We’ve been lied to.
I didn’t really set out to write posts about sacred music but in my view a great church without great music is like a Ferrari without a gas pedal (I assume. I’ve never driven a Ferrari. If you’d like to let me drive yours, get in touch). In any case, if you’re here reading about church stuff, you might like this.
I also haven’t set out to join the “culture wars” or whatever between liturgical traditionalists and progressivists. I think beauty speaks for itself, and my job is to help create fitting homes for Our Lord. It is probably not hard to guess at my personal tastes but the whole point of the liturgy is that it’s not about personal tastes. So, I’m not interested in taking sides.
All of that said, I think we’ve been duped. For a long time we have been told that the way forward in the Church is to have churches that look like spa bathrooms and music that sounds like this:
(Credit: CC Watershed)
A lot of people out there — maybe you! — have grown up with these jaunty, energetic songs and enjoy singing along with them at Mass. Cool! I’d be lying if I said I didn’t kind of like that first one. I love Dave Brubeck. And I can get down with One Bread, One Body.
But it seems like music directors and other people, whose job it is to think about this stuff, have fallen into believing that this stuff is somehow exciting and hip and like, soooo relevant to where I am in my personal faith journey. Baloney! Nobody, not even the music directors themselves, gets into their cars after 10:00 Mass, flips on the alt-smooth rock/knockoff Michael Bolton/inspirational slow jams radio station and thinks “Wow, this music speaks to me where I am!” Nobody. Because it’s cheesy and lame!
Have you noticed, by the way, that these tunes don’t exactly lend themselves to musical excellence? When was the last time you heard an amazing parish choir knock a rendition of The Summons out of the park? (Gag.) Probably never. This is to say nothing of the theological, uh, problems that some of these songs generate. Check out this great article for more on that.
We’re lying to ourselves if we think this music is the best we can do, and that it’s the best we can give to God. These are songs about ourselves that sound like they should be played on the “Delilah” show.
Here’s the reason for this post: there are composers, alive today, who are writing intensely amazing sacred music that is legitimately uplifting and worthy of the liturgy. Put on some good headphones and check these out:
“Well he just wants to take the church back to the 1590s.”
And my all-time favorite piece of music ever:
This is contemporary music. There’s more: look up David Conte, Jeffrey Quick, and Patrick Dupré Quigley. Biebl wrote his Ave Maria in 1964. This stuff comes from, and is given back to, the God who made peacocks, raspberries, the Grand Canyon, Jupiter, and the color blue because He loves us.
Since childhood, we hear “Singing is praying twice” and “Music is so important for the Mass and how we pray to God,” which is true. This is usually followed immediately by “Please rise for the opening hymn,” which is a badly-performed slobberfest of goopy pablum like Gather Us In.
Pastors around the world are scratching their heads wondering “How do we attract those crazy Millenials?!” News flash, Fathers: the answer isn’t Snapchat. Just like every other generation ever, we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Music like this — and its equivalents in art and architecture and liturgy — connects us with the God of our ancestors, who is still our God today. It manifests that we are participating in something mystical, transcendental, and ancient, something worth sticking around for. This is the stuff that inspires people to receive the sacraments, work for justice, and follow Christ. I promise. We just want to claim our inheritance in the Church that built and saved Western civilization. Is that too much to ask?