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.