Countering the Performance Culture

I will be in Aiken, South Carolina on Saturday leading a day workshop and lecture on worship. The first session is The Meaning of Sacrifice,  the second, The Meaning of Mystery. Then a workshop session, How Shall We then Worship?


It seems to me that within American Catholicism one of the things we need most to counter attack is an underlying performance culture. Everything in modern America seems to condition people to expect a performance. Whether it is the canned performance of our politicians, the ubiquitous television and film screens, the polished performance of the trained sales personnel or the performances of our preachers and televangelists, we have come to expect that if we are involved in public speaking or teaching or leading worship that we must perform, and if we are in the seat, the pew, the bench or the easy chair, we expect a performance.
This underlying assumption in American culture is insidious. Because it is an underlying assumption it is very difficult to challenge. It pervades everything. When it comes to sacred music, for instance, it is clear that the composers and lyricists themselves have been trained in a musical culture that assumes that it is all about performance. Whether their area of performance is classical, pop, Broadway or whatever–music is about performance. As a result, sacred music, from the ground up, is written for a performance culture. The choral music is all c cleverly arranged so the composer, the conductor and the performers can  all put on a good show.
This creeps into the sacred music too, so that the music we are being offered is conceived within a performance culture, created within a performance culture and is therefore practices and performed within the same performance culture. It is very difficult, therefore within church, to convince people involved with the music that it is not really about performance at all, and that their job is to do just the opposite of what they have been trained to do–that is, to fit in, to blend in, to fade away, to complement the liturgy and never to draw attention to the music, and certainly not to the performers.
Priests, also must realize that the liturgy is not a performance. We don’t have to bend over backward to be relevant, cool and with it. Of course homilies should be well prepared and there is nothing wrong with keeping people’s attention and using oratorical skills to preach God’s word well, but the liturgy is greater than us, and the priest is not a performer. He is enacting and bringing into the present moment the one, full final sacrifice.
Everything else submits to that. 

  • http://profile.typekey.com/thesheepcat/ thesheepcat

    Yes, yes, yes! Exactly, Father.”He must increase, but I must decrease.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10031215425259997299 vernon

    Two very important factors in church design from of old effectively counter the performance culture.The Priest should celebrate ‘ad orientum’ at an altar close to the east wall of the church.The choir and organist should be in a gallery above and behind the congregation, not on or beside the sanctuary.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01562944653624224107 Adrienne

    very well said…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00277922447843163814 fried chicken strips

    At Mass, I find I sing better when I address God rather than some image of myself. Then, all the emotions of love fill my voice. I am not sure what I sound like. should I care?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11740482509910163332 Gail F

    Is this not true in Europe or England, then? Or is the performance culture there too? And what about the pope’s favorite Mozart? That was music meant to be performed by highly trained professional performers. What’s the difference? (Not what’s the difference between “Gather Us In” and Mozart’s Requiem — what’s the difference between my music director and parish choir and Mozart and his orchestra and singers?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11740482509910163332 Gail F

    Is this not true in Europe or England, then? Or is the performance culture there too? And what about the pope’s favorite Mozart? That was music meant to be performed by highly trained professional performers. What’s the difference? (Not what’s the difference between “Gather Us In” and Mozart’s Requiem — what’s the difference between my music director and parish choir and Mozart and his orchestra and singers?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12520325224585096747 Éstiel

    This perception is interesting. A colleague was trying to lead a class discussion: Why are the Harry Potter books and films so phenomenally popular? She wanted her students to analyze the appeal. Instead, they could only evaluate–they are suspenseful, they are so well photographed, etc. She finally gave up. The students lived in a “performance culture” and could respond only in those terms.


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