A well known early work of the contemporary English composer Gavin Bryars is “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” (1971). I feel compelled to post it here because it is a unique and stirring example of religious music, one exhibiting deep and sincere religious feeling. The piece can be accessed on YouTube at
“Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” is based on a recorded loop of a vagrant singing a musical fragment that the vagrant, an old man, had improvised and which Bryars heard by serendipity. It is based on a 26-second recording of the homeless man singing outside Waterloo station in London. The improvised hymn, which Bryars composed musical accompaniment for, consists of the vagrant singing the words:
Jesus’s blood never failed me yet, Jesus’s blood never failed me yet, Jesus’s blood never failed me yet. There’s one thing I know for he loves me so.
On top of that loop, rich harmonies played by a live ensemble are built, always increasing in density, before the piece gradually fades out.
The piece is divided into five sections, within which we hear the recurring refrain. It begins with the tramp singing without instrumental accompaniment — his voice faint and almost inaudible. As it progresses, the musical accompaniment is varied from section to section: string quartet, low strings, no strings, full strings, full orchestra.
Astonishingly — given that it is based on a 26 second recording of an improvised hymn — the whole piece is approximately one hour and fifteen minutes long.
In 1971, when I lived in London, I was working with a friend, Alan Power, on a film about people living rough in the area around Elephant and Castle and Waterloo Station. In the course of being filmed, some people broke into drunken song — sometimes bits of opera, sometimes sentimental ballads — and one, who in fact did not drink, sang a religious song “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” [which Bryars recorded].
When I played it at home, I found that his singing was in tune with my piano, and I improvised a simple accompaniment. I noticed, too, that the first section of the song — 13 bars in length — formed an effective loop which repeated in a slightly unpredictable way. … I took the tape loop to Leicester, where I was working in the Fine Art Department, and copied the loop onto a continuous reel of tape, thinking about perhaps adding an orchestrated accompaniment to this. The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping.
I was puzzled until I realised that the tape was still playing and that they had been overcome by the old man’s singing. This convinced me of the emotional power of the music and of the possibilities offered by adding a simple, though gradually evolving, orchestral accompaniment that respected the homeless man’s nobility and simple faith. Although he died before he could hear what I had done with his singing, the piece remains as an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism.
Columnist Stephen H. Webb called the piece “[t]he most Christological piece of music I have ever heard” and describes the work as follows:
At first we hear only the tramp’s voice, but then the strings gently begin; as if to say that no voice, no matter how rough and untutored, is without support. As the music slowly progresses, the string quartet follows the tramp’s lead but keeps a respectful distance, ready to provide full instrumental support while honoring his vocal freedom.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is a good writer and a deep, earnest thinker whose moral earnestness and sincerity come through in his op-ed pieces and reflections upon injustices and atrocities he has witnessed in travels to places few columnists would bother to travel to.
He can also be preachy and boring in the manner of a long-winded minister, and prone to writing tendentious opinion pieces that read like an inferior Sunday sermon.
This is true of Kristof’s op-ed “God and Her (Female) Clergy” in yesterday’s Times.
“What we’re seeing before our very eyes is a dramatic shift; in my mind it’s as big as the Protestant Reformation [what an overstatement!],” says Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, who is quoted in the article. “We’re seeing a new day of understanding of who God is. When the people who are representing God, making God present, have female bodies, that inevitably changes the way you think about how God is [a perfect example of bloodless genericspeak].”
“[W]ith a majority of students in many seminaries and rabbinical schools now women, and increasingly leading congregations, it may become less natural to think of God as ‘He.’ ,” Kristof states. “Already, Reconstructionist Judaism … refers to God with gender-neutral language [heaven spare us] or in the feminine.”
Today is Easter Sunday. I do not currently belong to a church. But I am a Christian. By upbringing, core beliefs, and basic makeup. The scriptures, religious figures, and religious holidays are part of me.
Take the Lord’s Prayer. If it were begun with “Our Mother which art in heaven,” this would be disconcerting to me.
Why? Because I am an ultraconservative? A misogynist?
I don’t think so.
What the zealots who are out to retool the liturgy in the name of political correctness do not understand — and have no respect for — is the importance of tradition in religion. And, sadly, they don’t care.
The liturgy is part of that tradition. The language of the King James Bible (for me, at least). Words that, over time, endlessly repeated, have an incantatory effect. I remember a priest making this point to a group of non-Catholics once. He was asked about saying the rosary every day. Didn’t it become meaningless? No, he said, it didn’t. The words, he explained, have an incantatory effect achieved through repetition.
Perhaps they (the self-appointed church language mavens) will be saying “hallowed be her name” next. To make a point. I wouldn’t put it past them.
You may say that I myself am a nitpicker. A curmudgeon who is angry about nettlesome women bent on achieving gender equality.
But, in my view, there is a deeper issue here, and it is the real one. When someone says, “in her name,” referring to God, or “her flock,” they are calling attention to themselves and what they regard as their advanced, fashionable views, and minimizing the importance of tradition, while at the same time deflecting attention from, or severely curtailing the impact of, the sacred words themselves. They claim to be religious. Their religion is only skin deep. They care much more about propagating their own views. It’s actually an in your face type of thing. It’s disconcerting to someone who is used to hearing certain words associated with scripture and religious ceremonies. It’s as if one used an irreverent or flippant phrase with an authority figure such as a teacher, elder, or esteemed person to prove a point — say, that I wanted to be regarded as being their equal — taking them aback and causing befuddlement rather than proving a point.
On Good Friday, just passed, and on today, Easter Sunday, I want to think, to the extent I can tear myself away from petty concerns of the moment, about what these days mean. Not about what Nicholas Kristof has to say, or the woman religious leaders he admires, by way of making hay with their views and using a sacred day as a pretext. With no regard for the views and feelings of most religious people.
It is the case — there is nothing feminists and the language police can do about it — that Jesus spoke of our heavenly father and my father in heaven.
I have noticed over the years, without thinking about it much, that in many Protestant denominations there has been a tendency over recent years for one to see women ministers relatively often, whereas there were none that I can recall 40 or 50 so years ago. There seems to be a similar trend with respect to Jewish congregations.
I never thought much about it one way or the other, but it is in no way objectionable, in principle, to me.
But, I feel inclined now, if women (and like thinking men) want to have us worshiping God the mother, to make a suggestion. That women who feel this way start their own church — it could be an offshoot of Protestantism, a new denomination (there have been many in the past) — in which church members would worship a female God: God the mother. A new deity is needed for such a fundamental change.
And to him who wishes to bring a judgment against you, so he may take away your tunic, give him your cloak as well; And whoever presses you into service for one mile, go with him for two. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not turn away from one who wishes to borrow from you.
— The Sermon on the Mount; Matthew 5:40-42
The New Testament: A Translation, by David Bentley Hart (Yale University Press)
He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. …”
According to an email I received recently from a close relative consumed by hatred, I am “totally selfish and self-absorbed.”
I just went to the corner mailbox this evening (Friday, January 11, 2019) in the cold to mail a couple of letters for my wife. A middle aged woman who looked cold and frazzled seemed to want to get my attention. It seemed hard for her to speak up. I heard her saying something about needing some change or a dollar, if I could spare it, to get something to eat. I reached into my wallet and there was a twenty dollar bill at the top. I gave it to her.
The twenty dollar bill came to hand. I didn’t think about it. I knew if I gave her more than she expected she would be able to at least afford something (a cup of coffee nowadays costs nearly two dollars) and would be, hopefully, slightly encouraged. Reflecting upon the amount I had given her, I thought to myself, what will my having twenty dollars less in cash on hand mean to me a day or two from now? Her misery or desperation far outweighs any aggravation she or any panhandler might cause.
Beggars and panhandlers are a fact of life for most people, I would suspect. Particularly city dwellers.
I occasionally find myself asking myself what is the best way to respond to or deal with them. Should one give? Are they to be regarded as nuisances?
My rule of thumb has been to be guided by instinct. Often, I will notice a beggar off to the side who can easily be ignored. I tend to never give to subway panhandlers (or buskers, for that matter).
But, there are frequent occasions when I feel compelled to give. Often, this happens when I make eye contact with a beggar. Occasionally, I will be walking down the street lost in thought when I half notice a beggar and walk a few steps past him or her, then turn around, walk back a few steps, and give. It is often the case that I do this when I am in a good mood and am inclined to count my blessings. At such times, I find myself saying to myself, if God is bestowing blessings upon me, if the world is my oyster, it behooves me to try and share some of these good feelings with another.
On such occasions, I usually, besides giving, try to briefly say something affirmative to the other person and to show by a word or two or a look that I respect them and appreciate their thanks, as a way of emphasizing our common humanity.
There are also times when I am not in a good mood and regard someone importuning me for a handout as a nuisance. Feeling churlish, I ignore the beggar and try to avoid eye contact. In such a mood, I feel, kindness by me would not be propitious. It’s sort of equivalent to saying that one shouldn’t give if one can’t do it in the right sprit. (A Japanese-American nurse in a hospital where I was working as an orderly once said something similar to me. Even when doing something as routine as dispensing medication, she said, she felt it had to be done in the right spirit to be effective.)
As noted by me on another post on this site, “My Boyhood,” I used to Christmas shop for my immediate family in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts when I was around eleven or twelve years old. I put a lot of thought into buying gifts for my family, but it was on a very limited budget. I probably spent five or six dollars at the most.
Once, while shopping during the Christmas season, a panhandler asked me for money and I gave him something like 85 cents. It seemed then like a large amount to give and represented a substantial portion of the pocket change I had left. But I felt compelled to do it. I thought it was my Christian duty and that it was better to give than receive.
I had a similar experience in Manhattan once when I was in my early twenties. I was walking back to work on East 18th Street during lunch hour on a freezing cold day. I was on a very limited budget. I was doing alternative service work as a conscientious objector and was very low paid. I was always straining to conserve my resources; it was hard to live in Manhattan on my salary.
As I was about to enter the headquarters of my employer, I noticed a middle aged man approaching. I can’t recall what he said, but it was clear that he badly needed a handout. His teeth were chattering, he was so cold; he looked desperate and utterly forlorn. I gave him two dollars, which represented a goodly portion of my pocket money.
Nowadays, that would not seem like a lot, but I recall feeling that it was a lot then, but that I had to do it. I felt a strong moral imperative, the same Christian imperative. And, I felt that, overall, it was the right thing and would prove, over time, to have been so.
It is my practice nowadays to try to be charitable and helpful in various ways to people whom I encounter in the City. I feel that it is a matter of karma, and I often think of how often people have done little things for me, nice things.
I was walking in Brooklyn a year or so ago. I had just purchased something or other. I think it was electronic equipment. As I was crossing a street at a busy intersection, a traffic agent busily directing traffic noticed that the cheap plastic bag the store had given me had broken and that my products had fallen to the street, of which I was oblivious. She flagged me down and halted traffic, enabling me to return to the intersection, which I had already crossed, and retrieve my stuff. I would have been distressed if I had gotten home with an empty bag.
In situations where I am asked for a handout nowadays — when and if I am not inclined to simply brush the person off — I usually give more than asked for. If someone asks me for a dollar or for change, I usually give five dollars. I say to myself, what can one buy with a dollar nowadays?
One might ask, are you not, Mr. Smith, a smug do-gooder, someone who wants to be admired for your benevolence? And, how much good are our really doing? Why don’t you give to charities, or try to do good works with a lasting impact?
To this I would answer as follows, in a twofold response:
— I believe in serendipity, in letting things happen as they may. And in destiny. So, when I encounter a beggar, I often say to myself, it must be my time and duty to give today. There is a reason that fate has put us on the same path. It is a matter of taking things as they come.
— I feel that — this is crucial — giving under such circumstances can do more good than might readily be apparent. Because what the beggar needs, most of all, is encouragement, and a feeling that one is not regarded as being of no account or insignificant as a human being. So that, in surprising them and exceeding their expectations by being generous, one is giving beggars hope.
“… the true religious genius of our race now seems to say, Beware of Churches! Beware of priests! above all things the flights and sublime ecstasies of the soul cannot submit to the exact statements of any church, or of any creed.”
— Walt Whitman, Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts (New York University Press, 1984), I:408
Who cares what I think about the topic of religion, one might ask.
It has probably — I would say, certainly — been written and declaimed about far more than any other conceivable topic over the ages, far surpassing topics such as politics.
By the greatest writers the world has ever seen.
But I was thinking about religion the other day because of a conversation I had with a friend of mine. It made me think also of similar conversations I’ve had in the past.
My friend is a professional with an advanced degree. He works in one of the so called helping professions.
He is, as a result of professional training and experience and also by virtue of his nature, a thoughtful, insightful, and caring individual.
I had never had occasion to discuss religion with him before and had no knowledge or idea of what his religion was, other than suspecting that he was probably Christian. In the course of our conversation, I learned that he is Episcopalian.
I was raised as a Congregationalist and later became a Unitarian. (More about this below.)
My friend, while a church member, has a lot of reservations about Christian doctrine and about organized religion. We agreed to disagree.
To summarize, imperfectly, the points my friend made (I don’t have him with me to verify the accuracy of my summary):
— Many Christian beliefs, such as those derived from Bible stories, are patently “false,” meaning that to many an educated person in the modern world, they seem ludicrous. That would apply, for example, to a belief in the immaculate conception or that Jesus was resurrected, as well as Jesus’s miracles.
— Not only is much of religious belief based on fiction, but the historical veracity of much of what, say, is presented in narrative accounts in the Gospels cannot be verified. For example, there is very scant historical evidence for Jesus’s life and ministry. What we have been told may well have been invented and then propagated as revealed truth.
— Organized religion has done and does more harm than good. It has led to barbarity and intolerance. And, to modern day abuses. Conservative religion has become allied with right wing political factions in a way that is an anathema to liberals and progressives.
May I be permitted a word or two about my own religious upbringing as it pertained to our discussion?
I was raised as a Congregationalist. They are “middle of the road,” I would say, on the Protestant spectrum, with the Episcopalians being more conservative, the Baptists much further to the right, and the Unitarians way to the left.
I am extremely grateful that my parents didn’t neglect my religious upbringing. From it, I got a good grounding in moral values. To give an example, I learned the importance of compassion and charity.
I developed — my parents had more to do with it than the church, but church teaching was also important — a moral sense and a CONSCIENCE.
I absorbed the basic tenets of Christian doctrine, observed the religious holidays. My family was more important than the church with respect to the latter, but church services and observances of Christmas and Easter seemed sacred and wonderful, as well as inspiring awe and reverence, a sense that they were very special as well as joyous times. (So did some religious and holiday music that I was exposed to at the time, such as hymns and Christmas carols.)
In Sunday school, which my parents saw to it that I attend without fail, I got an excellent grounding in the Bible. I know my Gospels — by no means as well as a TV or radio evangelist does — but I know the stories and sayings, when the angel of the Lord brought tidings of joy to the shepherds keeping watch over their flock; when Jesus spent forty days in the desert, was tempted by the devil, and told him, “Get thee hence, Satan”; when Jesus cast out the swine from the insane man and how they perished in the sea; the miracle of the loaves and fishes; or what Jesus said, like “blessed are the poor in spirit” and “he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.”
Many modern day kids raised in “enlightened,” “progressive” households don’t have the faintest knowledge of any of this. (A shame, I would say a disgrace.)
To learn these words and to read about the miracles when one is growing up are invaluable. They become part of you — your inner self — something you don’t question and which it seems as if you’ve always known. The words and the edifying stories are with you at trying times.
Growing up I also became well acquainted with Catholicism. The majority of my friends, in my early years, were Catholic. We argued about religion all the time. I thought they were narrow minded, borderline ignorant, incapable of thinking for themselves, too credulous, and so on – these youthful opinions were, needless, to say, prejudiced, often unfair and unfounded, on my part. But I grew over the years to appreciate and greatly admire the Catholic church. (See more below.)
To return to my friend’s criticisms for a minute.
He spoke appreciatively of religiously inspired music; he is obviously not a know-nothing disbeliever/religious antagonist. But, basically, he thinks that Christian doctrine was and is founded on absurdities that are impossible of belief by an educated, rational person. And that, by subscribing to and perpetuating absurdities, organized religions are actually doing harm by cheapening and obfuscating civic discourse. (My friend did not actually say this. I am extrapolating from what he said and seemed to be implying.)
My take on this and my current beliefs are as follows.
I became a Unitarian when I was a preadolescent. I do not currently belong to a church. When asked, I respond that I do not belong to a church.
I am not what, in the common understanding of the term, what would be called a “believer.”
But I realize that I am fundamentally a Christian. What do I base this upon? My upbringing. My basic outlook on life. My core beliefs. My basic makeup and “spiritual genealogy,” so to speak.
I admire (which is an understatement) and completely respect religious people, from Saint Augustine to Albert Schweitzer, from Saint Francis to Dorothy Day, from Meister Eckhart to George Fox, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Pope Francis.
I admire Walter J. Ciszek, S.J., the priest who endured twenty years imprisonment in the Soviet Union and hard labor in the Gulag on trumped up charges of being a “Vatican spy.”
I admire Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, who was recently installed as the archbishop of Newark, NJ.
I respect clergymen, priests, and nuns for their seriousness of purpose and devotion to their calling.
The way in which religion affects me most profoundly is through art, in the broad sense of the word.
I defy anyone to listen to the masses of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, or Schubert; to Monteverdi’s “Magnificat”; to Vivaldi’s “Gloria” or “Stabat Mater” or Antonín Dvořák’s “Stabat Mater”; to an oratorio such as the Saint Matthew Passion or Berlioz’s l’enfance du Christ; or to two modern compositions, Alan Hovhaness’s “Ave Maria” and Vladimír Godár’s “Regina Coeli,” and remain unmoved.
To Haydn’s “The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross,” one the most devout pieces ever composed.
Try listening to a hymn such as “Fairest Lord Jesus” — with its beauty, clarity, strength, and simple piety — and remaining unmoved.
Or “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” with its ringing, joyous affirmation of Christian belief.
I know the Latin mass by heart. When words such as Laudamus te, benedicimus te, adoramus te, glorifcamus te … Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi; dona nobis pacem … Crucifìxus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato; passus et sepultus est, et resurrexit tertia die … Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini are sung, I am profoundly stirred. At such a moment, I feel the “truth” of Biblical events. I don’t go into a religious frenzy or temporarily lose my mind, but I do at such moments experience religion at a gut level, viscerally. I am not looking askance and thinking to myself. “This is, at bottom, silly; it can’t really be believed.” On the contrary, through the medium of sublime art, I have become a believer — for the moment, at least — insofar as it’s possible (for myself, that is).
I also experienced this when I saw Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film The Gospel According to Matthew (1964). The film is so powerful and convincing, the Gospel stories become so credible, that one is totally engrossed and in the moment; one suspends disbelief.
A penultimate thought or two. I don’t want to leave the impression that my respect and admiration for religion are solely the impressions of an aesthete. That’s a big part of it, but there’s more, I realize.
It seems to me that religion is a core part of what it is to be human, though many of my friends and relatives would probably dismiss this as representing a sort of atavism. It must feed basic human needs. The need for belief in something beyond mundane existence, as we observe it. But, I don’t think this is just a matter of “emotional neediness” by weak minded people who need a crutch. Sort of the way Noam Chomsky has shown that there is a universal grammar that is innate to the human brain, I think something similar can be said about religion as it transcends all types of cultural and social boundaries and affects all of us.
I think that religion is important because it humbles us. We need to believe and to be able to conceive of something greater than our puny selves, something that inspires awe and reverence. Perhaps that’s enough to say. I am not a preacher and don’t want to be seen as coming across as one. But, I do think that religions play an important psychological function, or more broadly, an edifying one, when we attempt to conceive of the glory of God and His creation.
A lot of my contemporaries seem to think that they are self sufficient in their ability to reason and thereby to deduce their own truths (the absolute rightness of which they are convinced of) and that they don’t need a “crutch.” I find them smug. They would say they need no god or gods. They are too proud, in my opinion, too sure of themselves. They would do well to read what the great religious thinkers have to say.
A relative of mine recently posted a comment on this blog. It had to do with a post of mine, not about religion, in which post I wrote that people should be more “Christian” when it comes to judgment and forgiveness.
“I am inclined to side with the [sentencing] judge,” my relative wrote. “This is an example, among many others, of why I am essentially non-religious. I consider established religion to be one of the most divisive, most antagonistic influences in human affairs and history.”
My relative’s view seems to be shared by many. It is hard to argue with him in view of contemporary church scandals and abuses; ones from historical periods not that remote; and examples from history such as the Crusades and the Inquisition.
But I still respect religion, without reservation. I try to follow the essential precepts and teachings of Christianity, although I do not belong any longer to a church or subscribe to a particular faith.
— Roger W. Smith
I picked out a piece of sacred music more or less at random from the Agnus Dei (lamb of God) section of Haydn’s Nelson Mass: qui tollis peccata mundi (You who take away the sins of the world). There are, of course, many other splendid examples.
Listen to it. Can one deny the intense spirituality? This from a master of classical form.