Christopher Hitchens and the Great Composers

Christopher Hitchens and the Great Composers June 7, 2024


What a beautiful city this is!
A Wikimedia Commons public domain photograph of Salzburg by Jorge Franganillo

Two new items appeared today on the website of the Interpreter Foundation:

““Armed with Righteousness and with the Power of God”: Allusions to Priestly Clothing, Priesthood, and Temple in 1 Nephi 14:14,” written by Matthew L. Bowen

Abstract: Nephi saw in vision that in the latter-days “the saints of the church of the Lamb” and “covenant people of the Lord” who, though scattered across the earth, “were armed with righteousness and with the power of God in great glory” (1 Nephi 14:14). Nephi’s prophetic statement is loaded with meaning. This study explores how “armed with righteousness” means “clothed with righteousness” (Psalm 132:9) not merely in a martial, but also in a priestly sense (compare 1 Samuel 17:5; Isaiah 59:17). This concept relates to the latter-day temple and its ordinances, which enable the Lord’s people to “go forth” from the temple “armed with [the Lord’s] power” with his “name . . . upon them, and [his] glory be round about them” (Doctrine and Covenants 109:22). When we consider the spiritual power and protection associated with being “armed” or “clothed with righteousness,” we can better appreciate the value of temple ordinances that involve clothing or investiture. These ordinances help us “put on the Lord Jesus Christ”—investing the recipients with the priestly power of Christ’s Atonement, which authorizes them to do his work, enables them to withstand temptation, and enables them to stand in the spiritual battles of mortal life.

“Interpreting Interpreter: Armed with Righteous Cloth,” written by Kyler Rasmussen

This post is a summary of the article ““‘Armed with Righteousness and with the Power of God’: Allusions to Priestly Clothing, Priesthood, and Temple in 1 Nephi 14:14” by Matthew L. Bowen in Volume 61 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. All of the Interpreting Interpreter articles may be seen at An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at

The Takeaway:  Bowen argues that the phrase “armed with righteousness” in 1 Nephi 14:14 relies on the same Hebrew idiom as a similar phrase, “clothed with righteousness” that appears elsewhere in scripture. This shared idiom helps us better appreciate the power and purpose of temple ordinances that involve clothing or investiture, as they help us “put on” the priestly power of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Salzburger Stadtansicht
A view of the city of Salzburg (Wikimedia Commons public domain image).  I’ve always found this a difficult place to like — the city is so lacking in charm and the landscape is so flat, featureless, and desolate.

We were on trains much of the day today, though we started off with a long boat ride, on a “water bus,” from our island hotel to the train station in Venice.  From there, we traveled to Villach, in Austria, where we had to change trains very, very quickly, and from Villach we traveled to Salzburg.

Evening in Salzburg
A nighttime view of the city (Wikimedia Commons public domain photo)

About a week before we left on this trip, I read an interesting article entitled “The profound religiosity of Franz Joseph Haydn.”

Doing so unavoidably reminded me of something that I had written in partial response to god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, a onetime bestselling book by the late Christopher Hitchens.  Since I never published the piece — though who knows what the future might hold for it? — I think that I’ll share it here, in installments.  The birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the home of the annual Salzburger Festspiele (or Salzburg Festival) is always an appropriate place to think about music.  And you are free to consider this an extended extract from the Christopher Hitchens Memorial “How Religion Poisons Everything” File™:

Christopher Hitchens declares that “religion poisons everything,” and suggests that the world would be better off without it.  If we consider the history of music, though, it isn’t at all obvious that religion poisoned Gregorian chant, or the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts, or the works of Palestrina (d. 1594), or the Gloria of the Venetian priest-composer Antonio Vivaldi (d. 1741), or the great Requiem of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (d. 1791), or his Ave Verum Corpus.  And it would be difficult to argue that the world would be better off without them.  A cursory survey of some of the leading lights in the history of music will provide a few hints as to what we might have lost if Hitchens’s dream for our future had dominated our past.

Among the numerous religiously-inspired compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach (d. 1750) are The Passion According to St. Matthew, the Mass in B Minor, the Magnificat, Christmas and Easter oratorios, and various church cantatas such as “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”).  The composer Felix Mendelssohn regarded Bach’s works as “the greatest Christian music in the world.”[1]  “Music’s only purpose,” Bach said, “should be for the glory of God and the recreation of the human spirit.”[2]  When he sat down to compose, he often marked his blank manuscript with the initials J. J., for Jesu Juva (“Help me, Jesus”), or I. N. J., for In Nomine Jesu (“In the name of Jesus”).  And, when he was finished, he would typically write the letters S.D.G., for Soli Deo Gloria (“To God alone the glory”).[3]  The Orgelbüchlein (“Little Organ Book”), a collection of small chorale preludes that he composed, bears the dedication

Dem höchsten Gott allein zu Ehren,

Dem Nächsten draus sich zu belehren.

(“For the glory of the most high God,

and for the instruction of my neighbor.”)[4]

Such expressions are “for him no formulas, but the Credo that runs through all his work,” says his illustrious student and biographer, the great Christian theologian, musician, and medical missionary Albert Schweitzer (d. 1965):

Music is an act of worship with Bach.  His artistic activity and his personality are both based on his piety.  If he is to be understood from any standpoint at all, it is from this.  For him, art was religion, and so had no concern with the world or with worldly success.  It was an end in itself.  Bach includes religion in the definition of art in general.  All great art, even secular, is in itself religious in his eyes; for him the tones do not perish, but ascend to God like praise too deep for utterance.[5]

“The focus of his emotional life was undoubtedly in religion, and in the service of religion through music.”[6]  His entire life was centered on his faith.[7]  Did religion poison Johann Sebastian Bach?  Scarcely.

Nor does it seem to have poisoned his contemporary, G. W. F. Händel (d. 1759), whose oratorio Messiah “has probably done more,” said one writer, “to convince thousands of mankind that there is a God about us than all the theological works ever written.”[8]  (Other Händel oratorios based on biblical and Israelite history include Israel in Egypt,Judas Maccabaeus, and Esther.)  Händel completed the 260 manuscript pages of Messiah in twenty-four days, scarcely leaving his room, barely taking time to eat.  “Considering the immensity of the work, and the short time involved,” writes one of his biographers,

it will remain, perhaps for ever, the greatest feat in the whole history of music composition…It was the achievement of a giant inspired  – …he dwelt  – or believed he dwelt – in the pastures of God…After finalizing Part II with the “Hallelujah Chorus” his servant found him at the table, tears streaming from his eyes. “Idid think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself!”[9]

Afterwards, attempting to express what had happened, Händel referred to the apostle Paul’s comment about his ascent to the third heaven, as it is recorded in 2 Corinthians 12:1-5:  “Whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it I know not.”[10]

[1] Herbert Kuperberg, The Mendelssohns: Three Generations of Genius (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972), 130.

[2] Robert W.S. Mendl, The Divine Quest in Music (New York: Philosophical Library, 1957), 59.

[3] Patrick Kavanaugh, Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, rev. and exp. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 19-20.  Kavanaugh’s book is a treasure trove of relevant material and helpful references.

[4] Cited in Albert Schweitzer, J. S. Bach, 2 vols., trans. Ernest Newman (New York: Dover, 1966), 1:167.

[5] Schweitzer, J. S. Bach, 1:167.

[6] Hans Theodore David and Arthur Mendel, The Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1966), 24.

[7] Kavanaugh, Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, 20.

[8] Robert Mason Myers, Handel’s Messiah, A Touchstone of Taste (New York: McMillan Company, 1948), 238.

[9] Newman Flower, Handel, His Personality and His Times (London: Panther Books Limited, 1972), 272.

[10] Kavanaugh, Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, 30.

(to be continued)

Magazine art for 6DIA
This is a preliminary version of a “teaser” for the Interpreter Foundation’s forthcoming film.

We had dinner tonight with two other couples — one of them Austrian, from Vienna — who are here in Salzburg to participate in Saturday’s FAIR conference.  Then my wife and I broke away for a Zoom meeting with our producer, our director, and the person whom we have retained to manage the marketing and distribution of the Interpreter Foundation’s forthcoming film, Six Days in August.  We were pleased with the discussion.  And the work goes on.

Posted from Salzburg, Austria



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