Last time out, I argued that the best (and perhaps only) benefit of religion was the spectacular art and music it produced. Sure, there are some other results - including what Stephen J. Gould called "delusional comfort." But on balance, I'm with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens: The results are tipped strongly in the negative direction when we examine the impact of religion on human civilization.
This time I promised to offer some specific examples of just how good that religious music can be. The most obvious examples for most of us are classical. The list is long and predictable: Handel's Messiah; Bach's B minor Mass; Mozart's Requiem Mass in D minor - in fact, requiems by just about everyone make the list: Verdi, Berlioz, Faure, Brahms.
However, we should keep in mind that not all this religious music was written by people in the throes of spiritual ecstasy. The churches of these times held the money and commissioned works to their liking. Needless to say, they weren't interested in dance tunes. Maybe it's a bit too strong to suggest that writing religious music was simply a gig, but somebody had to pay J.S. Bach in order to support his rather extensive progeny (20 children were born of two wives).
And so we're going to look elsewhere, a little closer to our own lifetime, to find spectacular religious music. If we confine our search to the last 75 years, there are plenty of examples, although none of them are symphonic or particularly sophisticated. But they come a lot closer to the kind of raw spiritual beauty we've been talking about.
Here are some examples from the 1950s, drawn from both white and black culture:
Listen to Rank Stranger, a poignant glimpse at belief in the afterlife by The Stanley Brothers, a country gospel duet. Or perhaps The Staples Singers record of Uncloudy Day. If this deep vocal harmony plus tremolo guitar don't send goosebumps up and down your spine, nothing will. Even country music icon, Hank Williams, was capable of creating some spectacular gospel music. His recording of A House of Gold was issued posthumously in 1954, and does its part to support Williams' stellar reputation. Then there is pop music superstar Sam Cooke. Few of his fans in the late ‘50s realized that Cooke began his career as the teenage lead singer of The Soul Stirrers, a highly successful gospel quartet. Cooke's religious recordings from the early ‘50s have been anthologized and few achieve the raw power of the beautiful Touch The Hem of His Garment. Likewise, the golden age of gospel quartet singing yielded recordings of staggering power by the Golden Gate Quartet and the Fairfield Four.
A recent 3 CD compilation issued by the New York-based Tompkins Square label reaches new heights in showing off the primitive beauty of post-war black gospel. Called Fire In My Bones, this collection consists of 80 recordings, made between 1944 - 2007. It examines more than six decades of what its compilers call "Raw, rare and otherworldly African American Gospel." The description is apt. This music offers a deep look at how belief in supernatural entities and myths can fuel one's creative fires. This music sometimes sounds dark and tortured and is occasionally so raw it is startling. Yet its subject matter is thematically identical to the most sophisticated Bach Chorales and Handel's Messiah.
What is truly wonderful about the human mind is that we need not share the street corner preacher's belief in the supernatural to appreciate the beauty and power of his music. If religion is behind this, all I can say is, "Carry on!" Perhaps Gould was right and these beliefs are nothing more than delusional nonsense. But at the end of the day, it's hard not to admire the results these delusions have inspired.