(The problem with the question of music in the liturgy is that people want an easy answer. They want one Church document that entirely bans or allows guitars. They want one logical sentence that will make them feel good about their own opinions. Now there is an answer, but it isn’t easy. Don’t read this if you were planning to skim through it. Don’t read this if you’re not in the mood to think. Don’t read this if you’re in the habit of reading the titles of posts and articles and putting your own opinion in the combox.)
What music belongs in the liturgy of the Mass? The lines are drawn, the trenches dug, and the opposing camps face each other with far too much enthusiasm. The “whatever-music-praises-God-is-good-for-the-Mass” crew takes on the “no-guitars-at-the-Mass-only-ancient-forms-please-thanks-a-bunch” gang, guaranteeing a long, bloody comment thread spilling out of any post that addresses the topic.
The first idea that needs destroying is that I’m agreeing with you. If I am, great. But don’t assume I am and project your own opinions onto the post and miss the point.
The second idea that needs to be demolished from the brains of anyone taking on the issue is that there is any inherent value in the age of a song. I can’t tell you how many people paint themselves into a corner by saying “only ancient music” and finding themselves unable to answer the question, “What if Gregorian chant had been developed in the eighties? Would it be inherently unfit for the Mass?” Granted, the age of a song or form of music certainly speaks a lot about it: it says it has been good enough to survive the test of time. Thus age is an indicator of worth; it says nothing about the inherent worth of a song. People wrote crap then, people write crap now.
The third chuckable idea is that you matter. (OK, you do matter, God loves you and you are an incredible, unique creation of infinite worth.) But your own feelings, reactions or thoughts about certain songs do not matter. We spoke on this earlier, that such an attitude denies the fact that beauty is objective. We know otherwise, because God is the source of all beauty, and it therefore cannot be defined by us. It’s very important because, again, people paint themselves into corners by saying, “But God used this song to speak to me, therefore of course it’s appropriate for the Mass!” God used an ass to speak to people, that does not mean it deserves a place in the liturgy.
Now let’s be as clear as we can: Protestants can’t answer this question. I love them, I truly do, and so I pity the absence of authority, the vacuum of ‘things-not-in-the-Bible’ that invites real, damaging conflict. The best solution they could find would be to make a new church for each difference in musical taste…oh wait. But Catholics have the collected wisdom and authority of a 2000 year old institution founded by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit. So let’s understand the Church’s teaching on this. It is not an outright rejection of ‘modern music’ in the liturgy, but it does set very important guidelines. ”If music – instrumental and vocal – does not possess at the same time the sense of prayer, dignity and beauty, it precludes entry into the Sphere of the Sacred and the religious.” (Pope Paul VI). That papal statement knocks out a lot of modern music. It knocks an even harder hole into the ship of ‘contemporary’ music written in the seventies, a large amount of which is utterly devoid of dignity, the” state of being worthy of respect”. It also give us three clear prerequisites for including a song in the Holy Mass – prayer, dignity, and beauty – three prerequisites that I believe are more succinctly summed up by Plato.
Are you ready? If not, go have your mind blown and come back.
You see, Plato set out to define exactly what gave something aesthetic value, that is to say, what – on a sensory level – man is objectively drawn to. What is the soul inclined to love? What – objectively – is the difference between a puddle and a Botticelli? Notice I mutilate my sentences with the word ‘objective’ – I need to make the point. Plato’s answer was not that “nice paintings make me feel good”, or “bright colors are better”, or that “music should be written in Greek”. The prerequisites Plato gave for something being of aesthetic value are: Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Objective.
All three put a demand on man. Good is that which should to be chosen, Truth is that which should be believed and Beauty is that which should be admired. As Judeo-Christianity philosophy rolled around these found new meaning in the Trinity: all three are perfectly realized in Him. All three must be present for something to be aesthetically perfect, and thus appropriate for the Holy Mass, which deserves nothing less than ‘that which our souls are naturally inclined towards’.
Why? Why not less than the Good, True and Beautiful? Because if God made us to appreciate the Good the True and the Beautiful, then our Sacred music must obey the command he has written on our hearts. If we are to sing and play in the True Presence of God we should not lie. And, quite simply, if these three are what our soul responds to, then music containing Goodness, Truth and Beauty will naturally elevate us, will naturally work to bring our hearts and minds closer to God, which is the point of music at Mass. Lady Gaga has none of them. Paul Simon often has one or two. But we’re talking about Christian music.
Most Christian music played at Mass is Good in the classical sense, that is to say, it is not something man shouldn’t choose for moral or ethical reasons. And most church music – from contemporary to ancient – is true. Few hymns are allowed that blatantly put heresy to melody. With a few exceptions we can shake hands and say, your music is good and true, dear sir across no man’s land, playing that ridiculous guitar/uninspired organ. May the Lord bless you and keep you.
No, the issue it comes down to is Beauty. That’s what we’re fighting over. Beauty. What is beautiful? Again, the temptation is to give up, to float off happily into the clouds of subjectivity and personal opinion. “Gregorian chant is so nice, so soft and meditative and beautiful, it’s like God is scratching my back”, or “Song of Hope is so beautiful, it makes me feel so happy. It’s like being sat on by Heaven.” No. We are Catholic. We killed subjectivity. Relativism is for suckers.
So what is the objective definition of beauty?
Here we turn to our Big Fat Theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas. In his Summa, he said Beauty is made up of three parts. (Is it coincidence that beauty and aesthetics are divided into trinities? I think not.) For a work of art to be beautiful it must have integritas - integrity or perfection, consonantia - due proportion or harmony, and claritas – brightness or clarity.
If you’re still with me, I applaud you. (To sum up where we are: For music to be aesthetically perfect, to be what our souls naturally respond to, it must be Good, True and Beautiful. We realize most Christian music is Good and True. All it needs is Beauty and it can be considered appropriate for the Mass. We have just defined beauty. We’re getting there!)
Integrity or perfection. There’s a lot of words that can be used to translate what our boy Tommy was getting at; wholeness, completeness, coherence. But in terms of music, what it comes down to is this: All the parts of a song must serve the purpose of the whole. Lyrically, this is easily picked out. If your song’s message is incoherent, you’re missing a crucial element of beauty. If each line is just some spewed-up truth about Jesus with no relation to the next line, and the verses have no context within the refrain, and vice versa, then the song is not fit for the Holy Mass. For instance: Open the Eyes Of My Heart. No lyric in this song is bad, no line heretical, but there is no completion, no wholeness. The request to have our eyes opened to the reality of God is not fulfilled by another request to “pour out your power and love”, and the chant of “holy, holy, holy” – while beautiful – likewise does not answer the request, simply moves us to praise with no idea of how we got there. The words do not serve the purpose of the whole. (I understand I may be missing some deep connection; feel free to enlighten me. The point remains.)
Musically, this gets trickier. But a good way to think about it is by way of guitar solos. If the song is for the purpose of conveying the grandeur of God, does it serve the purpose of the whole to be grandly displaying the grandeur of your pentatonic scales and ability to shred? Does the part serve the whole? Or as far as drums go: it might be serving the purpose of the whole to be building, crescendoing to a climax along with the other musicians, but does it serve the whole to be pumping out a disco-beat when you get there? This also makes sense in terms of minor, major keys, in ‘moods’ of the song. Hillsong do a great job of having the sound of their songs adding to the whole purpose. Songs must have integrity or perfection of form and content to be beautiful, and thus to get into the Mass.
(Side Note: If a song has any one of the three parts of Beauty, then we might very well ‘like’ that song. Don’t think I’m saying that any song whose lyrics don’t serve the purpose of the whole song sucks – I would never listen to the Chili Peppers if that were the case. I’m saying that the Mass deserves Beauty, not just likeability.)
Due proportion or harmony. ‘Due’ is a key word, because it means that a painting of an ugly thing can be a beautiful painting. If you are conveying despair in music, the proportion due to it is different than that to a song conveying hope. Make sense? Not that songs about despair should be in the Mass, but you get my point.
Music at the Mass conveys what’s happening at the Mass; it comes from and points towards the events of the liturgy. Music in the Mass must be in harmony with what is being said in the Mass. Overtly happy-go-lucky songs are not in harmony with the gut-wrenching sacrifice of the altar. Thus, Oh, Happiness! by the David Crowder Band, for all it’s glory, does not belong in the Mass. Part of this is simply the choice of when to play a certain song; Communion songs for Holy Communion, songs of Thanksgiving for the recessional, etc. This is a mistake often made by the traditional music bunch; just because something is traditional does not mean it is automatically in due harmony with the events of the liturgy. Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow is off-putting as a Communion hymn. But the Mass as a whole also needs be considered.
The general scream that drums don’t belong in the liturgy doesn’t make much sense. Drums, all throughout human culture, are perhaps the greatest instruments to express drama within a musical group, and the liturgy is overflowing with divine drama. It is The Divine Drama. That’s why Requiem Masses and Easter Vigils use massive bass drums, cymbals and timpani for their Mass parts. Drums are a part of Sacred Music. The scream that beats don’t belong in the liturgy comes closer to the truth. The Mass itself has highs and lows, times of meditation and times of praise, anticipation and release: it is not in due harmony with the mass to be playing a four-on-the-floor groove through all your songs. But clearly, there is no sense in saying “Yes you can have bass drums and cymbals and snare drums, but don’t put them all together, God doesn’t like that.” So what are we left with?
Drummers must drum intentionally and in due harmony with the Mass. If the song is about sorrow leading to joy, the drums need to be building throughout, from murkiness – but never messiness – to clarity. Less beat and more power. If the song is anticipation for God, let the drums never rest in a groove, but rather rest in that tension of never quite settling into some beat. If the drummer isn’t being challenged more than anyone else in the band to be in due harmony with the Mass, then he is not doing it right. It is not in harmony with the Mass to simply hit the snare on 2 and 4. And I find when many traditional-music-only are saying, “no drums!” like ”no capes!” in The Incredibles, they’re really saying no beats, no grooves. Which, from St. Thomas Aquinas, makes sense. Grooving is not in due proportion with the Mass. Drums often are.
(Another side note: Obviously a lot of this depends on how a song is performed. That’s another post though.)
Clarity. Clarity of message. Does the song convey? It might be complete, it might be in due proportion, but is it meaningful? Does it accurately convey the intended message? This is why the “You died for me!” pumped-up, happy songs are out of place. The music does not convey the solemnity of the message. The music has to be purposeful. The music should sing with the choirs in heaven: is that clearly conveyed? This is also referred to as radiance and I think this part of beauty, when applied to music in the liturgy, is really the question; are you playing or praying? If the song is truly a prayer, than it’s purpose is clear, it reveals heaven. If the song is a performance, it is immediately muddled. It sings about God and reveals the worship leader or organist. That contradiction sends the faithful running for the exit. There is utterly no claritas in such incongruity.
Phew. If you’re still here, I’m proud of you. Take a break.
So can music played with modern instruments have Goodness, Truth and Beauty in all its fullness? Yes, but it’s very difficult. And this seems to be the attitude of the Church. If you are going to play modern instruments “they are to be played with such seriousness, and religious devotion that every suggestion of raucous secular music is avoided, and the devotion of the faithful is fostered” (Sacred Congragation Of Rites 1958). The Church is not saying that there is anything wrong with modern instruments. That much is explicit. She’s saying that if you are going to do it, you better make damn sure you’re doing it well. She realizes that the easiest thing to do is crank out a beat, throw four power chords on top of it, and sing Casting Crowns. She’s saying don’t. Take the hard, narrow road of of making a song Good, True and Beautiful.
The Church clearly sets aside Gregorian chant as the ‘best’ . Why? Because it has lasted. Blessed John Paul II quotes Pius X saying, “The more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savour the Gregorian melodic form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple” Because it has been tested for Goodness, Truth and Beauty and has not been found lacking. Don’t get offended here, but it’s easy. I mean this in the strictest sense; that because it has been developed by and for the Church over thousands of years, one needs worry less as to whether he is fulfilling the requirements of Beauty. Liturgical music played with modern instruments should seek to follow, not the path of Chris Tomlin and the rest, but the path of Goodness, Truth and Beauty, as Gregorian chant has done.
To be clear, I believe 95% of ‘youth Masses’ or ‘contemporary Masses’ or ‘whatever-you-want-to-call-them Masses’ get this wrong. But it can be done. So instead of taking subjective potshots at each other, let us truly consider whether a song is Good, whether it is True, and whether it is Beautiful, and of that Beauty, whether it is complete, in harmony with its message, and clear in its purpose, and argue on those objective grounds.
This post has to end sometime, I realize that there is an infinite amount more that can be said. So my roommate and I – who I owe much of this post to – are starting a blog called Sacred Sounds. We’ll be taking on the problems with Christian music, and showcasing the artists that represent the solution. I sincerely hope this helped people by giving them a foundation from which to have this discussion.