Tuesday, June 3, 2008

I don't mean to offend...

Have you heard the music I've got playing to the right side of this blog? For me, the one characteristic the songs on the playlist poses (for the most part) is Mystery and Mysticism. Sacred music, if it is truly is sacred, should not have its own self-interest in mind. By that I mean it should not have been composed with the intention of making it so cute, you focus entirely on the SOUND of the song without going beyond it. Sacred music should get your attention, and quickly point you towards something bigger than itself. It should remind the listener that there is a Mystery, both ineffable and incomprehensible, which Christianity is centered around.

Below are two examples of music I feel take you in the opposite direction of traditional sacred music. I don't mean to say that they make you sin or bring you to occasions of near sin, but rather they emphasize (perhaps inadvertently) the earthly, the dusty, and all things that decay. While I enjoy the opening measures of the first song in the first video (it has a nice R & B arrangement), none of these songs take you beyond them to the Mystery that consumes all mystics. Take a listen.

To avoid cacophony, please pause the music player on the right.

Yes, I reckon this quartet sounds mighty nice, which is why some of you like this stuff. You like to hear it, clap your hands to it, sway and tap your feet. You might even prefer it to the music I have playing on my playlist, or to other traditional Catholic pieces not listed there. I respect your opinion and your taste. But for this humble listener nothing takes me away further and faster from the Mysterious and the Mystic, and delivers me to an earthly auditorium full of hairspray and the Old West faster than the type of music in these two videos. I call it the Hee Haw Benediction, and it's not my cup of tea.

I note in this type of music the same false sense of simplicity that also accompanies the methodology of Christian fundamentalists. The songs are uncomplicated, and the faces of those who are carried by it seem to imply that all in life will be just fine as long as I quote the Bible enough and declare publicly that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior. The sacred music that I prefer, and that has accompanied Catholic worship for over a thousand years, already implies those things and much, much more. With traditional sacred music, we are taken to a Mystery and are asked to lose ourselves into it. We feel a sense of the undecayed, perpetual, incomprehensible, and unimaginable presence of God, and what will wait for us, hopefully, at our journey's end.

Imagine for a second a monastery where monks sing, sway, clap and tap the tunes of this foursome.


Cathy_of_Alex said...

Tom: Great post! The "praise him" music is fun in some settings-like my car. But, at the actual Mass I prefer the stream you have going.

Thom said...

I just imagined that monastery:

Come to our o'sisstuuuuuuunce."

~cue banjo

Adrienne said...

This type of music has no place in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Period. End of story.

Tom in Vegas said...

I agree with y'all. When I was a wee-one, I kaint recall none them there Catholic folks singing this here type o' music. I, too, says it's got the vulgars.


kris said...

Hate it. Does that mean I'm mean??

And on that note, saw what REALLY peeves me on a Lutheran "sign"- you know how churches put messages up? They read like freaking SLOGANS. This one?

"The price of gas is expensive for a long trip, but the price Jesus paid for your life will get you all the way to heaven FREE!"

PUHLEEZE. Does God have to be reduced to this??

Adrienne said...

"got the vulgars"???? ROFLMAO

Katie Alender said...

Kathleen Norris, in her amazing book "The Cloister Walk", talks about the dumbing down of powerful imagery and language. The dumbing down of the music is the same thing to me.

Call me a cynic, but I hate to hear the word "wretch" replaced with "soul" in Amazing Grace. How can one compare oneself to God and not come out a wretch? Although I know many wonderful people who prefer it that way, and I still like them all. ;-)

Katie Alender said...

PS - I've been thinking about the critter lately and wondering if you've ever seen this marvelous product:

the cool bed. Winston has one, and it's great. The only thing it can't do is sit in a hot car all day (then it turns into a hot bed).

Jennifer said...

I like your music too. That youtube stuff sounds too much like whoopi goldberg in sister act.

I cringe when they sing this little light of mine during mass and they have another one printed on a paper in the hymnal that everyone claps too. I'm always half tempted to leave during those.

Tom in Vegas said...


I've seen those type of signs before on t.v., or circulating on a chain-emails. Some of are funny, ALL are generic. I can see where you are coming from.


I've always enjoyed the song Amazing Grace just as I've sungit a million times before. Those "replacements" that you speak of do the song no justice.

Thank for the recomending the Cool Bed for the Critter. I'll email you today or tomorrow about it.:0)


I used to think that the use of the song I Will Follow Him in Sister act was kinda cute. Then, among other things, I began to hear nothing but Whoopi and the "cuteness" wore off VERY quickly.

Adrienne said...

My husband likes Amazing Grace. I cringe when I hear it played in a Catholic Church. It implies "once saved, always saved."

Tom in Vegas said...

Auntie A-

I've never really detected that message from the song Amazing Grace. Needless to say, I don't agree with that Prot. methodology. BTW, I can't remember singing that song in Church. I do remember singing the most detestable hymn in all of musicology: How Great Thou Art. Oh my goodness, just thinking about makes me cringe.

Kirk said...

Hi Tom,
I too prefer the more traditional music on your side bar thingy(actually I am more Ambrosian than Gregorian when it comes to chant). The music in the Youtube videos looks more like a concert to me. This sort of music is not a part of my heritage but the people certainly look sincere and seem to know the words so at least they are enjoying themselves. It would not be my cup of tea though...

Having said that I find that I cannot agree with your view on 'How Great Thou Art'.
True, it is not a part of our Catholic heritage and one of the later verses is a bit on the (theological) nose but I do not think it detestable. How can any song that praises God, if written in simple sincerity, be detestable? One might not care for the words. One might not even like the tune. But I don't think this would necessarily equate to it being judged detestable. I think that your criticism is too strong.

Tom in Vegas said...


I think you are comparing apples to oranges here.

I can certainly agree that the individuals who are performing and listening to this music genuinely feel a closeness to God, specifically, a joyous rapture that impactful religious music evokes in many worshipers. I don't discount that possibility, nor am I questioning the authenticity or devoutness of those energized by these sounds.

The other camp where music is evaluated is in the "audio" arena, or simply stated, in the sound of the music itself. It is in this context where I formulate my criticism of "How Great Thou Art."

I'm sorry, Kirk, but “How Great Thou Art" is completely banal and exanimate to me. It's a song that is handicapped by exorbitant simplicity and monotonous note progression. It truly is detestable. After years of listening to the masters of the early Baroque period, and to some modern-day composers like Arvo Part, there’s just no way that I can train myself to appreciate music that is completely lacking in depth. Now, this I say about the sound of the music, and NOT about the people enjoying that same sound. BIG difference between the two.

And, yes, I'm very much aware of the fact that”How Great Thou Art” is received with enthusiastic approbation across a wide range of denominations.

Kirk said...

Hi Tom,
a fair comment. The point that I was making was that I felt your use of the word 'detestable' was too strong. I still think so. Boring - yes. Sonorous - yes. But I cannot bring myself to call any tune detestable.
Having said that I understand your viewpoint. I looked the hymn up on the internet and see it was written by a Swedish chap after walking home in a thunder storm. Perhaps that explains things.

However I will confess that when I am by myself in the apartment I enjoy playing such things as 'The Irish Washerwoman' 'Oranges and Lemons' and 'Immaculate Mary' on the harpsichord so perhaps this explains me too!