Below is a post, slightly edited for typos, I made over at Fr. Longenecker’s blog regarding the problem of “Christian” music. You can read his original entry and all the comments here.
Thanks, Father for this fine post. I am a committed Catholic and a classically trained composer and ponder these issues a great deal myself. Some thoughts follow to contribute to the conversation.
I think at the very heart of this problem with “Christian” music is a more or less complete loss of the notion of “ethos” in most circles in society. This was a doctrine–arguably simply an observation–on the part of the Greek philosophers, particularly Plato in his Republic, that was later taken up by the Church in the very early centuries. Ethos simply states that music has the power to form character and should be used judiciously in the education and formation of individuals and society. Consequently, the choice of music (and by extension, its composition) for various occasions is of vital importance.
In our day we take a basically nominalist view of these things. Nominalism–which had its early heyday with Ockham who also had a great influence on the Reformers–states that things really don’t have essences. We can still affix names to individual things and even groups of things, but this is a mere linguistic convenience. Ultimately, they don’t have a core of reality to them that makes them what they are, they merely have names. The implications of this are less than obvious for everyday life, because we instinctively know and want things to have natures. Thus, what ends up happening when we internalize a nominalist view of things, including music, is that we think we can make something what it is (or is not) by giving it a name that we like. Gay marriage would be a classic example: even though the difference between and complimentarity of the sexes is obvious to anyone, and marriage between a man and a woman is as old as history, we think we can make something utter alien to marriage be “marriage,” simply by using the same name.
We try to do the same thing with music in our day, and for the best of motives in the Christian world: The music has pious, Christian words, perhaps taken from the Scriptures themselves; the music is used in worship and private devotions; the music is sold in Catholic bookstores and reputable Catholic online retailers. Therefore: it must be Christian. But we forget that music itself is also a language, with a vocabulary and a content, fully capable of communicating a message of truth or error. Moreover, music, as we all know, and as recent brain science has verified, bypasses the rational processes and goes straight to the heart.
So, what happens when the words are Christian but the music is communicating something profoundly different than, or even opposed to those words? The answer is that we introduce a conflict into the listener at a very deep level, and one that can’t be sorted out so easily because of the powerful, unmediated way that music communicates, as just mentioned above. To illustrate this point using another art form, imagine the following scenario:
Its Good Friday and its been a powerful Lent for you. You’ve been meditating on the supreme and perfect sacrifice of Our Lord and drawing closer to Him. On this most solemn day, you have resolved to make the Stations of the Cross. You are traveling, so you look up the nearest Catholic Church and go. You walk into the Church and find the first station, and there is Jesus being condemned to death by the Sanhedrin. You look at His face and it has been painted with great care and detail….in the likeness of Elton John. You walk a few stations down to the Fourth Station where Jesus meets His Mother, and there She is — painted in the likeness of Lady Gaga.
Now I think we can all see how wrong this is on a number of levels.To begin, we are importing the images of very worldly, secular people into a sacred space and using them to represent the two holiest people in history. Moreover, these music stars are people who are –without judging the state of their souls — promoting a life style utterly inimical to the Gospel.
My point here is that we can do exactly the same thing with music, but it is actually worse, because, again, music bypasses the rational process and goes straight to the heart. In a sense we are defenseless against it.
Here are a couple of other links that might be interesting to readers along similar lines:
A fine summary of magisterial statements about music and its role in the Liturgy in particular:
A good summary of the Church Father’s thinking on music:
An example of the problem, perhaps, and some discussion including a post from me along slightly different lines than the above:
Thanks again, Father, for stepping up to discuss this important topic and God bless
you in your ongoing ministry in the Church.
Brian J. Nelson – Composer
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