Saturday, April 30, 2011

Art, Music, and the Church

After watching the (recorded) Royal Wedding, I started thinking about the complicated issue of liturgical music in the context of the Catholic Mass.  While it's ridiculous to think that we can achieve anything so grand in our local churches, I think it offers some food for thought.  While this can be a delicate (and time-consuming) topic, I'm going to restrict my soapbox time to just to a few paragraphs today.

The first thing I like to do when addressing this issue is to preface my comments with a thank you to all of those who give of their time and talents to serve in the capacity of choir members or music directors.  While I may have complaints with regards to where our music is today, it gives me no less appreciation for the selfless work of these people who try each and every Sunday to give us beautiful music sounding within our churches.  After all, many of them are distressed over the same issue, but can't speak out.  With the exception of cathedrals and abbeys, the musical problem, as I see it, appears to be fairly well entrenched everywhere I have visited.

I have made previous reference in this blog to my article entitled "Reflections on a Hymn," but the problematic hymn Sing a New Church  from Oregon Catholic Press is a particularly good example of a bad hymn.  It's taken a rich and beautiful hymn, Come Thou Font of Every Blessing, and replaced its powerful and profound words with modern feel-good drivel.  No less damaging to our musical environment, however, are the simply folksy or poorly-written hymns that we sing so frequently.  In fact, my son's comment that all of the music we sing "sounds the same" has really resonated with me.  Originating with the 1960s, it seems so much of the fare offered by Oregon Catholic Press is sadly deficient in both musical quality (unless its stolen from past hymns of old) or message.  Singing them becomes a chore--not a joy.

My next children's book will be touching on the issue of music and why it's important to sing at church.  ...Yet, there are times when I stop and think about what I am singing, and I just can't continue.  The words serve only to draw attention to our culture's lack of depth when it comes to matters of faith and reason.  The visual arts shouldn't be entirely overlooked in this discussion either; they have also suffered from the same "dumbing-down" occurring within our liturgical music.  This undermining of music and art is important on so many levels.  

Fundamentally, the pinnacle of human nature is found within worship and reflected also in our creation of things of beauty and meaning.  Not only are we failing to truly honor God with our words at those times, but we are failing to instill our children with a foundation and love of real music.  Our children, you see, can often glimpse more of the truth than we are aware of ourselves.  The young learn that sung words fail to mean what we say they do, and that art means anything we say it does; beauty in art and music becomes entirely subjective, which is only step or two removed from moral relativism.

In short, we can't expect a service approaching like we watched on television, and sometimes very small parishes don't have the financial resources or talent to be able to offer what they would prefer.  Still, we can certainly aim to do better in our churches.  When we do, we will also be offering a profound witness for Christ to our world.

(For more on the topic of liturigcal music, please read Anthony Esolen's articles found in This Rock.) 

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