Thursday, December 2, 2010

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

By now, last month's surprise Hallelujah Chorus at the food court in a Welland, Ontario shopping mall has spread all over the internet. If you have not yet, you must view it! As I watched it today for the sixth or seventh time, finding my smiles yet irrepressible, and still wiping tears from my eyes, I wondered ...

The popular Antitheists of our day, and cultural icons like John Lennon, insist that the world will be a better place when all religion has been eradicated! Ah yes, “Imagine” with me a world forever cleansed of George Frideric Handel!

I tried in vain to think of a single cultural contribution that comes close to Handel’s Messiah which has been inspired by thoughts of a god-free cosmos. I could not think of anything that stirs the heart and soul. I did think of John Lennon’s ode to a world delivered of the joys and hopes of faith. Ah yes, Imagine! The words and music are, admittedly, mildly arousing. A bit mournful. Kind of like dry toast. Or old black and white photography. But still, I’ve sung along and (genuinely) tried to catch Lennon’s fervor (if indeed we could call it that). But listening to Lennon I have never felt the exhilaration, the sheer unquenchable joy flooding my whole being, mind and soul, which arise involuntarily during these five minutes of Handel in the Mall.

But I must admit to a faith-induced predilection to experience such a high! My atheist friends will no doubt find themselves yawning in boredom. And surely they can point me to works of art, music or visual arts, that stir their souls, that inspire them profoundly, that awaken deep emotions of joys rising to overwhelm their senses. I would love to hear about them!

Now I know that there is a certain sense of awe and excitement that is energized by our discoveries in physics and biology. I share those! They are wonderful. But, if I may be so bold to say so, they do not even fit into the same category with the sheer transcendent delight aroused by countless examples of faith-inspired art and literature.

Nevertheless, I am assured by those who seem to know, that the lot of mankind will be greatly improved when the vestiges of faith and religion are but fading memories. The Antitheists will no doubt breath a huge sigh of relief knowing that their lunch in the food court will never again be so rudely interrupted.


Marty said...

I just finished watching the video. Wow! Tears, yes. As soon as I’m done typing here I’m gonna watch it again. Even though I’m one of those antitheists there is no denying the power and majesty created in that food court. Maybe it’s because I grew up listening to Handel every Christmas, but I never really appreciated religious art until I had separated myself from the theology. If I were to define something as a spiritual experience (which my scientific mind doesn’t generally allow), this would be it. Thanks and I will be sharing this with my coworkers.

Arni Zachariassen said...

This quote comes to mine: ‎"I want to say to my friends who have difficulty with religious belief, can you deny music?" - John Polkinghorne

Cliff Martin said...

Thanks, Marty, for your candid and honest comments. Thank you, Arni, for the Polkinghorne quote. Yeah, powerful music seems to have a transcendent quality that we just cannot deny. As a theistic proof, of course it falls short. But I do find it interesting that so much of the music that moves us most is inspired by something larger than us, the music itself attempting to bridge some gap, to echo a hope of a reality just beyond our grasp. We often speak of music "transporting" us, of conveying us almost into another reality. Maybe, Marty, science will some day demystify even music, reducing it to pure brain chemistry and physics. Or maybe not. But until that day, I will go on celebrating what seem to be the full-on spiritual joys of great music.

Tom said...

Anti-theists do not say religion is not inspiring. The seeds of belief, be they secular or theistic in origin, can inspire all sorts of beautiful and horrific things. What Lennon asks us to imagine is a world of just this. Under this scenario perhaps we as a species would lose out on the works of those either trying to appease the master of the universe or feeling like they were operating under such an influence. Following this paradigm it may seem we would end up without the grandeur or as you say, "dry toast." Somehow I doubt it.

The majesty of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus is something that speaks to our ears. One year ago I saw Michelangelo's David. I had been wandering about much of the work in Florence admiring all of the pieces, but I have to tell you, when I saw the David, it took my breath away! Pictures do not qualify. I sat there for an hour in utter amazement. This is perhaps another example for your opinion that the arts need God. As an atheist, however, I have to take the stance that God did not inspire Handel or Michelangelo, but it was a combination of their belief in God and their own aspiration and talent to push human achievement that lead them.

We humans love monuments of what we can do. We strive to build monuments and we rejoice when we see them. That is why humanists can still appreciate and be moved by religious works of art. I love Cirque du Soleil, the Olympics, gadgets and machines, architecture, wood carvings, music, painting, wine, and good food. This is all typical human. What Lennon asks in his simple song is that we rejoice in the beauty of our humanity without imaginings of anything external to here and now and each other. This is anti-Christian in the sense that Christianity states that we are all sinful, bound for death, and would prefer to destroy ourselves but for God's grace. I think human's fondness for each other and what we can become is self-sufficient and "I know I'm not the only one."

Rich G. said...


I don't know about you, but for me, the most impressive works of art, music, performance, etc. are those inspired by something outside of and larger than our shared humanity. Not necessarily "christian" art (if there really is such a thing - most deliberately "christian" art is not that good) but the pursuit and expression of beauty by people who are at their heart religious in some form. I do not get the same expansive feelings from the "art" of the secularists.

Cliff Martin said...


“I love Cirque du Soleil, the Olympics, gadgets and machines, architecture, wood carvings, music, painting, wine, and good food.”

Me, too. Apart from your very narrow (and to my ears, strange) notions of how faith inspires art, or what constitutes Christianity, I can agree with most of what you write.

However, my thesis (and I’ll stand by it) would suggest that the materialist worldview will lower the ceiling considerably on the ability of art to transport us, to thrill us body, mind and soul, to create images of grandeur (thank you for that word!) that take our breath away. I will confess that standing, with my lovely wife, before the fountains at Bellagio set to Claire de Lune (or any other beautiful classic) comes close! But when we accept Sagan (“the cosmos is all there is”) thus purging the transcendent from our imaginative portfolio, art is left with inferior raw material, and creative impulses so bound will never reach the heights of Handel.

Like a Child said...

We are going to see a local performance of Handel tomorrow evening. I've never seen it before.

Arni-I think of that Polkinghorne quote often.

Cliff Martin said...

You are in for a treat, LAC. Enjoy!!

Tom said...


Rationalism, taken to the extreme, leaves a world devoid of fantasy. This is not what this anti-theist wants. While I think Hollywood has overdone it when it comes to superhero flicks and unreal scenarios, the thought of a world without fantastic stories is a bit bland.

I sport fantasy, too. Just the other night I acted as the tooth fairy to my seven year old. She believes in Santa and the tooth fairy. I encourage these myths because ultimately I believe having her take part in these practices is part of our cultural identity, which outweighs the lie I promulgate. I guess I also want encourage the belief in magic up to a point. I want my children to imagine the unreal. What I don't want is for them to rely on it.

Cliff Martin said...


This opens up more questions. Do you suppose this perceived need to augment material reality with myth/fantasy/magic is a holdover from superstitions (religious or otherwise)? And if so, do you envision a day when we are so rid of superstitions that the need or desire to enter make-believe worlds will cease?

I can only understand your comment as an indication that you are less than satisfied with "the cosmos is all there is." Though you believe that to be true, you seem not to want it to be true. Will mankind move beyond this, in your view? If so, then we will have entered that "world devoid of fantasy." If not, doesn't an enduring longing for something beyond our physical reality suggest anything to you? Can you think of an evolutionary adaptation for fantasy? How might fantasy have served our ancestors?

Of course, I think of the verse in Ecclesiates, "He has set eternity on our hearts."

nick said...


Tom said...


Before I continue, I want to say that I appreciate this conversation. You have made me think more deeply about my stances.

Do you suppose this perceived need to augment material reality...

I do not envision a day when make-believe goes away. Here's why. Perception is completely subjective and imperfect. Interpretations are always inexact. We will forever conjure up our own realities given our imprinted past, our present condition, and future notions. So from the get-go, we start with a Gestalt. When we reflect, or think about the future we set up "what if" scenarios. These can be logically rooted and/or imaginary. As an imaginary example, I could ponder my response to a situation if I was Superman! This raises an interesting point. We often wish things were better -- that if we were stronger, wittier, smarter, richer, healthier, etc. then we would be happier. It is therefore easy to imagine these better situations and even make-believe worlds. From an evolutionary perspective, it is easy to see how imagination helped individuals. We learned to formulate goals and ideals that go on to formulate even loftier goals and ideals. I think it important to dream and imagine, and we always will.

As Dennett describes in his Breaking the Spell book, religion itself was an outcropping of the communal expression of superstition and imagination. What is unclear is if it is cumulatively detrimental or not. I would think you could spin Dennett's same ideas as part of God's reason to choose evolution and an example of his progressive revelation, so I highly recommend you read his book. I'm likely to disagree with you in the end, though!

Marty said...

If I buy a puzzle, it contains all the pieces to complete the picture. I may not have all the tools to assemble it but that won't change the fact that every piece is there. Carl Sagan's statement that 'the cosmos is all there is' still leaves plenty of room for mystery and wonder. The puzzle pieces to Handel's Messiah could be his musical acumen, political pressure, friendships, and even his diet at the time. Perhaps the sum of the parts are greater than the whole? Maybe there is more beauty to behold once God is removed? Instead of just enjoying the picture on the box, lets find out how this thing goes together.

DoOrDoNot said...

I followed you here from LikeAChild's blog. I have read and enjoyed several of your posts and will continue to visit.

One of the few things that has kept me from falling from the brink of Christianity into atheism has been transcendent experiences, particularly music. As I grow farther away from my faith, I feel more drawn to music, art, and nature. There is some deep desire in me for the transcendent.

Cliff Martin said...


Thank you for visiting! If you believe, as I do, that this inborn longing for the transcendent, this irrepressible urge to move beyond physical constraints is pointing us to something, someone who transcends the material world, then your search (and mine) for that reality can never be abandoned!

Mike said...

I watched this through tears also. Wondrous! Thanks Cliff.