Wednesday, June 7, 2017

How Great Thou Aren't: The Curse of Bad Liturgical Music

During a particularly naive time in my life, I decided on a whim to join the parish choir. “St. Gregarious” is equipped with a music practice room, but the choir preferred to sprawl in the sanctuary and bawl along to the ignominious Gather hymnal while Our Lord remained ignored (and probably covering His ears) in the Tabernacle. Rather than using the choir loft built for the obvious purpose, the director took almost gleeful delight in herding her minions directly to the right of the altar, obscuring the view of the sanctuary and drawing the congregation’s attention to her show-stopping Marty Haugan hits rather than the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

A Mass with this choir was indeed Calvary continued. During the sole practice session that I attended, we spent the entire two hours hashing through heretical gems such as “All Are Welcome,” “We Are Marching,” and “Coming Together for Wine and For Bread.” There was no doubt: the Spirit of Vatican II was strong with this one. The lovely church organ sat idle and dusty while David Haas tinkled his way through the piano and bored into my brain like a satanic weevil. By the time we got to “And They’ll Know We Are Christians” I was breaking into an unholy sweat. The last straw was “No Wind at the Window” which drags around such tripe as “No wind at the window / No knock on the door / No light from the lampstand / No foot on the floor / No dream born of tiredness / No ghost raised by fear / Just an angel and a woman / and a voice in her ear.” This song is supposedly about the Annunciation, but instead makes one wonder what kind of mushrooms the composer was imbibing in.

The choir folks bade me to join them for refreshments after practice, but I felt the need for a comprehensive cleansing bath and politely declined. I spent the next four weeks visiting every Catholic church in the area, desperate for relief from the guitars and projection screens. I only encountered more of the same, occasionally with some hand clapping and a tambourine or two thrown in as a bonus. Even after a new priest came to St. Gregarious, his hands were tied, and the choir continued to bellow heresy at every Mass it could.

Unfortunately, these scenarios are all too common at Catholic churches around the country. The priest may be excellent and orthodox, the sanctuary may be properly and beautifully adorned with tasteful statues and candles, the preaching may be fantastic, but the choir can drag everything to the lowest level of hell. Even the boldest priests can be reduced to rubble when they dare to confront the choirmaster and their magnum opus. It seems the priest can do anything except make suggestions about the music, much less command the choir to disband completely and preserve the sanity of his congregation.

Perhaps you are one of the fortunate elect whose church music is sacred, appropriate, and free from all stains of the Gather and Glory and Praise hymnals. But for the rest of us damned who cannot get to a decent Mass on Sunday, attending Mass can become a torturous affair rather than an uplifting and spiritually nourishing experience. Bad music can embitter the heart, distract the soul, and damage our spiritual eardrums. We may be singing heresy without even realizing it, not to mention counting the minutes until Mass is over so the choir can finally shut up and leave us in peace.

A large percentage of the modern hymns disgracing our Church today were composed by a small group of self-styled liturgical composers who possess the typical left-leaning university education. They show little reverence for the tradition of their art, and would rather dream up some original hogwash than study the masters such as Bach, Hassler, and Crueger. The old, politically incorrect hymns have been around for centuries for a reason, if not for the plain fact that they are breathtakingly beautiful. No guitars or tambourines can even compare to the riveting glory of a tremulous organ ringing through the rafters of the church, stirring the soul, lifting the eyes and heart to Our Creator and Lord. Now more than ever, in our world overrun with violence and ugliness, do we desire to meditate and drink in that beauty that is God alone.

Not to mention how much easier it is for a congregation with varying musical talent to follow the steady melody and harmony of an organ. Organs are loud enough to not be drowned out by an enthusiastic cantor, have beautiful, complex overtones of dominants and subdominants, and play an audible melody line that even the most musically challenged person can follow. Contrast this with a guitar, which can only strum a chord and is easily overpowered by a choir—thus the need to place the musicians in the front of the sanctuary so the congregation can see what is going on. Thus the liturgy becomes the music of self-advertisement and narcissism, which most of us come to church to escape from.

Of course, we can’t just blame the choir directors. Most of them are good people who sincerely wish to serve the Lord with their musical talents. Unfortunately, many of them also lack the time or motivation to put together a program for every church service, and thus rely on the guidebooks that come with every hymnal set in order to choose music for each Mass. These guidebooks lay out music that often pulls from the readings and gospel, but still reeks of bad writing and even worse theology. The plodding “I am the Bread of Life” is just one example, forcing the congregation (whether they like it or not) into the role of Christ by the exclusive use of first-person pronouns throughout. We no longer celebrate Christ, who comes to us sinners as sustenance for our sinful souls; we celebrate ourselves, who become sustenance to others. We hug ourselves as givers of the Eucharist rather than receivers:

I myself am the bread of life.
You and I are the bread of life,
taken and blessed, broken and shared
by Christ
that the world might live.
(“Bread of Life.”)

 “The narcissism of our hymns is a slow but deadly poison,” writes Anthony Esolen,  “coated with a little sickly sweetness and compounded into pills with some bleached and powdered scripture. I hate it because I hate its falsehood. I hate its sapping of the vigor of a Christian soul. I hate its turn away from Christ and towards myself and princes like me, in whom it is stupid and vain to trust.”

Perhaps when you were a child you learned your multiplication tables or the state capitals by singing a catchy little tune to help you remember them. The same logic can be said for church: if it’s in the music, people will remember it. Unfortunately, bad theology and sweetly packaged heresy is often what we end up humming. Music is a powerful tool that can inspire all ages. Why not use it for good? When we ditch the Haugan and Haas for Eucharistic classics such as “Jesus, My Lord, My God, My All,” we actually learn something about the Blessed Sacrament and how to properly approach Our Lord.

Yes, one could argue that many modern hymns are based on Scripture. “On Eagle’s Wings” and “I am the Bread of Life,” for all their kitsch, actually do follow this formula. But often the lyricists adapt scripture rather than quote it directly, thus sapping it of its refreshing power. Isaiah 40:31, which reads “they shall mount up with wings as eagles” is replaced with the limp “[I shall] bear you on the breath of dawn.” The choice of scripture is also often exclusive, focusing on the fluffy and feel-good rather than the penitent and contrite. “That saved a wretch like me” from “Amazing Grace” is now cleaned up to “that saved and set me free.” For our upbeat churches with empty crosses, low self-esteem will never do.

So exactly who are we trying to impress with these not-so-catchy modern songs anyway? Adults hate them, and the last time I looked there were only about 2 teenagers in the very last pews, both of them looking very bored and neither of them with a hymnal. The young people obviously aren’t coming to Church for the tunes, even though those habit-tossing nuns in the 70s promised that teenagers would flock to the altar if we would only make the Mass “more approachable and relatable.” So now, rather than a sacrifice, we have a “supper,” and the kids just aren’t buying it. Most of them have abandoned their faith altogether, while others (the horror!) have found solace and belonging in traditional Latin Masses. Sorry, Sister Daisy, you were wrong.

The main problem with modern liturgical music is that it tries to take something indescribably holy and sacred (the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass) and reduce it to a finger-snapping, toe-tapping performance where the congregation is entertained rather than sustained. It just doesn’t work, and both the clergy and the congregation suffer dearly for it. In the mundane dreariness of life, humanity needs—demands—a place set apart from the world and steeped in sanctity that can only be found in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Our modern hymns, with their gender-neutral pronouns and concern with social justice and racial equality, are only another echo of the vanity and narcissism we have been battling all week long and hope to escape from by entering the sanctuary of a church.

Let us at least keep the Lord’s Day holy. There is plenty of time to hold hands and sing Kumbaya outside of Church.

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