washington phillips

Can an atheist’s favorite song be about Jesus?

Those familiar with my personal views of the divine (agnostic) are usually a little surprised when I tell them my favorite song is “Denomination Blues Pt.1” by gospel singer Washington Phillips. How, with lyrics like these –

. . . It’s right to stand together, wrong to stand apart
When none will enter heaven but the pure at heart
And that’s all, I’ll tell you that’s all
‘Cause you better have Jesus 
I’ll tell you that’s all . . .

– can you find that song appealing, they ask. Well, the short answer is that it’s beautiful. Phillips’ voice, the instrumentation, the melody, even the scratchiness of the recording all add up to a truly moving aesthetic experience – an experience unhindered by any disagreements over the lyrical content. Beauty, whether expressed through a painting, a song, or a play, is available to everyone, not just to those of a particular faith. You’ve probably seen Richard Dawkins hold back his frustration when asked how he can appreciate Christian-themed literature or music – “it’s like saying I can’t appreciate a work of fiction because I know the characters are made up,” he’ll usually respond.

Good art is good art, good music is good music – it matters little what inspired the creator, so long as she was inspired.

Take it away, Mr. Phillips: