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Musing on music


Dear Rob,

After intellectually crushing you last month by convincing my legion of fans and followers that Christmas should be celebrated in the weeks leading up to Christmas, it occurred to me that, as a good Catholic lad, you may be a music-during-church curmudgeon.

I can see it now — you sitting in a 61-degree church with a scowl on your face if the organist plays a beat above three-quarter time, then struggling to withhold your shouts of glee when dirges fill the room.

Yes, I know your type — you grind your teeth and battle your acid reflux when someone accidentally invites you to a service where the band plays upbeat music… and, no — I’m not speaking of the mega-churches playing rock and roll, complete with laser-lights, smoke machines and a pyrotechnics show. I’m talking about denominational churches where one of the services dives hell-deep into heresy by using a guitar and a piano to sing, “Be Thou My Vision” in a — shudder — joyful way.

The organ, I’m sure, is your instrument of choice. After all, the organ was the background music for the Beatitudes, when Jesus — oh, wait. My bad. The organ didn’t appear in churches until 900 years after our Lord’s crucifixion. But, hey, guess that’s the way we’ve always done it ? (Except for those 900 years when the Early Church came into its own and Christianity was sweeping across the known world?)

I wonder if you find the saints of those 900 years as out-of-step as you do those of us who currently prefer praise music?

It doesn’t take a great deal of research to find that the New Testament is devoid of musical direction and the Old Testament speaks only of the harp, drum, cymbal and a reed pipe. As this is truth, how can you not feel satan’s coals at your feet as you break away from God’s only musical guidance and use a damnable organ? Maybe you could bring in Zamfir, the Pan flutist? Give your three-year-old son a wooden spoon and a frying pan? It would certainly make the music a painful affair, which would please you no end.

I sometimes wonder if you envision God looking down from His Heaven and shouting, “I hate that upbeat music! I wish I’d never inspired the creation of the guitar, bass, mandolin, piano, violin and drum kit! I’d have never invented electricity if I knew they were going to use it to increase the volume of that racket! Michael — bring me some lightning bolts!”

Moments later, no doubt, He casts His gaze in your direction and says softly, “Ah, listen to that organ … so regal and soothing… powered by air, like a real instrument. Those are the people who really love me. Peter, bring me some Get-into-Heaven-Free cards.”

You are not alone, of course. I am friends with Anglican and Anglo-Catholic priests who agree that the Lord has a favored type of music — a music that doesn’t “distract” from the sanctity of a church service. I’m not sure if you/they know it, but we aren’t playing the Rolling Stones during the Eucharist… we’re just like you and receive the Host with thanksgiving and humility. I’m pretty sure no one is wearing earbuds, or humming along to "I Can’t Get No Satisfaction."

Please know the door is always open to my church’s contemporary-music service. We use the liturgy and everything. We just don’t need to awaken half the congregation when it’s time for pew aerobics.


Gracious, Brother Prioleau. Considering the balmy December days we’ve been recently experiencing, your imagining of my Sunday morning service situation is the chilliest thing I’ve felt all winter!

You are forgiven, though, as you also gave me one the heartier chuckles I’ve had in a while, insinuating that my spiritual residence on this-side-of-the-Tiber would make me resistant to … “Be Thou My Vision.” Which was, of course, penned by a sixth century Irish Catholic poet and anything that gets the work of a good Irish Catholic onto the lips of a pack of Anglicans is fine by me.

As for pyrotechnics and smoke machines, well … I’ve been to too many Easter vigils glowing with candlelight and clouds of smoke billowing from the thurible to cast any stones too hard on that front. But maybe the crux of our differences are best shown here: The methods and the meaning of the things we do matter.

For example: Multiple times, the Bible intertwines the prayers of the faithful with the rising up of incense: “And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand.” (Revelation 8:4). Does the resulting thurible smoke look the same as if the altar server used a fog machine from Party City? Sure. But one is a continuation of a practice from the days of the temple in Jerusalem, reminding and instructing the faithful on the nature of prayer, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the solemnity of the worship service … and the other just kinda “looks cool.”

That’s why music matters in worship. That’s why some forms of music really are objectively better for worship that others. Too often, too much religious music is created, promulgated and performed with little more to recommend it than the “warm fuzzies” it gives us. But as Hank Hill once said of Christian Rock, “You’re not making Christianity any better; you’re just making rock and roll worse.” Too often, contemporary music comes too close to the waggish joke about taking pop songs and replacing the word “baby” with “Jesus.”

Does such music give us the warm fuzzies? Sure can. Are modern efforts to praise God through music a bad thing? Surely not. Indeed, I think you and I could fill this paper with a shared interest on this front — I know you love the work of one of the biggest rock groups of all time, U2, as much for their religious quality as anything else … and so do I. My conscience has been called into account through Bono’s words too many times to count “I must be an acrobat/To talk like this/And act like that ...”

But that doesn’t mean I think we should be playing “Achtung Baby” at the 9:00 a.m. service anytime soon. There we find the organ, yes, but we also find the most objectively good instrument for worship: The human voice. Because I think you’re right — the guitar, the mandolin, the violin are all so beautiful, surely God inspired their creation. But he made the human voice with his own hands — and there ain’t no competing with that.

As Pope Pius XII said: “A congregation that is devoutly present at that sacrifice in which our Savior, together with His children redeemed by His sacred blood, sings the nuptial hymn of His immense love, cannot keep silent, for “song befits the lover” (Saint Augustine, Sermon 336) and, as the ancient saying has it, “he who sings well prays twice.” Thus the church … joins in the hymns of the church triumphant and with the choirs of angels and all together sing a wondrous and eternal hymn of praise to the most Holy Trinity …”

You’re right, again: There was no organ in the early church. There might be no electric guitar on the mission field today (or harp or violin, etc., for that matter). But at all times and in all places, the human voice singing praise to its Creator has been a key component of worship.

A few quick points, because we’re already using up so much ink here that our publisher will be casting a few lightning bolts of his own our way soon: I think what your Anglican priestly friends who are uncomfortable with contemporary “praise and worship” music are getting at when they call it “distracting” is probably right … but it’s hard to articulate the issues that give loving pastors real heartburn about the issue without just sounding like a curmudgeon.

Spiritually, much contemporary music is emotionally manipulative and textually simplistic. The great saints of the church all recognized that there is a “dark night of the soul,” a point where, as we mature in our faith, we are called to break through the “warm fuzzies” of Christ’s love and embrace him, terrifyingly, even when we can’t feel he’s there. The ancient hymns of the church help strengthen us for that growth in a way that the soft pablum-y stuff just can’t.

Practically, in churches that are already too internally divided, the “contemporary/traditional” split can be a disaster. Too often it segregates congregations by age, taste, or station in life. It certainly fails to remind folks of their connection to the church, ancient and universal, but instead tends to do what most things in modern American life do — put the focus on what we want, right-this-minute.

Finally, we do real damage when we produce inferior art and it is past time for Christians of all sorts to recognize that. God reveals himself through the transcendentals — the good, the true and the beautiful. When we make music (or literature, or architecture, etc.) that is third-rate, then say it’s for the glory of God, it damages our witness to the truth we possess. You might not personally like, say, Bach’s Mass in B minor, but no one could listen to it and say “this guy phoned it in.” You might not love Gothic architecture, but you can’t look at the Reims Cathedral and wonder if faith was important to its builders. You know by the very nature of the art.

To paraphrase our friend Bono, you can do a lot with “... a red guitar, three chords and the truth.” But I think it’s pretty darn tricky to cobble them into something worthy of our Holy Day worship.

[P.S. — “Be Thou My Vision” was played at my nuptial mass. Yes, on an organ.]

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The Carolina Compass is designed to appeal to the faithful as well as the seeker, giving historical windows into church life and showing the hands and feet of the faithful doing good works in their communities. We shall also shine a light on worldwide persecution of Christians and how we can support the faithful. A wide variety of perspectives on faith, mission work and healing will be inside the paper. Christian correspondents come from all over the globe and up and down our coast.
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