Atheists and religious art.

Another thought that came out of Scruton’s undergraduate lecture today has to do with whether it is possible for atheists to appreciate religious art, and if so whether they can to the same extent. The argument against this possibility would presumably claim that appreciation of religious art requires an understanding of and belief in the key factual claims the art depends on. So if a painting is predicated on the Virgin Birth, the atheist’s belief that this story is a myth will preclude his ability to connect to the painting and tap into its meaning. He could never access the emotions that the art may conjure up for a believer.

That sounds very plausible. But then I reflect on my own experience, and I know that there are at least some examples of cases in which this certainly isn’t true. As I’ve happily confessed before, The Tree of Life moves me deeply and makes me not only feel like I understand Christianity; it also makes me want to be Christian. And then I must also consider how faith infects some of Springsteen’s songs. An example:

His recent song ‘Rocky Ground’ also opens with the line ‘Rise up shepherd, rise up‘ and quickly proceeds in this thematic manner.

But back to My City of Ruins (in the video above). It’s worth quoting David Remnick at length on just how moving but inherently spiritual this song is when performed live. His account reflects my own experiences of it perfectly:

The tune, thick with horns and vocal harmonies, elides into “My City of Ruins,” one of the elegiac, gospel-tinged songs on the 9/11 album, “The Rising.” The voices sing “Rise up! Rise up!” and there comes a string of horn solos: trombone, trumpet, sax. Then back to the voices. Springsteen quickly introduces the E Street horns and the singing collective. Then he says, “Roll call!” And, with the music rising bit by churchly bit, he introduces the core of the band: “Professor Roy Bittan is in the house. . . . Charlie Giordano is in the house. . . .”

When he finishes the roll call, there is a long ellipsis. The band keeps vamping.

“Are we missing anybody?”

Two spotlights are now trained on the organ, where Federici once sat, and at the mike where Clemons once stood.

“Are we missing anybody?”

Then again: “Are we missing anybody? . . . That’s right. That’s right. We’re missing some. But the only thing I can guarantee tonight is that if you’re here and we’re here, then they’re here!” He repeats this over and over, the volume of the piano and the bass rising, the drums hastening, the voices rising, until finally the song overwhelms him, and, if Springsteen has calculated correctly, there will not be an unmoved soul in the house.

The only way I can describe it is to say that it’s precisely how I imagine some of the Pentecostal churches to be: everyone entranced by the charisma of a powerful preacher. And I totally get swept up in this wave of emotion, even though the imagery is intrinsically religious in a way that I surely shouldn’t be able to connect to.

In general, I don’t think Springsteen’s music is religious. I’ve pushed back against the claim that his Catholicism is a driving theme before. But I can’t deny that it dominates some songs. And I revel in those songs just as much as I do in Thunder Road, where church is the last thing on his mind and “all the redemption [he] can offer girl is beneath this dirty hood”. I feel like my atheism should be a problem here, but I’m almost certain that it isn’t.


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