What to do about Wretched Hymnody

What to do about Wretched Hymnody July 8, 2010

A reader writes:

Aside: I do these little brain dumps to you because I find the way you think about the Church very helpful, and I do appreciate that you’ve posted and commented on several of them. Mostly, I’m just trying to verify that I’m not being stupid about stuff – I’d really prefer to fly below radar, liturgically speaking, and just got to Mass, receive communion, and not cause a fuss. But sometimes….
The little comment fodder over at First Things misses, I think, the real point. As I mentioned in my comment there:

As a singer, sadly I gotta ask myself: can I in good conscience sing these words? I’m willing, in the spirit of Christian fellowship and personal mortification, to sing horrible music, as long as the lyrics aren’t out-and-out heresy.

With that in mind, I’m with Chris on “Sing a New Church” – the kindest thing one can say is that it’s incoherent – but not incoherent enough for a faithful Catholic to sing. It crosses the line between the style of modern hymn that is a mere hodge-podge of religiousy-sounding phrases with no overall sense or message to words that, if they mean anything at all, mean something I’m not willing to affirm.

There are many others that, even with a generous mind, one simply cannot seriously sing before our God and Savior.

As in everything Liturgical these day, it seems one must try to be as generous as possible, assume the best intentions, and allow for simple incoherence by people who are not thinking too clearly. So bad music, intentions that don’t intend anything, priests ad libs that don’t actually make any sense – these, and other like them I can live with, and have for decades. But, even with that suspension of disbelief, some hymn words seem to me just beyond what mere incompetence can explain. To take the example above:

Let us bring the gifts that differ
And, in splendid, varied ways,
Sing a new church into being,
One of faith and love and praise

Ok, so – new in what way? In faith and love and praise? Is there any particular old church we’ll be singing out of being that lacked these things? Or – what? These strikes me as something more than incoherent (although it is certainly that, as well)

Compare and contrast a hymn that came up this weekend:

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

This hymn verse expresses a fairly sophisticated thought – that a true patriot isn’t looking at his country as it is, but rather as it should or will be ‘beyond the years’ – that he, as stated in other verses, is willing to sacrifice and die, not for the crummy America of our two political parties, not for the current wars of conquest, but for a New Jerusalem of alabaster cities and eternal happiness. This can only obtain through the outpouring of God’s grace – which is what this whole hymn is praying for.

Now, that’s a sentiment and idea I can get behind!

The other hymn, parsed out similarly, is calling on us (not God – He gets only peripheral mention) to destroy a current or old church and replace it with a new church. By inescapable implication, this old church, unlike this new church we – not God – are singing into being, rejected diversity (whatever the hell that means) and was not built on faith and love and praise. But if we now, unlike in the past, ‘trust the goodness of creation/ trust the Spirit strong within’ and ‘Dare to dream the vision promised’ then we’ll create a new church ‘sprung from seed of what has been’.

Full texts: http://tiny.cc/avb1y, http://tiny.cc/d7agv

O-Kaaaay. So one could argue that these two hymns are, ultimately, similar in intent – they look beyond the tawdry Now to envision a better, more holy, more true Future. But the second puts human action into a subservient position: the first verse blends spacious skies and purple mountains – a beautiful creation not of man’s making – with amber waves of grain and fruited plains – humans making use of and relying on Nature. And each following verse introduces people in different roles – Pilgrims, Heroes, Patriots – each shown in relationship with a creation and a vision, and each verse ending with a prayer to God to pour out his grace, forgive our sins, purify our hearts so that we may live up to the bounty and grace He has already given us and, through our humble cooperation with His grace, bring His glorious reign into being. It even mentions – gasp! – self control.

The first, however, mentions God in the first line – a gender-neutral God who summons us, ‘rich in our diversity’. And Jesus appears in line 3, as he in whose name we are gathered. So the subject, all through the first verse, is us – we are summoned by God, we gather ourselves in Jesus’ name. The second verse merely sings our praises, mentions God again in a secondary sense, as the source of our image and as someone who delights in us. The third verse mentions the Spirit. And that’s it – we never once call on God’s aid, never once submit our judgment to His (unless we count trusting ‘the Spirit strong within’, which doesn’t seem to suggest any possible revision of our vision, just God backing us up.)

So, insofar as this hymn is not simply incoherent, it seems to be saying that we, with no express further need of God’s guidance, are creating a new church in our image. To be fair, our image is God’s image and delights God, but at no point do we ask God’s help or submit our vision to God’s authority – it’s a finished product, awaiting only our efforts to make it actual. This new church will be way better than the old church. It’s inescapable that there’s an old church that must die for this new church to get sung into being. The ‘seed’ image is the only – but telling – mention in the song of this fact, but what else could this possibly mean?

Now here’s why I can’t sing this song: we believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, not in a succession of ever-better new and improved churches. This Church is the Body of Christ, the Communion of Saints, the True Presence of Christ on earth. So, you might have a beef with current management, but you cannot have a beef with The Church in all her eternal glory and remain, intellectually speaking, within the embrace of orthodoxy.

And putting your beef with current management (and all the management back to the Apostles and Christ Himself!) in a hymn and sneaking it into Mass where it can do its insidious work of, at the least, contributing to muddled thinking – well, I don’t want to play that game.

But I love the Mass, I want to sing every song, I don’t want to present a model of bull-headed pouting to my kids – but I can’t sing this song.

What can I say? I think you are dead on. Happily, our liturgy guy has banished a lot of the Spirit of Vatican II (read: Half-Assed Revolutionary) junk that had been cluttering up the music and we don’t have to endure crap like “Sing a New Church” or “Anthem” anymore. (In case you didn’t know, “Anthem” is my Most Hated Hymn, though “Sing a New Church is right behind it.)

One of the things I’ve noted in the past is that my friend Sherry Weddell has remarked that wherever she goes, she hears roughly the same twelve or so OCP hymns at every liturgy. Conspiratorial minds may discern a sinister pattern of indoctrination here. I think the answer is much simpler: your average suburban parish works on the Warm Body principle. The nearest Warm Body is asked to do whatever needs done. So the guy who can play four chords winds up leading the music and doing the four or five songs he knows. The repertoire expands to the other songs that other music leaders in the area know. Lather, rinse, repeat. Most people aren’t giving the crappy lyrics a thought (“Something something God. Something something new. Something something life. Something something Spirit. Something or other Jesus and joy!”) Those of us who care what lyrics say put the best construction we can on them and, where the lyrics are obviously revolutionary tracts disguised as hymnody, just don’t sing them.

I do think Bender had a point in the thread of discussion that followed the Anchoress’ remarks on the subject. Namely, that people who express nothing but contempt for the music used in Mass risk treating the musicians who offer it with contempt, when they are often giving (like the widow with the mite) the best they have. I’ll take lousy music offered with a good heart over great music offered in cold Pharisaic pride any day. I often wonder how folks who try to help out with music at Mass feel when they read the boulders of sheer contempt that rain down on their heads in combox threads like those over at First Things. Can’t be rewarding to offer the best you know how and then find a battalion of critics, reeking with disgust, contempt and mockery, spitting on your offering to God. So while I empathize with the critics of the bad music and heretical lyrics, I tend to want to say “Remember that as you rain down artillery on that position, there are civilians, women and children in there.”

On a cheerier note, if my parish is any indication, things are improving. And I live in the Archdiocese of Seattle, which is not known for its liturgical acumen.

Also, something I like to point out to people who are driven crazy by bad music is that, compared to being hung upside down and drowned in excrement like the Japanese martyrs, we generally have it pretty good in the suffering for the faith department. 🙂

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  • Lawrence Phelps

    Avoiding the wretched hymnody is easy…attend the Tridentine Mass! Although the Bishop’s keep a short rein on it’s availability, it’s out there. Maybe not so much on the “left coast”. I drive 30 minutes to St Alphonsus in Baltimore and come out of Mass feeling transformed and not ready to punch someone out! :-). When in Boston I attend Mary Immaculate of Lourdes in Newton. Works for me!