Monday, March 13, 2006

Textual Ignorance

I just finished a book entitled "Whose Bible Is It?" by Jaroslav Pelikan. Near the end I came across this passage:

"Yet like the beauty ever ancient, ever new of a Byzantine icon or of Gregorian chant, the stately cadences of the Book of Psalms and the haunting beauty of the Bible do run the constant danger of getting in their own way. The very familiarity of the Bible after all these centuries can dull its sharp edges and obscure its central function, which is not only to comfort the afflicted but to afflict the comfortable, including the comfortable who are sitting in the pews of their synagogue or church as they listen to its words. If it is true that every age manages to invent its own particular heresies, our own age seems especially vulnerable to an aestheticism (represented with special poignancy by the worshipful audiences who listen to Richard Wagner's Parsifal on Good Friday, as he seems to have intended) that finds the ultimate mystery of transcendence, "the mystery that awes and fascinates," in the beauty of art and music, which have the magical capacity to transport us into an otherworldy realm without at the same time calling us to account for our sins in the presence of the holy God and righteous Judge of all mankind."

Though Prof. Pelikan intends to focus on the bible in this passage, I'd like to focus my thoughts on this passage in regards to music.

My initial confession is that I have a very serious problem in regards to music in that I always tend to give primacy to the musical material and subordinate the text to it. Whether consciously, or unconsciously, it's just what happens when I participate in a musical experience. For example, when my wife wants me to listen to some pop song on the radio, I'm always at a loss for words when she asks me what I thought about a particular lyric. While the song was happening, I was analyzing the chord progression, critiquing the singer's voice, and/or trying to make up a harmony to go along with the melody (you can almost always count on that third above with music of that ilk).

Now in addition to annoying my wife (who tends to do just the opposite), I find that this is a serious problem when it comes to liturgical music. When choosing music, I often have to force myself to read through all the verses and analyze their content instead of relying so heavily on the "musical judgment" (a discussion of the three MCW judgments is for another time). And I still feel that I cannot fully appreciate the excellent texts of Wesley, Luther, Haugen (just kidding), etc. and I may never be able to. In other words I have a very hard time praying the texts that I sing. 'Tis a serious deficiency in my spiritual life, no question.

So to relate this issue to the passage by Pelikan, I often find myself in this position he describes of being swept up in the aesthetic quality of the music without really assimilating the text, much to the detriment of my spiritual welfare. Am I the only one out there that this is happening to? I think not. Is this a problem in our current society? Most definitely.

Let me look at the problem in a different way, in the way I see it being the most detrimental to the church right now.

This issue we've had for the past 40 years of trying to model liturgical music on what we hear on the radio is not a good thing, in my opinion. With this style of "contemporary" worship, it seems to me that the intention of the music very often is to appeal to your ear at the most basic, surface level, to grab you and try to suck you in. Just like music on the radio, composers have tried to find "catchy" melodies, pleasing chord progressions, and sometimes a beat you can "dance to" to bring people deeper into the text and thereby the service itself. I would contend that this approach has backfired enormously for the past couple of generations.

With this approach, we find that we are trying to sow seed on stony places (cf. Matt. 13) where there is an initial "springing up" or positive reaction from the faithful, but it has no root, and it withers. This music (I am speaking in generalities; please note that there are a few noteworthy exceptions of course) tries hard to help us deepen our relationship with Christ and His Church, but it's very essence seems to work against that goal. When composers shoot for the lowest common denominator, that is exactly what they get. The ephemeral nature of secular pop music has infested our pews as well; publishers are constantly bombarding us with their latest releases, trying to bring our liturgical music "up-to-date" so as to appeal to the young folk.

The result of this is that Catholics, especially the young folk who are trying to make the faith their own, have nothing to hold on to. Our pop culture encourages hedonism and instant gratification and that's exactly what we want out of our churches now as well. When the good news of Jesus wears off initially, we find that we're stuck with superficial music, lackluster homilies, and a general indifference to the precepts of the Christian life.

I am inclined, then, to think that this push in many orthodox circles to resurrect Gregorian chant from the dead can only be beneficial, at least in the long run. I don't need to give an apology for the use of chant in the Holy Mass since others have already done so; I will just say I'm very interested to see what happens in regards to its use in the next ten years or so.

I've more to say but let's leave it at that for now.


At Thursday, March 16, 2006 10:16:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...

The irony I continually see is that many agree that catechesis is *worse* now than it was when no one understood the words of the Mass. It brings to mind the idea that 80% of human communication (or some amazingly high number) is non-verbal.

Anyway, on music. I actually am not sure I see it as a bad thing that you have a hard time focusing on texts. I played the "Salve regina" chant on 1st January (which was a Sunday this year), and people LOVED it. I don't imagine the reaction would have been as warm had I chanted it; people would have been offended at words they didn't understand. But the beauty of the melody without words still spoke to them - God made Himself manifest to those people in that way, with no words.

Attentiveness to purely musical detail might go along with the Franciscan axiom of "preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words".

This also puts a new importance on music that is intrinsically sacred. If I sing "Amazing Grace" to the Gilligan's Island theme (it works!), it's sacred only to the 20% of our communication that's verbal; the musical part of us hears that and thinks of beautiful girls on an island with scientists, etc. (At least, *I* do.)

At Thursday, March 23, 2006 12:48:00 AM, Blogger ScholarChanter said...

For Lent, we have offertory music that is only instrumental. I had the momentary brilliant thought of having a quartet play some Palestrina, such as Sicut Cervus - Sitivit anima mea for offertory. Unfortunately, because the last two Sundays were taken up by spring break, we didn't have anyone around to pull that off. Plus I am not sure if one of my instrumentalists will be have the chops to pull it off. I pray that I can pull this off before lent ends!!


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