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Summary: Music must be in harmony with Logos, not an offbeat and disordered hymn to individualism.

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Monday of 3rd Week of Easter

Spirit of the Liturgy

The Spirit that inflamed deacon Stephen is always at work in the Church. This spirit, the Holy Spirit of God, fills those who respond to the gift of faith, and makes us hungry for the Word of God, the Sacrament of the altar, and service to those around us. In other words, this spirit makes the Church into the image of Jesus Christ, the Logos, the Word of God.

As we have seen over the past few weeks, this means that, as Pope Benedict writes, “not every kind of music can have a place in Christian worship. It has its standards, and that standard is the Logos. . .the Holy Spirit leads us to the Logos, and he leads us to a music that serves the Logos as a sign of the sursum corda, the lifting up of the human heart. Does it integrate man by drawing him to what is above, or does it cause his disintegration into formless intoxication or mere sensuality? That is the criterion for a music in harmony with logos.” (151)

This dichotomy is one of the oldest analyzed in musicology. It goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle. Music of light and reason “draws senses into spirit and so brings man to wholeness. It does not abolish the senses, but inserts them into the unity of this creature that is man. It elevates the spirit precisely by wedding it to the senses, and it elevates the senses by uniting them with the spirit. . .this kind of music is an expression of man’s special place in the general structure of being.” I submit that this is one of the reasons that chant, the office hymns, and polyphony are so highly valued by the Church. They are ordered, and, chant in particular, subordinated to the Word of God.

By contrast, much of our modern hymnal music can be described as “Dionysian.” “It drags man into the intoxication of the senses, crushes rationality, and subjects the spirit to the senses.” We can distinguish this kind of music in a couple of ways. First, it is rhythmically disordered. It relies for musical interest on syncopation, the kind of jazzy feel that we call “offbeat.” I did an analysis for a professional journal a couple of years ago of music in a modern OCP song book and found that almost everything had that characteristic.

Second, for melodies and harmonies this music relies much on huge leaps and schmaltzy chord progressions that are designed to bring an emotional response in the singer and listener. Church music went through this once before, in the Victorian age, when Arthur Sullivan was using the catchy rhythms, harmonies and melodies of the musical stage in his church music. Erik Routley used to say that the Victorian churchgoer would respond “oh, wasn’t that lovely. Let’s have more of it.” And that’s just what has been happening over the past fifty years in North America.

Since the only thing we ever use in music is light rock and jazzy harmonies and melodies, people have begun to consider that as the norm for church music. Many of us can point to a moment when our faith fell into place, a moment of conversion, of turning toward God. Maybe it was at a retreat, or in the midst of a family crisis. If the music we heard at that time of psychic rebirth was schmaltzy kitsch, we will retain a fondness for it, and recreate the lovely experience of turning to God every time we hear it. That makes the statement “I like it and want to continue singing or hearing it in church” the norm for sacred music. Our hymnals have become collections of individual taste and desire, not collections of music that serves the Word of God to build up the whole people of God.


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