One of the consequences of my father dying is that old conversations with him keep popping up in my memory. One that I had with him years ago came back to memory again the other day. It was a memorable conversation because it was the first instance where I managed to give him an analysis on religion that he hadn’t thought of yet. It was the first time I gave him some insight into how faith works, instead of the other way round.
We were discussing parish priests who objected to people coming to church just so they could listen to the music. Apparently this objection to ‘music-goers’ was a regular topic of sermons in the time when my dad grew up. My father told me he had never understood those priests, even when he was young, not yet the organist -and the church musician- he would later become. In his view people should come to church for whatever reason. Music is as good a reason as any other because it has the capacity to make people understand something about the message, even if they didn’t go to church for that.
I then told him this was part of a bigger thing: whatever means people have to attain ecstasy, religions will either have a problem with it, or indulge in it. Sex, drink, drugs, dance, music, poetry, play, literature, you name it. Before Salman Rushdie, countless writers and poets faced fatwa’s, book-burnings and heresy-trials. Most religions surround sex with loads of ‘thou shalt not’s. Islam forbids alcohol and has a somewhat difficult relationship with music, just like some versions of Christianity. Other versions of Christianity have been the source of unimaginable amounts of music and some Sufi Muslims dance until they drop and let’s not forget Sufi poetry and qawwal. Religion and ecstasy are either competitors or allies. Tertium non datur.
My dad thought this was an interesting idea, I had impressed him. Now that he’s gone I realise there may even be more to it: it’s not just the ecstasy, it’s also a language-thing. I realised this a few days ago when I saw a poster for a ballet-company that said: “Dance can express what music can’t.” That was it! Music can express things language can’t, for some of us anyway, and then for some others dance can top music. Some points are indeed better understood and more eloquently conveyed through books, plays, music or dance. Ultimately, language can only deal with dry reason and logic, which doesn’t reach human feelings and emotions as effectively as the arts.
This is where believers can go wrong, especially fundamentalists of whatever denomination. They tend to get frightened by points made though art or ecstasy. Art bypasses reason and logic. It’s a phrase regularly encountered in sermons of the Iranian clergy. دلیل و منطق, dalil o manteq, ‘reason and logic’: everything in their faith is claimed to be the mere result of it. Reason and logic can regulate and control human thoughts alright, but emotions are far more effective in influencing attitudes, they ‘speak’ more directly to the human heart. It’s unfair competition to the ayatollah’s of all faiths.
In fact, this is what my father said: music has the capacity to make people understand something about the message, sometimes even better than the parish priest…