Why Should The Gregorians Have All The Good Music?

Tony SigWho doesn’t remember those days, anyone who was raised on “christian music” and forced to scorn “secular music,” when the distinction between the two started to break down? And who can forget the epiphany that much of even the “Golden Age” of christian music was still a pale imitation of the “secular” music? And who can’t recall getting in arguments with your parents over whether christian heavy metal was really Christian or whether their singers “sounded like demons?”

Ah yes, the sad and tragic tale of the coming of age of the post-evangelicals. Yet these discoveries of downcast 19 year olds in Bible Colleges spread throughout the land have yet to find their way into the heart and mind of Dr. Dwight Longnecker, one time Evangelical turned Anglican turned Catholic, who still sounds rather like my parents did 15 years ago. Only Mr. Longnecker now has the benefit of the cleansing waters of the Tiber, which have cleared his ears to hear the angelically musical, the gloriously transcendental, the singularly appropriate music of that “sacred polyphony,”  Gregorian Chant.

Never mind that there is just as much terrible “secular” music as there is “christian” music (so much for the “sharp and salutary effect of market forces!”), he cannot be bothered with such observations. His eye of judgment is on those insidious architects of secular music, the founders of all things Rock & Non-Gregorian, whose single mind was turned toward the manufacturing of a “certain type of feeling.” Just who these designers are, where they came from, and what terrible pagan deity they worshiped, we are not given to know. His airtight argument is strengthened even more by his probing rhetorical questions and his unassailable adjectives. With perhaps an exception granted for “the library of sacred hymns” – though preferably the oldest songs most especially, and those in Latin (Ok, I added that bit) – and with a Niebuhrian nod to tragic compromise so as to “meet people where they’re at,” it is, nevertheless, hopeless to find any genuine beauty or any authentic worship, outside the liturgical walls.

Fine. The pot shots at Gregorian Chant are easy and unnecessary, I myself deeply appreciate that tradition, as an Anglican and as a lover of Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. I would even be willing to grant that in a corporate setting of united worship with the skilled and unskilled, an eye toward what is simple, catechetical, and easy to follow, is most fitting. But the idea that this cannot be done with guitars, with organs, with pianos, with — heaven forbid it — drums, is sheer bigotry and is more a result of his conversion narrative than it is anything like a result of truth.

Moreover, this kind of attitude to art is simply inexcusable from a Christian leader. It’s precisely the kind of attitude that has bred such terrible art and music in the Church. By putting arbitrary and vague pietistic boundaries on art, the true creative freedom of artists is severely stifled. And it’s not just this fetishizing of a particular kind of music at the expense of others, it’s this strange and damnable portioning of music (and, by implication, other arts) into “secular” and “christian.”

Please, artists, novelists, musicians, dancers, poets, and the rest of you, please make the very best art you can possibly make, tell the truth with as much insight and imagination as you can muster, and do not be afraid to transgress boundaries, even as you live into a wonderful tradition, not so much as to “stick it to authority,” but to expand what has come before you, and to create new possibilities.

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6 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on eloiseedwards and commented:
    The main factor that has drawn me to this article is the strong image. Although I believe in not judging a book by its cover, the combination of tones and bleeding of inks has created its own element of texture.

    Reply

  2. I could be wrong, but I think Fr. Longenecker was refering to liturgical music in the Catholic church primarily. And if he was he understated how terrible it is, atleast in the USA. It’s worse than being force to listen to Barry Mantilow in an elevator for 4 hours. The reason for this is because Catholic’s in this country were evanglized primarily by the Irish clergy. And as a carry over from teh old sod they weren’t able to have music due to the Penal laws against Catholics. No musical content led to Hootenananny and rock-abilly music of the sixties which carried on into the 21 century. Its brutal bordering on insanity. Personally I perfer chant because it permits me to focus better but that’s me. There isn’t a given musical form that works best for everyone. I do however think its stupid for church to attempt rock show Christian music because IMO society views it as entertainment and that is not worship.

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    1. Those are all completely legitimate concerns. I’ve been to a few contemporary Catholic masses and let’s say, half-assed Bob Dylanesque hand-holding music is a far cry from that which lifts to contemplation.

      And you’re right on that putting on a rock show is acquiescing to a consumerist mindset (indeed, any time music that ought to be directed to God is directed toward the unbaptized in order to “hook their interest” is a misdirection to say the least)

      So I’m with you.

      But I think the good Father was going much further by the way he was dividing things. I think, actually, this is a hangover from his evangelical days. I don’t think that if one asked a catholic artist like Flannery O’Connor whether she thought she was writing “christian” novels, or whether novels were legitimate venues for theological reflection, that she would find the question intelligible. There’s a deeply uncatholic division of grace and nature in such a view.

      And it’s this compartmentalized view of what is and is not acceptable for “worship” that makes Thomas Kinkade-style art so prevalent among evangelicals.

      Reply

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