Daily Archives: September 10, 2010

Tracey Rowland on “Sacro-Pop”

“Our Tracey” is becoming quite prolific these days in the popular media. She has a new essay on Ratzinger’s opposition to “Sacro-Pop” on the ABC Religion and Ethics site. Of course, this subject is the source of endless debate. As you know, yours truly has expressed his own opinions on the matter often on this site (most extensively here).

Some snippets from Tracey’s article and my comments:

In other words, pragmatism is the attitude of the cleric who says “the music might be a bit low-brow but it’s what people like.” According to Johansson the pragmatist “emasculates the gospel by using commercialized music to sell it.”

The idea of “marketing” the Gospel in a way that makes it “attractive” to the secular culture is always a mistake. Whatever way you wrap the present, inside the box will always be a bloody cross.

In a lecture delivered to the Church Music Department of the State Conservatory of Music at Stuttgart, Ratzinger further spoke of “puritanical functionalism” (the idea that we “have to keep it basic for the people”) as a “first millstone around the neck of Church music,” and the “functionalism of accommodation” (Church music must follow the norms of contemporary mass culture) as “the second millstone.”

When music serves a “function” you end up with a jingle. Music, like poetry and art, can be and often is reduced to serving a pragmatic purpose, but then you end up with something that ultimately is not poetry, is not art, and is not music. That is as true in the liturgy as it is in any other forum.

With reference to the rock music industry and in words that could have been written by Ratzinger, he argues, “This music is not designed for listening. It is the accompanying soundtrack to a drama, in which the singer, strange as it may seem, becomes something like the sacred presence of a cult, the incarnation of a force beyond music, which visits the world in human form, recruiting followers the way religious leaders recruit their sects.”

I disagree only with the statement that “This music is not designed for listening”. It is, in fact, entirely for listening. It isn’t, like Church music, designed for singing. It is orientated toward an “audience” rather than with the view of drawing the gathered assembly into a unified body. I know the force of music as well as anyone. In my car at the moment, I have all three soundtracks to the “Twilight” films. I find them powerful and evocative, and am able to listen to them over and over without boredom. Yet I have to acknowledge the truth of Ratzinger’s critique – this is an “incarnation of a force beyond music”, and it has the power of grabbing you with both hands.

He has also written that people who argue that liturgy should be about bringing God down to the level of the people are committing a form of apostasy, analogous to the Hebrew’s worship of the golden calf.

That is a damning critique if we take the time to consider it. The story in Exodux 32 makes it clear that the Israelites at Mt Horeb had no intention of worshipping any other God than the one who “brought us out of Egypt”, and yet they chose to do so precisely by adopting the religious customs of Egypt, that of embodying their gods in the form of animals. How can the Church remain “counter cultural” when she adopts and baptises the very heart of the prevailing culture in her liturgy?

A typical hallmark of a sacro-pop “hymn” is that one could just as easily be singing it to one’s lover, as to God.

Go and re-watch Sister Act and you will see how easily modern love songs can be changed with just a few words into something that looks very much like the modern “hymn”. Tracey is giving us a good rule of thumb here: if this song can be sung to my lover as easily as it can be sung to God, is it really suitable for the liturgy?

One does not have to be a theologian to discern the difference. Sacro-pop lacks the pathos of the great hymns of the Christian tradition and it diminishes one’s perception of divine glory. There is not the same sense of awe and of self-transcendence and only the most oblique references to the Incarnation, Passion and Redemption.

Ah, pathos. On the one hand, liturgical song must be something other than a “love song”, but that doesn’t mean that it should be without passion. Tracey cites the passage from “Come Down O Love Divine” which begins “And so the yearning strong…”. Another I would add is the closing verse of “When I survey the wondrous Cross” by Isaac Watts: “Were the whole realm of nature mine / That were a present far too small / Love so amazing, so divine / Demands my soul, my life, my all.” I always get goose bumps when I sing that verse… Of course, that hymn has “Incarnation, Passion and Redemption” in spades: “Forbid it Lord, that I should boast / Save in the death of Christ my God / All the vain things that charm me most / I sacrifice them to His blood.”

I suspect that, if a poll were taken one might find that the banality of sacro-pop is less of a liturgical carrot than a liturgical repellent.

Unfortunately, the polls that exist say otherwise (see for eg. here). But perhaps one of the reasons why these substandard hymns come in at the top of the list on a regular basis is that that is what we are serving up for our people to sing in the first place. Catholics do not regularly spend time with their hymnals at home singing through all the available material and deciding which they like. They only have what they hear at Mass on a regular basis to choose from. It’s a bit like taking a poll of people who eat at MacDonalds on their favourite meal: you aren’t going to get people voting for “Veal Cordon Bleu”.


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A Dangerous and Childish Game

News just in says that Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, has decided to cancel his plan to hold a “Koran-burning day” tomorrow. Thank God for that. But you must agree that he was remarkably successful at getting people’s attention just by the mere suggestion of the intention to commit such an act. Everyone from the Whitehouse to the Vatican came out and publically pleaded with the man to reconsider. Mind you, there are places in the world where the pressure to “reconsider” his plans would have been applied rather less publically and rather more persuasively. But in the Good Ol’ U. S. of A. Pastor Jones’ right to go ahead with his plan of action was protected under the First Amendment of the US Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech.

My one observation to add to the whole mix is that the desecration of the Koran to a Muslim is rather more like the desecration of the Blessed Sacrament to a Catholic than the desecration of a Bible – although the latter would be shocking enough. To give an example, Catholics would have no difficulty with placing a bible on the floor (eg. next to your chair in a study room), but Muslims would never do such a thing to the Koran. We wouldn’t do it to the Blessed Sacrament either. That’s more the parallel here.

So what have we learned from all this? Probably not a lot. Pastor Jones was upset by the plans to build a Mosque at Ground Zero. He saw it as provocative. So he wanted to retaliate by doing something provocative in return. Despite the fact that the plans to build the Mosque at Ground Zero have become a source of contention, it was never the intention of the Imam who initially suggested it (whom I have met, by the way, on a visit to Melbourne a couple of years ago) that it should be. I can understand people thinking that his suggestion to locate a mosque at Ground Zero was not a wise one – for a raft of reasons – although it is sad that it should have been received by many as a point of provocation. Pastor Jones on the other hand had provocation as his major purpose in his plan to hold a Koran-burning day right from the start. He felt pain and wanted to cause pain in return to those whom he blamed for his pain.

Friends, this is silly. And dangerous. Anyone who has ever been a parent knows how these things escalate.
“Tommy broke my toy”.
“It was an accident”.
“Was not”.
“Was too.”
“Well, I going to break one of your toys.”
“You *%^@#!!! Now you’re really going to get it.”

As Pope Benedict told the ambassador to the Holy See from Morocco in 2006: “Violence as a response to offences can never be justified, for this type of response is incompatible with the sacred principles of religion.”


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