Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Atheism at the BSO

*Thank you for your interest in this post. I just wanted to give an update. After filling out a contact form, the Director of Education at the BSO contacted me today (February 7th). Calling it an "oversight," she assured me it would be fixed.*

I had the rare privilege of attending the symphony yesterday. As a musician, this is an experience I treasure. I have fond memories of attending the Utah Symphony with my elementary school in the fourth grade and working as a volunteer for the Salt Lake Symphony's Vienna Ball for extra credit in High School. It's been a long time since I went to the symphony, and I had been looking forward to it for a long time.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra played a selection of pieces highlighting the grandiosity and diversity of American landscapes. It began with the thrilling Hoedown by Aaron Copland, and included readings by a geologist, two solos by Robert Cantrell, and a poetry reading by an award winning high school poetry reader. As I sat and listened to the inspirational music, studied the amazing landscape portraits projected onto the giant screen above the symphony, and listened to the geologist explain how long these amazing formations were in coming, I thought of God. I marveled in the idea of creation. I thought of how the bible's account of the creation being seven days is really only a metaphor, since "all is as one day with God," and time is something He gave to us. I'm with the characters of the movie I.Q.. "Time doesn't exist." Not really. Not to God, at least not as something He needs, relies on or worries about. (See Alma 40:8 and Doctrine & Covenants 88:44.) I thought of the millions of "human years" it must have taken to create the earth. As the geologist mentioned dinosaur fossils in the great plains region, I considered the different theories I've had about dinosaurs throughout my life as far as the creation is concerned. I imagined God placing dinosaurs on the earth in its early years just so that when man finally got here, he would have something to study and wonder about. Dinosaur fossils are another gift from God, along with all the gorgeous scenery to behold on the earth. It is all a testimony of His love and His grace. In short, I was having a deeply spiritual experience.

Finally, the narrator, Marita Lister, announced the closing song, and instructed that following her singing the first verse, the audience would be invited to sing as well. Let me tell you that middle school students are a little hesitant to sing in front of each other. But I sang. How could I not sing such a song after having such a moving experience? "America, America, God shed his grace on thee." I admit I wasn't focusing on the words as Ms. Lister sang. I cannot say if she mentioned her creator or not. But as the words to the song came up on the screen for the audience to sing, I saw something disturbing. The beloved and well known lyrics to Katherine Lee Bates' poem had been altered. There had been some delay in changing the pictures on the screen, and I had already sung the lyrics I know by heart before the stunning display of ugly re-written lines appeared. This is what I beheld: "We shed our grace on thee." Stunned, I wondered at such a re-write. Some of the majesty of the experience began to seep out of me as I realized what must have happened. God had been omitted.

I cannot understand it. First of all, it is an insult to the author of the poem, who began to pen the words after hiking to the top of Pike's Peak in Colorado. I haven't been on this hike, but I've been on many others. I don't think atheists do much hiking, because being on top of a mountain is a deeply spiritual experience for me. Moses and Nephi also had greater contact with deity on the tops of mountains. One cannot stand on top of a mountain and not feel something stirring inside that is a manifestation of God. At least, I don't think they can. Changing the words to this poem to omit the creator of the mountain it was penned on is disrespectful and defaming in my opinion.

Second, it does not actually make sense. "We shed our grace on thee?" Since God accompanies the word grace in the original lines, it is safe to assume Ms. Bates was not speaking of the grace of a ballerina. The very word grace implies God. In fact, after using several sources to look up the word, including an Oxford dictionary, an online dictionary, and a religious dictionary, I could not find a definition of the word that did not also include the word "God" or the words "Jesus Christ." People cannot shed grace because it is something that comes from God.

Third, taking God out of an American patriotic song is absurd, since the founding fathers and greatest leaders of this country knew the importance of religion and religious freedom. I believe they also knew how to ask God for help and grace, and their asking led to some miraculous things in American history, for example winning the revolutionary war and ending slavery. As a Mormon, this attempt to remove God from the equation of normal life concerns me, since the Book of Mormon warns about this. (See Ether 2: 10 & 12 and 2 Ne. 1:7.) I wonder, is it even possible to not believe in God AND be patriotic? Or to be patriotic and not believe in God? Just wondering, because my patriotism is something that is connected to my spirituality.

So the question of the day is: Why are we taking action to appease a minority, if that's in fact what the BSO was attempting to do? This is America, America the Beautiful. Last I checked, the majority voice is the one that is supposed to rule. Perhaps it is because minorities can often be loud and obnoxious. Well, so can I. Here I am, asking the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to get it right.

Here are the definitions of grace I found. From an Oxford dictionary: "the love and favor of God toward human beings." From Google: "(in Christian belief) the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings." From the dictionary of the LDS printings of the King James version of the Bible: "The main idea of the word is divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ."