During a spare moment when I was not cooking, cleaning, or visiting with family on Christmas Day, I got onto the computer to see what was happening in the world, and found that a friend on Facebook had posted a stunning music video of Annie Lennox performing "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." (If you'd like to watch it, which you should, go here.) This performance is amazing on a number of levels, not the least of which is the use of ancient instruments (hurdy gurdy, tin whistle, tabor); and the fact that I've been secretly in love with Annie Lennox for about twenty years is really only a small part of my appreciation of it.
In any case, a friend of mine pointed out the irony of an outspoken atheist posting a song with an uncompromisingly Christian message on Christmas, and the point wasn't lost on me. The truth is, however, that I've been known to do the like many times before -- including this incredibly lovely video of 700 singers performing Thomas Tallis' 40-part motet Spem in Alium ("Hope in Another").
It's an interesting question to consider; why an atheist wouldn't be so turned off by the religious message that he wouldn't be able to appreciate the music. But the truth is, when a piece of music is beautiful, the twining of the lyrics and melody sublime, the performance skillful and passionate, for me the religiosity of the message doesn't get in the way at all. (It may be easier with performances in other languages -- if you don't understand the Latin, for example, Spem in Alium probably sounds like pure tonality to you, devoid of meaning.)
The fact that I don't think that the tenets of the Christian religion are true does not make me unable to appreciate the beauty it spurred its devotees to create, nor does it somehow make the beautiful ugly. I was awestruck with the grandeur of York Minster Cathedral, the day I walked the 400-some-odd steps up the central bell tower to the top; the art of such luminaries as Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Donatello, Tintoretto, and Bellini are no less brilliant if you think that their subject is myth, not reality. But music has always spoken to me the most intensely, and if yesterday I listened to Bach's Christmas Oratorio from beginning to end (just as I make a point of listening to The St. Matthew Passion near Easter), I'm not somehow exposing a chink in my atheistic armor.
But just as there's bad popular music, there's bad religious music. Lots of it. I find most of the hymns sung in churches these days simply to be devoid of any musically redeeming features whatsoever; call me a medieval throwback, but I don't think religious music has ever achieved the grandeur of the great choral works of Bach and his contemporaries. (Although Arvo Pärt comes close; listen to this performance of his Magnificat and prepare to be transported.) So it really is the beauty of the music, and not the message, that matters.
Well, mostly. Even to me, the majesty of works like Bach's Magnificat in D (still my favorite of all of his choral works; here is a lovely performance of the opening chorus) depends partly upon the fact that the message is religious. It evokes the unquestioning faith and devotion of a bygone day, with its soaring cathedrals, rainbows of stained glass, and the sonorous vibrations of pipe organs. The fact that the music is evocative of a different place, culture, and time is part of its loveliness, and even if I am not part of that culture and do not share its beliefs does not make me insensitive to the beauty it created.
So, I realize that it seems contradictory that my CD shelves have so many religious choral works -- and if you find the irony of that to be too hard to manage, I guess that's just the way it goes. To quote Walt Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes)."