It’s the holiday season, and my chorus last weekend performed a piece closely associated with the season, Handel’s Messiah. As I’ve often said before about choral music, atheists have to judge the artistic merits of a piece of music apart from the message being conveyed through the music. Presumably even the most hardened philistine is familiar with the great “Hallelujah” chorus of the piece, and there’s plenty else to love throughout the work. A few more of my favorites bits: “For Unto Us a Child is Born.” “And He Shall Purify.” And the Amens at the end. Great music.
Of course I could criticize the theology in all of it, but I want to focus specifically on this one piece in part 2. “All We Like Sheep.” In fact, it’s critical enough to this post that I’m going to embed it so you can watch it first. I think there’s a valuable insight into theology to be found.
(That’s not my chorus, by the way, it’s just some people on YouTube.)
Cute, isn’t it? Here are the words.
All we like sheep
Have gone astray
We have turned everyone
To his own way
And the Lord hath laid on him
The iniquities of us all!
Sometimes I imagined changing the lyrics to “We all like sheep,” which changes the message considerably.
Our director really emphasized the shift in tone at the final part. Up till then, everything is bouncy, cheerful, and silly. After that, it’s dark and scary. I like to envision all the little sheep frolicking around in a Pepe Le Pew style hopping trot. Then at the end, maybe a giant Monty Python foot comes down on them.
Who are the sheep? Us! All we! Maybe you’ve heard the Christian metaphor already that Christians are sheep and Christ is our loving shepherd. You might interpret it that way, but that’s not how Handel apparently thought of it… the consequence of being dumb, frolicking, self-willed sheep is implied in the dark, brooding, angry minor key of the last few bars.
That’s the perspective that Christianity seems to offer on humanity. Under all the cheerful, bouncy “I’m so happy I have a personal relationship with Christ!” vibe, I also detect a deep rooted contempt for all humankind. The image of sheep doesn’t seem to be used here to convey the idea of comfort at being taken care of, so much as scorn at whatever it is that people like doing that makes them go astray; and also an implied threat.
Maybe I’m exaggerating, but actually I think a lot of preachers would agree with me. “You’re just denying God because you want to sin,” they’d say. The idea of all non-Christians as stupid, clueless sheep lurching around without the shepherd to watch them is baked into the core message of the Bible.
The disagreement here is not that I want to “sin” for its own sake. It’s that I don’t agree with the Christian concept of what constitutes bad behavior. It doesn’t matter what the bad behavior is — whether it’s sex that isn’t sanctified by the church (as Darrel Ray and Matt discussed yesterday) or sleeping in on Sundays or scientific inquiry into the nature of the universe. What’s important in a religious context is that you feel generally uncomfortable with anything you do that the doesn’t involve religious devotion.
I understand that many people raised religious still feel that discomfort. What’s interesting is that if there is no God, the only place you’re getting information about the “going astray” behavior is from a group of individuals with a direct interest in keeping you coming back to church and donating money.