Sorry, readers. We at SexySecularist have been busy with the usual trappings of the holiday season – finals, travel, seasonal depression, relationship troubles, cruise vacations, a slew of supposedly oscar-worthy films – and you, the readers, have suffered. Mea culpa, mea maxima, maxima culpa.
About a month ago I promised y’all that I’d write about the time I sang in a gospel choir, and I figured now I ought to deliver.
This Fall 2007 saw the opening of an entirely new course at Purchase Conservatory of Music, the Soul Voices Ensemble. It was taught by one of the faculty jazz cats, Pete Malinverni, who has been musical directing and accompanying the St. Devoe Baptist Church Choir in Brooklyn for quite awhile and figured that with our school beginning a yearlong focus on the African Diaspora, the 2007-2008 school year was as good a time as any to propose a campus choir that focused on music of the African-American experience.
Most of the music we were going to be singing was praise music, so first day in Pete made a few things very clear:
1) He’s not here to convert anyone.
2) Some of us believe, some of us don’t. We all have different beliefs, and that’s totally cool.
3) What brings us together is a love of music and the joy that music can communicate.
Only he said it way cooler than I did, because he’s totally boss.
Most of our material was from Joyful, a collection of jazz-gospel suites that he composed using the psalms of David as text. (Shameless plugging: A live concert recording of “Joyful!” is available through his website – you can either buy the full CD/DVD package for only $25 – that’s full bandwidth, audiophiles! – or you can download the mp3s for only $10! Alternatively, you can sample all the streaming audio on his website, not purchase anything, and let he and his wife starve to death, you cheap bastards.)
Back on topic: the class was an absolute blast, the music was great, and his instruction was outstanding enough to keep me completely focused on him even though it was the only class I took that featured a majority of attractive women (just for the record: unless you’re in the classical or vocal department, being a music major in college confines you to a four-year sausage fest). He knew that a majority of his students were nonreligious or nonbelievers, and went out of his way to make sure that the class was always about the music first, and that we didn’t feel that there was any sort of a religious agenda behind it – an impressive feat, considering that we were performing material that he’d written out of a desire to express his own feelings of religious joy and thankfulness to God.
A few weeks before we were to give the Soul Voices Ensemble’s debut concert, one of the students dropped the class, citing a personal discomfort with the religious content of the class. Pete took a fifteen-minute chunk out of the next rehearsal to address us and make sure that it was absolutely clear to us that this class was about music, not about God; that college should be about learning and questioning rather than conversion; that he doesn’t give a damn what we believe or follow, as long as we just have a good time in the class and make good music. During a break, myself and a few other rabid atheists happened to congregate, and we all made the same observation – his speech to us had been completely superfluous. To us – many of whom tend to bristle at the slightest mention of the word “God” – those fifteen minutes were just wasted time that could have been better spent rehearsing, because he had done such a good job of teaching that none of us had questioned for a moment that this class was about anything other than the music. Our ultimate suspicion – and Pete’s, for that matter – was that the student wanted to drop the class period and felt he needed a better excuse than “I’m sick of singing for three hours late every Monday night.”
The night of our concert, I approached Pete and shared my opinion with him – that his speech had been totally unnecessary due to him having led the class so well. I also told him that I run an atheist blog, that my hair rises at the very hint of a crack in the Wall of Separation (this being a public university and all), and that I’d loved the class from start to finish.
As for the concert itself, I suppose my reaction can be best summed up in the first thing I said after the show: “If anything short of concrete evidence were to get me to believe in a God, that would have been it.” The man certainly knows how to run a gospel choir, and something about the music just lifts you up – I can really only describe it by saying that “the spirit moved me.” In that hour or so of singing, I felt as if I understood the joy that people find in religion, the love they feel for their savior, and the trust they have in the plans of heaven.
One of our songs featured the following lyrics:
Not a word in my mouth,
Not a breath that I take,
Not a thought in my mind,
Is a mystery to you
If I hide in the dark,
It’s like daylight to you –
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me.
Now, I find the actual idea behind those words rather frightening and abhorrent – my first thoughts upon reading them were, “Big Brother is watching!” And yet, singing those same words in harmony, I felt as if I was enveloped in the care and warmth of a higher power. I really, really did. And it felt amazing.
At the same time, not for a second that night did I find reason to reconsider my own atheism and rejection of religion. Emotional and spiritual experiences simply do not persuade me when it comes to understanding the universe and the way in which it operates, and I don’t think they ought to – if a religious experience were enough to sway me, I would have long ago erected a shrine to Stephen Sondheim, marijuana, and Really Great Sex (in capital letters, no less).
So if you’re not an atheist and you happen to be reading this, here’s what I hope you take away from this:
1) Not all atheists are cold and heartless. Some of us do actually understand the emotional appeal of religion – it just doesn’t sway us.
2) That which is religious in nature or origin does not necessarily bother us, especially when we’re dealing with the arts.
Don’t expect me to start liking Christian Rock, though. That’s a genre of music that couldn’t suck harder if it were being made by the cast of Deep Throat while inside of a vacuum.