The Lamb

Something which often preoccupies me is how an atheist (like me) can fully engage with and experience art which is inspired by religious faith.  That’s not to say I don’t think it’s possible, as in fact I think rather the opposite. But defining how that works is difficult. Here’s a small snapshot of thought from the other day, inspired by Tavener’s ‘The Lamb’, which is a choral setting of a poem by William Blake.

I think how Blake interprets Christian imagery here (and I’m writing in full awareness that my literary culture in general and my knowledge of Blake in particular are poor: I just know he had an unorthodox, personal, and rather powerful visionary take on religious faith) is stunningly moving, and in the music there’s a sense of unease and awe that corresponds, for me, to the tremendous fear that comes through in the poetry, and which should come from genuine faith in these amazing, amazing ideas.

Once you accept God become man, and the power and mystery of the image of the Lamb embodying both incredible humility and incredible power (so that all depends on it and all comes from it – ‘we are called by thy name’) it has to lead to the kind of dark, solemn power which the music finds and conveys both through and beyond the poem.

Go here to listen to a beautiful version on Youtube. The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge sing John Tavener’s “The Lamb”. 1998.

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8 comments

  1. You probably know this, but Tavener says that his compositions are an attempt to create the auditory equivalent of an Orthodox Christian icon. So he sees the analogy between visual art and music.

  2. Bit late coming to this…

    I am agnostic myself; I dabble with atheism but the older I get, the less I like certainty.

    I think part of being, for want of a better word, “cultured” is to have the ability to engage with artistic material which doesn’t immediately chime with one’s personal views. I find much of the King James Bible a very beautiful and powerful document and one of inestimable importance to English-speaking culture – with apologies to W. H. Auden, I do, to some extent, read the Bible for its prose and find it awesome, terrible and majestic.

    With Blake, I think you’ve got it spot-on. His faith is in something which is a paradox; fundamentally frightening but ultimately redemptive and Taverner captures a kind of tender terror.

    • What interests me, always, to put it prosaically, is how humans deal with… ‘stuff’, from love to meaning to divinity to death to birth etc. I happen to think that religion is one particular way that people try to process things, feelings, what it is to be human, and so on, and that religious concepts provide a handy vehicle to express concepts of the sublime (which can perfectly well exist without religious faith) and that they do it very powerfully. (My PhD was about the depiction of extreme states (all extreme states) via sculptures and paintings of Catholic saints in ecstasy.) I suppose that’s why I would be interested in books, art, music and culture in general, and why I don’t see a problem in, for instance, being an atheist while having a current obsession with Byrd’s 4 part Mass. I don’t need to believe it literally, to feel it. Incidentally, atheism is not about certainty at all. 🙂 (See http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/tomchiversscience/100139447/richard-dawkins-is-an-agnostic-but-we-knew-that-already/)

  3. Perhaps I should have said, a certain type of evangelical atheism has a negative effect on me and gives the _impression_ of a type of certainty which I find extremely alienating.

    Can you tell me some of the pictures you used in your PhD? Sorry if I’m being a nuisance but I’m very interested in the way that Catholicism is so powerful at depicting persons in extremis.

  4. Here’s a pretty much random visualisation of some of the key images from the PhD which I’ve just prepared, pretty much especially for you!: https://pinterest.com/victorias1980/paradoxical-bodies/. I will do a post at some point explaining some of its ideas, on here. I haven’t been writing much publicly in the last few months, due to the onset of a very specific and justified paranoia, but once I get over that, which I will, I’ll write more on here about random things, and would always be pleased to have feedback and discussion, especially nuisancey discussion.

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