Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Sing, Choirs of Angels--But In Your Own Voice

Teófilo at Vivificat! reports on an essay from George Weigel's syndicated column, The Catholic Difference, that is available at the Catholic Education Resource Center website. Weigel, it seems, dislikes the contemporary music sung in many Catholic parishes, not so much because most of it is schlocky drivel reminiscent of a late 70s incarnation of CCR sans John Fogerty, but because the lyrics can be (a) heretical; (b) written in persona Christi; and (c) over-used.

I certainly agree that some hymns have been over-used. Certainly the four hymns that my parish has been singing over and over and over again for the past 10 years could stand to be put on the shelf for a while. And some hymns do sound a little close to heresy when read a certain way. Weigel's own example, however, illustrates how iffy the charge is:
Then there's "For the Healing of the Nations," which, addressing God, deplores "Dogmas that obscure your plan." Say what? Dogma illuminates God's plan and liberates us in doing so. That, at least, is what the Catholic Church teaches. What's a text that flatly contradicts that teaching doing in hymnals published with official approval?
If the term "dogma" here is referring to the infallible teachings of the Magisterium, then of course this is a heretical claim. But if the term "dogma" is simply meant to refer to any old hide-bound rule-of-thumb that nobody has taken a close look at in a long time--and this is the way most people use the word--then the text is hardly heretical, it's just pointlessly obscure. But hey, that's poetry for you.

For the most part I tend to agree with Weigel. I don't like much about the music written for liturgical use in this country in the last 30 years. Give me Hyfrydol or Adoro te devote every time. But the complaint of his with which I have the least sympathy is his worry that some hymns are sung in persona Christi, such as "I am the Bread of Life" or "Come to the Water." Quoting from one such hymn, he writes:
"Love one another as I have loved you/Care for each other, I have cared for you/Bear each other's burdens, bind each other's wounds/and so you will know my return." Who's praying to whom here? And is the Lord's "return" to be confined to our doing of his will? St. John didn't think so.
Although hymns such as these often do a hatchet job on the texts, one must bear in mind that they almost always are just that: texts, that is, quotations from the Scriptures. It seems a little weird to complain that hymns use Scriptural texts for their lyrics. It's a little like complaining that the readings at Mass are all taken from the Bible. As Teófilo points out:
I love "I am the Bread of Life." To sing it is to sing Scripture. Just as a reader doesn't become Christ when s/he proclaims Scripture in the divine "first person," a cantor or a congregation is not at fault when they do the same. If the hymn proclaims Scripture in a sense that agrees with Tradition, I no longer care if it is in "the first person."
Except for the "I love 'I am the Bread of Life'" part, I agree with Teófilo completely here. He also notes that hymns in persona Christi are not uncommon in the Byzantine tradition.

De gustibus non disputandum est, but in general the closer it is to 13th century liturgical chant the better, in my view.

3 comments:

Teófilo de Jesús said...

Except for the "I love 'I am the Bread of Life'" part...

It's just that I learned it in Spanish first, at a time where I was fresh from my youthful "conversion." They hymn is tremendously meaningful to me, particularly its last stanza, at a time where I cared little about proper hymnology and a lot in learning how to love the Lord.

Thanks for the comments, referral, and link!

-Theo

Michael said...

How about Bread of Life? "I myself am the bread of life, you and I are the bread of life". That one makes it clear that we are not just quoting Christ, we ourselves are the bread of life, or so we say. It's a favorite at my parish.

Scott Carson said...

I've actually had some second thoughts about this since posting it--I find myself liking contemporary songs less and less as time goes by.

The thing about Bread of Life that's kind of interesting is that it's a fairly nice melody. I think a lot of these contemporary songs weasel themselves into our affections by having nice tunes. Not all of them, by any means (thing Rain Down), but I like a lot of John Foley's tunes.

But in the end, I am especially a fan of Gregorian chant, and I myself long for a time and a place where it is not merely tolerated, but positively celebrated--in the liturgy!