I’m an atheist. Although it might sound ridiculous, I try not to use religious turns of phrase in my every day vocabulary: oh my God, Jesus Christ, Good Lord, heavens above…. That kind of stuff. I know that they’re only words, but there are so many other words that I could be using instead, that I’ve imposed this little rule on myself to push the language of religion just that little bit further away.
That being true, it probably seems a little odd that I’m perfectly happy to sing devotional songs at choir. We’re not a religious choir by any means and we don’t sing all that many songs about God, but we do sing some. One of my favourite songs from the last season was a gospel song called “Total Praise” and another was “Heaven Help Us All” by Stevie Wonder. They’re both great songs, and the gospel song in particular, originally performed by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, was an absolute joy to sing. This season we’re doing a few carols (as you’d probably expect when all our concerts are in December), as well as another gospel song called “Hallelujah Anyhow”, which is also shaping up to sound pretty good.
So why no problem with these?
Well, because. Just because. They’re only songs and we make a splendid noise as a choir when we sing them. Do I need another reason? Some of the other singers might be wholeheartedly offering them up to their God in devotion, but the fact that I’m not doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy them for what they are and how we sound and how they make me feel when I sing them.
I like visiting cathedrals. Part of my interest in them stems from my love of history and art history (I once wrote an essay on some of the iconography on the stained glass windows in York Minster, and it tickles me greatly that, tucked away on the side of the choir screen of this great Yorkist stronghold is a little stone carving of a chained white hart, the symbol of the very Plantagenet Richard II). Even as an atheist, I can appreciate the devotion that went into these buildings and I love spending time soaking it up (providing they haven’t put bloody turnstiles up asking for money to get in).
I was a chorister at school, and we would almost exclusively sing devotional songs, lifting our voices in praise of God. I loved them. My favourite carol is an old medieval English number called “Adam Lay Ybounden” and I love many of the Christian songs of Christmas as they celebrate the birth of a man that I don’t believe was the son of God. And you know what? That doesn’t matter at all and I certainly don’t have a problem with it.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph….why on earth would I have a problem with it?
Better to ask me instead about why we seem to sing so many bloody songs by Queen in this choir…. I seem to be in a minority of one, but I can’t be doing with bloody Queen.
Top Gun (1986)
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