An atheist who didn't listen to the music - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity

Defending Christianity

An atheist who didn't listen to the music

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...., Dec 14, 2007

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 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.

  1. Praise to the Lord the Almighty "Praise to the Lord, who o'er all things so wondrously reigneth, Who, as on wings of an eagle, uplifteth, sustaineth. Hast thou not seen how thy desires all have been granted in what He ordaineth?" This sounds like a song of praise and gratitude. There's no hint of fear here.
  2. Amazing Grace "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I'm found, was blind but now I see." Again, this is a song of gratitude for the good things God has done for him. Yes, it includes the words, "Twas grace that taught my heart to fear", but the very next line is "And grace my fears relieved." This song has a very specific story behind it: It was written by a slave trader who became a Christian and then was overwhelmed with guilt for all the people he had enslaved and the "20,000 ghosts" of the people he had killed. God's grace showed him how terrible his life was, and God's grace showed him a way out.
  3. Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee Just from the title you can see it's about joy and thanks to God. "Joyful" is not a word normally used to describe someone who is afraid.
  4. All Hail the Power of Jesus Name "All hail the power of Jesus' name! Let angels prostrate fall; bring forth the royal diadem, and crown him Lord of all." Clearly about praise. The music is the sort of music you would play at a coronation. It doesn't say much specific about what the songwriter is praising him for. There's one brief sentence about "Hail him who saves you by his grace" and some similar words. There's no hint that he's praising Jesus out of fear. It sounds more like he's praising Jesus partly out of gratitude, but mostly out of great respect.
  5. Crown Him With Many Crowns "Awake, my soul, and sing of him who died for thee ... Crown him the Lord of peace, whose power a scepter sways from pole to pole, that wars may cease." Praising God for saving him and for bringing peace. No fear mentioned here.
  6. Holy Holy Holy "There is none beside thee, perfect in power, in love and purity." Praise: God is great and loving and good.
  7. Great Is Thy Faithfulness "Morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed Thy hand hath provided." Gratitude.
  8. Nothing But The Blood "What can wash away my sin? ... What can make me whole again?" Gratitude for what Jesus accomplished with his death.
  9. Savior Like A Shepherd Lead Us "Savior, like a shepherd lead us, much we need thy tender care ... Thou hast loved us, love us still." Asking for God's help, with some references to having received his help in the past.
  10. Come Thou Font Of Every Blessing "Hither by thy help I'm come; and I hope, by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home. Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God; he, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood." Gratitude.

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


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