Monday, December 06, 2010

Who are you calling a sheep? (Another classical music post)

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.


  1. "Psalm 23:1-2

    The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters."

    God's people are sheep people(sheeple). It makes me think the Bible is saying people are like mindless animals who no purpose or direction without Jesus or god. In our modern scientific age I think we really have to question what is mindless.

  2. I always thought referring to the religious as "sheep" was our way of making fun of them, I didn't realise they actually liked the name!
    I don't see an open thread for #686 so I'll comment here- what a total TKO on Andrew! First Matt knew exact passage, then Darrel Ray gets him to admit he's x-tian solely due to his parents, then Matt finishes him off by showing him how its wishful thinking! Awesome!!

  3. As Monty Python pointed out years ago, a sheep's life consists of standing around a few years and then being eaten. (The Pythons neglected to mention that the sheep repeatedly get fleeced throughout their lives, as well.) It's such a wonderful metaphor—if you don't think about it too deeply. What's good for the shepherd is seldom good for the sheep!

    That said, J.S. Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring has always been my favorite piece of Christmas music. I don't care why it was written; it's just good music.

  4. @Honest_guy87110

    I can never ever EVER read that passage, without hearing it pink-floyd style. Tried to link to youtube but the audio quality was too low to make it out.


    Back when my parents made me sing in the church choir, we made that joke ("We all like sheep") every. single. week. It was oh so funny in that bland, ned-flanders-esque way.

  5. Damn, so much for being clever.

  6. For me a particular Christmas Carol/Hymn influenced by liturgy that I learned as a child continues to make me smile. While participating in a church youth chorus we performed Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. What sticks with me about the experience isn't the music (and certainly not the theology) but rather the manner in which the musical director instructed us to pronounce the lyrics of the refrain. From that day forward whenever the "In Excelsis Deo" part is sung, I hear In Egg Shell Seats Day-o.

  7. and Mary had a little lamb -

    Humans are not the only ones who grew up to be sheep!

  8. I've been to Handel's Messiah on at least 5 occasions, but only last year was the first time I had the actual words available to me.

    I hadn't realized it was in English. (D'oh + Philistine). I blame poor church acoustics.

    So you can enjoy it without the words - or at least I did on four occasions.

  9. @Kazim - "It's that I don't agree with the Christian concept of what constitutes bad behavior."

    It's amazing how Christians can't get past that very idea. Their ideas of right or wrong, while they may drive the moral culture of our society, are not necessarily correct.

    I don't "want to sin." "Sin" is not a concept for the real world. It is a religious word that applies only to those who uphold a religious view.

    What I want to do is live responsibly, functionally and wholesomely in this world. If in the course of striving to do so I engage in what they consider "sinful" behavior, then so be it.

    If they voice an objection, then I will say to them "mind your own business!"

  10. Sheep have been taking care of themselves for millions of years. They aren't "bad" or "stupid" & don't go "astray". Of course, when man turned them into a domestic animal, we found their own natures were often in conflict with what we want them to do. They are only dumb & disobedient in relation to man's use for them.
    I guess that makes mankind kind of "sheepish" in relation to a god who wants mankind to deny its nature and waste its existence standing around placidly, waiting for the end.......

  11. A remarkable comment from the YouTube comment thread:
    "The end of this song always gives me goosebumps... In the movie "Revenge of Sith" (Star Wars), when the Emperor gives the order 66, that is to kill all the Jedi... well, it's the same chord, and I always remember the flim when listening Messiah and vice versa ^^U"

  12. John: Don't overlook Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Megadeth, and Rush. ;)

  13. Religious music is a fascinating topic, I am glad you blog about it.

    I love Handel's Messiah, but would not take any of the Biblical verses of the lyrics as moral example. But music, like all art, is not moral. The pleasure we feel listening to it is aesthetic. This is something religious people often fail to grasp (although I have heard some anecdotes about devout Catholics who felt guilty because they enjoyed religious music).

    Oh, and on an unrelated note: why do modern Christian musicians write really bad songs? It is as if God just stopped inspiring them.

  14. Guillaume: More like, the rise of the middle class made it possible to get money without begging at palaces and churches. With all that competition, religious music is just another outlet competing for creative energy, with no special privileges.

  15. John: True story, I attended an Ozzy concert in college, and he said "God bless you all!" Poor guy must have already been getting senile back then. :)

    But then again, he has been the bleeping prince of darkness since 1979.

  16. @Kazim

    He didn't specify WHICH God, though did he? ;)

  17. Sorry for an OT post, but where the thread relating to the last AE episode? I think it was awesome, and we had Matt at his best during his talk with the theist claiming that God must exist, otherwise a lunatic with a gun who rapes and kills and then shoots himself is not going to get punished in any way. I think Matt's response to him should become a classic AE piece, and should be immortalized as a clip on YT or something:)

    Again, sorry for OT, but there's no relevant thread here yet.

  18. I'm glad you can get past the whole religious aspect of the music and still enjoy it. You should listen more closely; it might just keep you out of hell.

  19. I agree with Kari.

    Some of the lyrics are actually hidden spells, such as enveloping yourself in a globe of invulnerability, but that only lasts 4-5 rounds, so it's good to have some extra mana potions on hand.

    Satan is susceptible to cold spells, so having iceshield memorized may help as well.

  20. "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."

    cool observation about handel's messiah. i think it was fully intended by handel to create that dark effect. brings out the hobbesian state of human nature doesn't it? i wonder if you agree with these descriptions of human nature.

  21. "This blog encourages believers who disagree with us to comment."

    i was glad to read this encouraging statement. so i just went ahead and created

    hope you don't mind.

  22. Sungyak,

    i wonder if you agree with these descriptions of human nature.


    i was glad to read this encouraging statement. so i just went ahead and created

    hope you don't mind.

    I'm certainly not going to tell you that you can't create a blog with (as it currently appears) the express purpose of responding to posts on this one. I might even enourage it, and may comment on it once in a while, although I wouldn't promise special attention.

    However, as a blogger of many years, I'm not sure I'd ever want to tie my identity so closely to somebody else's work, either pro or con. Do the responses to our posts somehow not fit the theme of the blog you already have?


  23. On the off topic

    IMHO Hobbs was both right and wrong, in his life and in his writings. He had some good insights, and should be rightfully applauded for his at the time uniquely practical view on politics and it's role in breaking the Divine Right of Kings mandate.

  24. The theist experience is perfect. All of Christian culture is unimaginatively ripping off existing stuff.

  25. The musical phrasing ends on the word sheep. To me, it sounds like the meaning is that "all of us are fond of sheep" as opposed to the intention, "in the manner of sheep".


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