Fonticulus Fides

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Alicia posted a link via The Curt Jester to this recent George Weigel column about hymns. Oddly enough, I just read the same column in the Southeast Nebraska Register last night.

My husband and I found it pretty funny. Especially since we have ended up attending three different local parishs on the last three Sundays (mostly due to timing -- like the Sunday we hurried to get the children ready for 9:30 Mass, but weren't able to walk out the door until 9:25, which caused us to go to the 10:00 Mass at a neighboring parish). By sheer coincidence (I think), we've managed to be subjected to "I am the Bread of Life" three weeks in a row.

Now, I haven't been exposed to many Catholic hymns yet -- they tend to do the same 25-30 in rotation at my parish, especially when the choir is off for the summer. But I have to tell you, this particular hymn has never set real well with me. Mr. Weigel suggests it is the idea of the collective voices of the parish speaking for Christ, as if we, together somehow represent Him. That could be it.

My husband the musician thinks it's just really flat piece. One tends to imagine that all hymns will reach soaring levels of praise, like the Alleluia Chorus or something, and this one doesn't really cut it.

Since we come from a charismatic background, "praise music" probably has a completely different meaning for us than it does for most Catholics. My earliest indoctrination to "Christian Music" was marked by a full band with electric guitars, bass and drums, and catchy little "worship choruses" that tended to make up for their lack of theology with memorability. I've heard accounts from people who literally felt "entranced" by the music, and I can see why. The same short, pop-song-like, chord progression and heavy beat drummed into your head 7 or 8 times in a row can do that to a person. In fact, worship choruses basically follow the same principles as the jingles you hear in TV commercials. "My bologna has a first name..." is so much like, "...and I have J-E-S-U-S here in my H-E-A-R-T..."

The oddest thing about charismatic worship is how carefully it is orchestrated to look spontaneous. My husband served on the worship team for a long time, 10 years easily, I suppose. And pretty much everything that looked like it "just happened by move of the Spirit" on Sunday was actually planned out in rehersal on Saturday. Songs were often chosen through a subjective judgement process that included ratings such as how loud the crowd sang along, how many people got up to a few objective things like, can the drummer assigned to play this week handle 6/8 time? (When all your musicians are volunteers, you can't afford to be picky about training or talent levels).

Since becoming Catholic, I think my means of evaluation of hymns and worship songs has changed a lot. I've been more interested that the songs be theologically correct for years. Now I'm less concerned about music style and delivery than I used to be. I know it was really hard for my husband at the guitar Mass we went to last Sunday, in which the instruments were neither tuned nor played very well and the folks leading the hymns were singing flat. He just has a much more trained ear than I do, so that sort of thing is really distracting for him.

After leaving that Mass, my husband began considering what would make a guitar Mass good. (It was his second -- my first -- and he said neither one of the ones he attended were done well.) I imagine that by analyzing hymns and the liturgy itself, and then applying what he knows about guitar, he could probably come up with something quite fitting for Mass. But there is always the question as to whether anyone would be interested in such a thing. We don't have guitar Mass at our parish, but several of the "younger" parishes do. And I imagine some of the more traditionally inclined find the use of a guitar inappropriate no matter what. Whereas -- correct me if I'm wrong -- the Latin Mass afficianados don't use any music per se, but stick to chant exclusively.

I have mixed feelings about the concept of a guitar Mass. On the one hand, I believe the Mass is universal, which ought to mean (I think) that it can easily be used in any cultural frame of reference without harming the content. Which means that Asian cultures that use an entirely different musical scale as we do ought to be able to chant or sing in music that sounds beautiful to their ears, the same way we in Western cultures seek hymns that sound beautiful on our own musical scale. On the other hand, I believe that Mass is timeless, which means any musical style or arrangement of instruments or even the quality of hymn-writing must be completely irrelevant.

Your thoughts welcome on this -- send them to me at sparki777(at)yahoo(dot)com and I will post accordingly (with your permission, of course).



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