. The great architecture, paintings, music, and sculpture that poured forth in adulation of saints, deities and their offspring, and the blessed deceased, were commissioned, sponsored and paid for by those who offered them as sacrifices, penance, homage, and public relations. Those offerings were items of insurance, appeasements, and bribes, to neutralize transgressions or to obtain a better position on line. They were prompted by fear. I agree that we're better off for the wealth of creative work that we're able to share as a result of this apprehension, but I often think of how much better it could have been if the work had been directed to, and designed for, our species — rather than for mythical beings in the sky or under the ground.
Well, I thank the mythology for giving me Handel's "Messiah," but that doesn't make up for the suffering, grief, fear, and the millions of dead that need not have been....
We could point out that this argument is a complete non sequiter. The lead-up to this paragraph is that Christianity has given nothing positive to the world. When it is pointed out that Christianity has inspired great art and music, his reply is that it has not ... well, it has, but it was motivated by fear so it, umm, doesn't count or something.
But there's little point in debating the logic of this, because the premise is completely false. What evidence does he offer that Christian art is motivated by fear?
The one example Randi cites is Handel's Messiah. It's not clear how this choice supports his case. Messiah is especially famous for the Hallelujah Chorus. You don't have to go past the title to realize that this is not a song about fear. People don't shout "Hallelujah" when they're afraid; they shout it when they're happy or relieved. The Hallelujah Chorus is a song of celebration, not fear.
Analyzing the motivation behind all the Christian art ever produced would be a huge project, so let's take a small sample. It might be difficult to determine the motivation behind a painting or a sculpture, so let's look at music, where we have actual words. When people think of Christian music they usually think of hymns. So I did a Google search for "most popular hymns" and the first result that turned up was songquery.com. I don't see anything on this web page that says exactly how they determined that these were the 16 most popular hymns, whether they took a survey or it's based on record sales or they just picked 16 that they've heard a lot. But the list isn't particularly surprising: they're all well-known and, I think, fairly typical hymns. In the spirit of "top ten" lists, let's just look at the first ten.
Notice that only one of the top 10 makes any reference to fear, and it would be quite a stretch to say that that song was "motivated by fear". None makes any reference to appeasement or bribes -- none talks about offering anything to God in exchange for his gifts. While a few talk about asking for something from God, none asks for special favors over what is given to anyone else.
Indeed, all of the top ten seem to be about praising God for being great and loving and good, and/or about thanking him. Off the top of my head I can think of some Christian songs that are about love and friendship, like the classic children's song "Jesus Loves Me" or "He Walks With Me". I can think of a few that are "motivational songs", like "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus".
Of course whether or not you or Mr Randi believe that God exists or is worthy of praise has nothing to do with the motivations of the songwriters.
I'm hard pressed to think of a Christian song that is about appeasement or special favors or fear. I'm really not sure what Randi was even thinking of when he made this statement. Does he think that Christian songs are all "Hey God, I'll give you twenty bucks if you bless me" or "Save me before you save my neighbor" or "God please don't hurt me"? Wow, maybe if you searched long and hard enough you could find such a song, but I can't think of one.
It's funny, isn't it? An atheist writes an article whose whole point is to attack Christians for being "anti-scientific", for making statements based only on "faith" with no evidence to back them up. But then most of his key criticisms of Christianity are made with no supporting evidence. They seem to be based simply on Mr Randi's gut feel about how he thinks things probably are. He clearly didn't even bother to look at the evidence. What would be the point of examining evidence when he already knows what the answer must be from, what, his intuition? That is being "scientific", unlike those ignorant Christians who just accept things on faith.
© 2008 by Jay Johansen