What Good Has ‘Religion’ Ever Done?

In an age where Westboro Baptist stages its “God Hates the World” and “God Hates Fags” demonstrations, where terrorists crash airplanes into buildings (or blow them up), where Pastor Terry Jones threatens to burn the Qu’ran, where people sometimes destroy property and human life in their anti-abortion stance, where Christians who have converted from Islam are systematically tortured or executed in some countries, where former President G W Bush used biblical rhetoric to underlie engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Hindus in India attack Christian minority groups, where Christians and Muslims in Nigeria often turn to violence against one another — in such a world, many people have a hard time seeing what good “religion” and, frequently, Christianity in particular, has to offer.

Historically, it is easy to see the good that religion has done (thus giving the lie to Hitchens’ subtitle, “How Religion Poisons Everything”).  We need look no further than the hospitals of the city of Toronto, one, St. Michael’s, founded by Roman Catholics and another, Mount Sinai, by Jews.  Historically, religious people have been on the front lines of providing healthcare.  Livingstone brought both the Bible and medicine to Africa.  The first hospitals of the Byzantine and mediaeval worlds were church organisations.

Historically, the arts show us to what heights religion can take man, even if today’s “Christian Art”, be it music, novels, or trashy Jesus paintings, makes me shudder.  We have the glories of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, of Bach’s St. John Passion, of Handel’s Messiah, of Haydn’s Creation (my post on that last one here).

I have posted previously about Christian fiction — there is great narrative art from the pens of Christians, from the Anglo-Saxons to Dante to Spenser, Milton, and Bunyan to Chesterton, Waugh, Lewis, Tolkien, Buechner.  The Christian faith has produced some consummate storytellers.

Any cathedral with its stained glass intact can tell you that in no way is religion an entirely bad force.  Behold the Sistine Chapel!  Gape at the illuminated Winchester Bible!  Stand in awe before Michelangelo’s Pieta!  (Sorry I used Buonarroti twice.)  Any history of art that covers the Middle Ages and Renaissance will give a good hearty drink of what good religion can produce.

Winchester Cathedral

If you watch the video Palestrina’s link takes you to, you will see some of the architecture of the Church.  Christianity has produced some amazing architecture over the centuries.  So have Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.  When a person is striving for the highest good, when striving for something greater than one’s own petty self, beauty can be achieved.

But what good does religion do today?  A lot of people think that it has outlived its usefulness, that it has become nothing more than a source of strife and division, that our society has evolved beyond needing religion.

Well, in purely “practical” terms (ie. beyond what I see as the spiritual benefits), religion has built at least one hospital in Angola and a nursing school with it and another nursing school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  These are recent foundations.  Religion has brought many a person off the street, out of addiction, and into the workforce through organisations like the Salvation Army, Shelter House, Bethany Christian Trust.

In Toronto, I spent a good number of Saturdays at Toronto Alliance Church, the “Upper Room”.  This church is in the upper level of a storefront on Queen St. near Bathurst.  If you know Toronto, you have visions of that area with the intersecting streetcar lines, the street-health clinic, the street people, the community housing, the nifty shops, the closed down shops, the Starbucks on one corner, a mission to street people on another, Pizza Pizza the third, and a bar (now closed) on the fourth.

Every Saturday night at Toronto Alliance is “Community Night.”  There is a meal — soup & sandwich or something more filling, always warm — a clothing room full of donations people have brought, a nurse who can look after people’s feet (this is a real problem for a lot of people who live on the street), and a food bank.

Part-way through the night, the eclectic group of people who has gathered for food and friendship has a church service gathered around the tables.  There are always some of those old “revival” hymns, like “Just As I Am,” and frequently a lot of the people present know and love these hymns.  Then there is a message from someone on the church’s ministry staff; when I went, usually Bill or Doug.  The message was simple and always focussed on Jesus and the hope he brings and the change he can make.

These church services are sometimes raucous affairs.  I’ve never seen banter during an Anglican sermon, but there would be banter here.  People would often still mill about, but not many.  Some people looked uninterested, but others took a keen interest in the hymns, prayers, and sermon.

Bill, the pastor of Toronto Alliance, knows a lot of the people who come out to Community Night.  He’ll chat with them, see how they’re doing, show real concern for them and their welfare.  We often think that helping out that vague, amorphous group “the unfortunate” is a matter simply of food, shelter, clothing.  It is also very much a matter of love, as I witnessed in Cyprus, of love for the lonely, friendship for the friendless, and light for the lost.

Saturday nights at Toronto Alliance Church provide for the whole person.  That alone tells me that religion is of much good in this world, in spite of Westboro Baptist and Islamist terrorism.

Music

I have some thoughts ensuing from my last post.  The first is about music.  This blog is primarily about classic Christianity as revealed through texts.  A discussion of Haydn’s Creation and the doctrine of creation is not about any classic texts of the faith, and a significant portion of it was about a teaching or idea.  However, a discussion of a piece of classical music such as that is consonant with the aims of Classic Christianity as seen in the sidebar on the main page.

The riches of the Great Tradition are not only locked away between the covers of books.  Another of the places where Christians can find the richness of the past ages is the arts.  Haydn’s Creation carries within it pieces of the tradition, truths that are timeless, enrobing them in the flesh of music.  The beauty of Haydn’s composition sings forth the beauty of creation.

Haydn’s Creation is but one example of many, but is an entrance into one facet of how music can carry the tradition through the ages.  Similar to Creation is Handel’s Messiah, also an oratorio, recounting the life and theology of the Messiah in beautiful music with words all taken from Scripture.  Within that tradition of performance-oriented classical music we also have Bach’s cantatas based on the passion narratives of the Gospels, Brahms’ German Requiem, and Stravinksy’s Symphony of Psalms among others.  All of this music captures in some way some aspect of the Great Tradition.  All of this music is worth listening to as music, as art.  And, I believe, all of this music is a vehicle of God’s grace and revelation.

Most Christian music, however, has been composed for use in worship.  The earliest surviving music is the chant of the ancient churches, Gregorian, Byzantine, Syrian, Egyptian, Ethiopian, Armenian.  Related to these are Anglican plainsong and the chant of the Slavic churches.  This music is filled with an austere beauty and able to create space for worship of a type that modern worship music does not.  The Renaissance produced music so beautiful one imagines that the angels in heaven must use it as they gather around the Throne of the Almighty, especially Palestrina but also Tallis, Allegri, and others.  All of this ancient, beautiful music for worship stands within the same musical tradition and is very valuable.

Composers of classical music have also written music for times of worship.  Tchaikovsky wrote settings for the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.  Monteverdi wrote Vespers.  Verdi and Mozart both wrote Requiems.  Vivaldi wrote a Mass.  Their music has also been applied to hymns by different lyricists, such as Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” providing the tune to “Joyful, Joyful.”

Also important is the tradition of hymnody.  I speak now of music with English lyrics.  These old hymns are worthy to be sung in congregations all of the world.  The best of them have resonant theology with captivating music.  My favourite hymnographers are Charles Wesley and John Mason Neale.  Some of my favourite hymns by other writers are “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus,” “I Cannot Tell Why He Whom Angels Worship,” “As I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” and “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

In modern worship, these hymns sometimes fall through the cracks as we seek to be cool and contemporary and relevant, singing only the newest and hippest songs.  Yet these songs, these tunes with these words, connect us to the tradition of Christians who have gone before us, passing along their thoughts and theology, their beauty and sense of holiness.  I encourage leaders of worship to keep the hymns in the repertoire amongst the newer songs.

Exciting to my mind are some new hymns that have been produced (we’re talking hymn as a musical genre).  The only things that come immediately to mind are “In Christ Alone,” and “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.”  Other musicians who have kept links to the old music, old poems, and old theology have produced new music for liturgical settings, as John Michael Talbot who has essentially produced the entire Mass and Steve Bell who has a version of the Sanctus, “Holy Lord.”  Steve Bell has also recorded musically new yet truly old songs on his album Devotion, though these are not all his own compositions.

A study of the old music is important for those who wish to engage in the creation of new music.  Some churches act as though only the old is worth singing; this is not true, for the old was once the new.  Some churches act as though only the new is worth singing; this is also not true, for the new is untested and untried.  A combination of the two is worth singing, in my opinion.  However, a knowledge of this old music, of Haydn, Palestrina, Tchaikovsky, Wesley,  and Neale, of what has gone before, will undoubtedly deepen the new music, as a knowledge of old poetry can deepen new poetry, that of old theology new theology, that of old paintings new paintings and so forth.

Since we’re talking about music, I do listen to some new Christian music besides John Michael Talbot and Steve Bell.  I am a fan of Rich Mullins and dc Talk (both “old” new music by now), some Newsboys, Jars of Clay, and Third Day as well as a certain amount of new worship songs by the likes of Matt Redman and people whose names escape me (except — because I worship at Little T — Mike Janzen and — because I’m kind of oldskool — Graham Kendrick).

Music is an important part of the life of church, ancient and modern, old and new.  We should tap the resources of this vast tradition that spreads out behind as well as all around us.

Haydn’s Creation

I am listening to Haydn’s Creation (1796-1798) right now.  It is the Representation of Chaos, when the earth is formless and void.  After this powerful representation, the angel Raphael shall begin the tale of how God spoke the universe into being.  It’s all in German, and I don’t have the libretto, but I know when he says, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,'” because then the orchestra produces something more glorious than the power of Chaos.

It makes the sound of light.  There is no other description for what the strings do at that point of the oratorio.  (It just happened.  Tingly.)

Shortly before CBC butchered Radio2, I heard the beginning of this magnificent oratorio.  The announcer mentioned that many people don’t like the Creation because they think it naive.  Yes, naive.

I don’t really know how an oratorio can be naive.  Now, the reason for the alleged naivete of the Creation is the fact that it recounts the six-day creation of Genesis.  Due to the polarisation of popular opinion in the ill-starred Creation-Evolution debate, people are blinded when they come to a piece of art such as this.  They think, “Sure, the music is nice, but the content — so naive!”

I would like to argue that there is nothing naive in Haydn’s Creation at all.  My first reason is that the claim is utterly ridiculous.  If the literal six-day creation of Genesis 1 is simply Hebrew mythology, to make a piece of art representing this story is not naive, as the Creation‘s critics imagine.  It cannot be, unless we are to therefore declare Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Mozart’s Idomeneo, Wagner’s Ring Cycle and countless other operas naive because they represent mythology.  If you disbelieve Genesis 1, this does not mean that art based on the creation story is naive.

Second, you cannot say that an oratorio or an opera is naive because of the contents of the words.  In oratorio, the words are an important aspect.  Handel’s Messiah would be far less potent without the force of the words combining with the force of the music.  Nevertheless, the music is at least, and in some opinions, more important than the words.  Haydn felt that an oratorio based on the biblical account of creation was a worthy piece of art.  Whether he believed in a literal interpretation of this passage or not has nothing to do with the piece of art ultimately produced.  He produces music to enrobe the words of Genesis, to encapsulate them, to imbue them with a life that the word on the page lacks.  There is no naivete here, my friends.

Finally, this question raises the question of the interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis.  Is it necessary to believe that something must be literal in order for it to be true?  I would say no.  I would say that if it turns out that God chose to create the universe over billions of years rather than six days, Genesis 1 is still true and relevant to our lives and our art.  Myth can be true without being literal (history cannot; is Gen 1-3 myth or history?).

Genesis 1 speaks a deep truth about the universe.  Almighty God brought it into existence out of nothing, ex nihilo.  He is creator of all things that are, were, and ever shall be.  He brought order to chaos.  He hung the stars in the sky.  His word went forth, and things were made.  He looked upon all that he had made, and each stage of creation was individually labelled as good.

The God of the Bible is a Creator God.  What he has created is good.  These are the foundational statements of the doctrine of creation.  And from these and other biblical passages stream the Christian ethic of creation.  And God’s creative action in bringing the universe into being, that story we see in Genesis, as a doctrine, has nothing to do with the debate between “creation” and “evolution.”

How, therefore, could Haydn’s Creation be naive?  I would argue instead that its critics are naive in saying such.

NB: This is the post promised at the Random Ramblings.