The “fifth evangelist” strikes again

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.

Rilstone continues:

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.

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2 Responses to The “fifth evangelist” strikes again

  1. Nick says:

    I don’t see any contradiction in Dawkins’ love of Bach’s music. I can appreciate the sublime music of The Magic Flute without having to argue that its pantomime hodge-podge of a plot is other than it is.

  2. John H says:

    Hi Nick,

    Prof Dawkins makes a similar point by reference to Wuthering Heights. It’s worth quoting Rilstone’s response to this:

    This is another blustering non sequitur. Emily Bronte believed that Heathcliff was a fictional character and presented her book as a work of fiction. Bach believed Jesus was a real person, and presented his Passion as a retelling of and meditation on events that he thought really happened. Bronte wrote a story which she hoped would surprise and excite and delight her readers; Bach composed a piece of music which he hoped would bring his listeners closer to God.

    The question of whether a work is presented as fiction or non-fiction as a profound effect on the way we read it. Would Robinson Crusoe be the same book it were discovered to be the real diary of a real castaway? Would you even bother to read The Diary of Anne Frank if it turned out to be a work of fiction?

    Now, the fact that Bach believed Jesus to be a real person doesn’t mean that his music can only be enjoyed by people who think the same. There would be nothing at all surprising about someone saying ‘The story of Jesus dying and rising again is a beautiful story and I love to listen to it, but unlike Bach, I don’t think that it is really true.’ People say things of the same kind every day. I myself don’t believe in Time was incarnate in a person called Krishna but I might put the Indian language Maharbarata on the short list of Greatest TV Shows Not Featuring a Police Box.

    But 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?

    Dawkins pretends that he thinks that Sue Lawley thinks that it’s odd that someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus would want to listen to songs about Jesus. I’m sure she doesn’t think anything nearly so silly. What she probably thinks is odd is that someone who finds a particular story horrible should want to listen to it over and over again.

    It’s a bit like a noted black man who’s campaigned all his life for racial equality saying that Birth of a Nation is his favourite movie. It’s possible, of course: maybe he admires the camera work, or finds that it helps him understand how racists think. But he wouldn’t come over all wounded if Ms. Lawley asked him why.

    I think that sums up the point pretty well. The issue is not whether Dawkins thinks the Passion is fiction or non-fiction, the issue is whether he thinks it is a moving story or a revolting and wicked one.

    So I’m not sure either the Magic Flute or Wuthering Heights is the appropriate analogy. A better one would be something like Battlefield Earth: even setting aside the question of the film’s quality, we would find it very odd indeed if an anti-Scientology campaigner said they liked nothing better than to settle back and watch Battlefield Earth on DVD.

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