When I was 12 years old, I went to my first musical, Jesus Christ Superstar. My parents were non-practicing Catholics and blandly irreligious by the time I was born. I had a general grasp of the New Testament but don’t recall any particular expectations of the outing except that it was a new and exciting experience. My parents later said they wondered how the crucifiction would be depicted without it being a total downer. I quickly realized watching a live performance eclipsed listening to any recording. It was invigorating and captivating and I found myself completed immersed. Had I a shred of singing, dancing or instrumental talent, I might have toyed with the idea of going into the theater.
I loved the songs including the theme showstopper. However the last instrumental at the end of the show did it for me, John 19:41. Although it had swelling strings and flutes, there was a certain simplicity that was both beautiful and uplifting. Afterwards, my parents bought for me the cast album which I still have.
There have been many versions of this instrumental over the years, but I think the original 1970 version is the best. I found some YouTube videos with either distracting graphics or poor sound and had to settle for an excerpt from the 1973 film. (I’m not a fan of the film. For me, it failed somehow to translate the energy of the musical.) So, turn up the volume, close your eyes, and just absorb the music.
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I don’t believe in God.
Let me rephrase that: I don’t believe in the omnipotent arbitrary supreme being advocated by Western religion. But I’m not atheist. I can’t empirically prove there isn’t a God any more than I can prove there is one. I think there is a life force that exists in nature which we aren’t required to praise or appease, it just is. I call myself agnostic because people are comfortable with the label and it’s least likely to provoke a negative reaction. To put a fine point on it, I’m a secular humanist. However I find people have trouble grasping the notion that morality doesn’t have to flow from religion.
It has been argued that religion is man’s defense mechanism in response to awareness of his own mortality. This is a valid point. Yet I reject the stridency of militant atheists who declaim that believers are fools and religion is the opiate of the masses. It is religious institutions and contrived rules devised by man, which distort the message and is the source of great harm, that I distrust. That being said, there is a place for religion in the world. People like to believe there is a point to their lives, that all that striving isn’t for nothing, that somebody cares and watching over them. Belief can be a source of comfort because it suggests a sense of order to this chaotic world. Most of the great religions advocate love and compassion for fellow creatures, and if people can’t find that within themselves but need belief in a higher being to motivate them, then it’s still all good. I support people believing what they want as long as they don’t feel entitled to force their beliefs on others.
This view took years of deep soul searching. Oddly, the first Christmas after I stopped calling myself a Christian I was in a quandary: did this mean I wouldn’t be able to enjoy my beloved carols anymore? How could I play my 24 versions of O Holy Night without feeling a hypocrite? The word I received from a minister turned atheist was this: do you really need to believe the words to appreciate the song? So I listened again. I realized the musical arrangement was still haunting. The voices were still beautiful. The simplicity of the lyrics were still lovely even though I didn’t subscribe to the meaning. I hummed secular songs whose words meant nothing to me. It dawned that I didn’t have to get mystic to find the carol beautiful or any other spiritual piece. Religious music can not only be devotional, but also powerfully soothing and serene.
So on Sundays, I would like share some of my favorite religious songs as well as any others I come across. Here is a prime example of how a song can still be compelling, even though the singer has a different religious background: Barbara Streisand singing Ave Maria, Bach/Gounod version.
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