Sunday, July 6, 2014

Escaping the Cult of the Banal

Three developments in recent music epitomize the problems that the Church has to face when she is considering liturgical music. First of all, there is the cultural universalization that the Church has to undertake if she wants to get beyond the boundaries of the European mind. This is the question of what inculturation should look like in the realm of sacred music if, on the one hand, the identity of Christianity is to be preserved and, on the other, its universality is to be expressed in local forms.  
Then there are two developments in music itself… modern so-called ‘classical’ music has manoeuvred itself, with some exceptions into an elitist ghetto, which only specialists may enter…  
The music of the masses has broken loose from this and treads a very different path. On the one hand, there is pop music… [which is] aimed at the phenomenon of the masses, is industrially produced, and ultimately has to be described as a cult of the banal.  
‘Rock’, on the other hand, is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship.
People are, so to speak, released from themselves by the experience of being part of a crowd and by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise, and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstasy of having all their defences torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe.  
The music of the Holy Spirit’s ‘sober intoxication’ seems to have little chance when self has become a prison, the mind is a shackle, and breaking out from both appears as a true promise of redemption that can be tasted at least for a few moments. 
Joseph Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy
Reflection – Since I’m giving prominence to the psalms on the blog right now with my new weekly series the ‘Monday Psalter’, I thought I would share a few excerpts from Ratzinger’s exceptional book Spirit of the Liturgy on the subject of liturgical music. His writings on this subject are unusual in the annals of the Church; it is rare that a theologian of his caliber is also an accomplished musician, and has both the interest and knowledge to write about the subject as he has.

He also is one of the few serious theologians in the modern Church to really grapple with the challenge of rock music, taking it seriously and analyzing the deeper meaning of this new musical form. While his evaluation of it is ultimately negative, he is respectful of it and does not dismiss it out of hand. This is genuinely unique, I believe – I don’t know of anyone else at his level even bothering to try to understand the subject.

At any rate, he is grappling seriously with the question of liturgical music here as only a musician can, being aware that the quest for appropriate music is limited on the one hand by the capacities of the available musicians and the tolerance of the assembly for unending revisions of its hymnody, but on the other hand is a necessary quest since we too often find ourselves caught up in the very ‘cult of the banal’ that pop music denotes, or the essentially anti-Christian transcendence offered by rock music. 

Admittedly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard genuinely hard rock being done in the context of the liturgy, which would be fairly absurd – would the nave be turned into a mosh pit? Would we change the lyrics to ‘Highway to Hell’ to ‘We were on the highway to hell, ‘til we met Jesus’? At what point in the Mass would it be appropriate for the musicians smash their guitars? (Some of us would argue that would best happen before Mass begins…)

When liturgical music has tried to be in the modern popular vein, it has more aimed at an imitation of light folk rock, and generally ends up with a fairly banal, mediocre production even of that. The oeuvre of Haugen, Haas, and the St. Louis Jesuits has produced little if anything of lasting value, and certainly nothing that would draw any music-loving young person into Church, which was supposed to be the entire point of the exercise. Whenever I hear a choir crank up ‘Sing a New Song’ for the hundred thousandth time, I feel like saying in response, ‘Yes, please! Can we please sing a new song? Anything at all will do!’ Whatever else we need to do, we have to escape from the cult of the banal that still reigns in far too many parishes.

Ratzinger will go on to describe his own resolution of these problems and the basic principles that need to guide liturgical music, and we’ll get there later this week. But the problem is real, and I don’t think anyone has done more that he has to address it in this book and his other liturgical writings.