To return briefly to Andrew Rilstone’s pWning of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (see previous post), in the final post in his series Rilstone looks at Dawkins’ choice of an aria from the St Matthew Passion (“Mache dich, mein Herze, rein”) when he appeared on Desert Island Discs a few years ago. Dawkins “pretends not to understand why normal people thought this was a bit odd”, but as Rilstone points out, this choice inevitably raised eyebrows given that:
…Dawkins doesn’t think that the story of the passion of the Christ is a beautiful story. He thinks it is ‘sadomasochistic’, ‘barking mad’, ‘viciously unpleasant’, ‘tortuously nasty’ and incidentally, that the people who disseminate it are worse than child molesters. What is going on when someone says that a musical celebration of a perverted, insane, vicious, unpleasant, nasty story is the one of eight things he couldn’t manage without on a desert island?
As Rilstone concludes:
[I]n truth methinks that Dawkins doth protesteth too much. When he says he thinks that the idea that Jesus died for the world (which is a longer way of spelling ‘Christianity’) is crazy and kinky he doesn’t really mean it – any more than he means that my-friend-the-Bishop-of-Oxford is some kind of spiritual kiddy-fiddler. When he hears the story of the Passion told by a really great artist, he finds it just as moving as the rest of the human race.
Bach’s music expresses the Christian doctrine of the atonement better than Anselm’s theological doctrine of penal substitution. Bach speaks to Dawkins’ heart better than Anselm speaks to his head. I am not (n-o-t) saying that Dawkins is ‘really’ a Christian because he is deeply moved by a work of art about Jesus dying for sin. But he evidently doesn’t hate the story nearly as much as he’d like us to think.
I entirely concur with Rilstone’s comparison of Bach’s music with Anselm’s theology. Much the same could be said of the second part of Handel’s Messiah. Perhaps Alastair should find some way of posting both pieces as part of his series on the atonement. 😉
Looking back, the game was probably up for my atheism when, some months before I was persuaded of the truth of Christianity, I found myself standing in the centre of Oxford looking at one of the churches in the city centre and musing on what a tragedy it would be for buildings such as that to cease to be used for their intended purpose, or if the church’s music ceased to be sung to worship the God I didn’t believe in.
It would be presumptuous to suggest that a similar process might occur with Richard Dawkins, but in the meantime we can be grateful for how the word of God finds its way round people’s defences in this way, so that even the most vehement atheist can find their heart moved to some degree by the gospel story. Who knows what use may be made of this by the Holy Spirit, “who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the gospel” (Augsburg Confession, Article V), not least the gospel as proclaimed by the “fifth evangelist”, J.S. Bach.