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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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Tracey Rowland on “Sacro-Pop”

  1. Darryn harris

    Yes, its an issue that won’t go away! On one hand the Church requires music to suitably “clothe” the prayers of the Mass, but it also requires that this music’s primary purpose is for the edification and sanctification of the faithful. So there are two objectives here – the first is related more to the quality of the music and suitability for Mass (which is something that can be controlled) but the second is beyond control as it depends entirely on the response of the individual to that music – the individual must work to appreciate the music as best he can, but practically speaking, this can only go so far – if one doesn’t like the music, they don’t like it, in which case, the objective of sacred music is not being achieved, as the music is not elevating their souls (already moved by the text of the liturgy). The Glory to God comes through this elevated worship (due to music), not from the music or its intrinsic beauty. So the answer must be enthusiastic choirmasters/musicians to help cultivate an interest and passion in the congregation for authentic liturgical music. A tall order too!

  2. Fr John Fleming

    I really liked everything David has had to say and is again saying about music, this time through an essay written by the incomparable Professor Tracey Rowland. There is one thing on which I would like to comment, and that is David’s reference to the words from the hymn by Isaac Watts: “Were the whole realm of nature mine / That were a present far too small / “.

    Actually the word “present” was not in Isaac Watts’ hymn. It has been a modern thing to change he word “offering” to “present”, just another example of the secularisation of worship and the taking of liberties with other people’s work.

    According to the COD the word “offering” or “offer” means ” present (victim, first-fruits, prayer) to deity, revered person etc by way of sacrifice”. But a present is any kind of present. The word “offering” is far richer, far more religious, far more about worship. The alternative appeared in the English Hymnal, but would I be wrong in thinking that the version in Ancient & Modern which uses the word “offering” is the older and more reliable account? Does anyone know?

    • I have always wondered about which was the original text. I grew up singing “offering” (in the Lutheran Hymnal) and I like it much better than “present” both theologically and poetically (it sings much better). I just checked the English Hymnal, and (as you point out) it has “present” – but whether you can say that is a “modern secularisation” given that it was published in 1906 is a good question!

      I have an old edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Hymnody at home which I will consult on this matter unless anyone has any better sources.

      • Actually, I just checked online at the Project Gutenberg edition of Watt’s “Hymns and Spiritual Songs” of 1707 in which the hymn first appeared. The transcribers note to this file reads:

        “There are significant differences in the numerous reprints of Isaac Watts’ “Hymns and Spiritual Songs.” The first generation of this Project Gutenberg file was from an 1818 printing by C. Corrall of 38 Charing Cross, London.”

        This 1818 edition has:

        5 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.

        cf. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/13341/13341.txt

        • Fr John Fleming

          “But whether you can say that is a “modern secularisation” given that it was published in 1906 is a good question!” Hmmm – You are right to question that statement. Hyperbole always destroys a good argument. It seems “present” may be the original from all the sources I have been able to consult. I still prefer “an offering”, but who was one of the world’s greatest hymn writers? Isaac Watts, that’s who. Hard to quarrel with the great man.

  3. Peregrinus

    Music is a cultural artefact, and the role that it can (or should) play in liturgy, or worship, or Christian life generally, can’t be separated from the role it plays in our culture. Which, of course, varies over time, and from place to place.

    We live in a culture in which our experience of music is mainly as an audience, not as musicians/singers. And furthermore our experience of music is mainly of recorded music. We may not like this, but it’s undoubtedly true.

    In the past, music was used as a means of communication much more than today. For example, in a pre-literate society, most people get little formal education and it ends at an early age. How did the church continue to teach them? Through preaching, obviously. But also through sacred art, and sacred music.

    When we think of “sacred music” we think, to be honest, of expert choirs singing complicated formal pieces which we listen to, enjoy, are elevated by – but which we don’t participate in ourselves. And, of course, this is particular well adapted to communicating truths about transcendence, about beauty, about numinousness.

    But there are more truths in the gospel than those, and that’s why we have a robust Lutheran/Methodist tradition of hymns – sung in the vernacular, frequently using familiar secular tunes, and intended to be sung by the people. It may be unfair to give Lutherans and Methodists all the credit for this; there were carols, for example, long before the Reformation. But I think it’s the Lutheran and Methodist traditions which put hymn-singing at the centre of the liturgy – who recognised, in fact, the Eucharistic dimension of hymn-singing. And the Catholics came on board eventually, in the nineteenth century.

    Getting people to sing is, as we know, an effective method of teaching. That’s why kids are taught the alphabet song. That, indeed, is why we make up little rhymes to commit sequences to memory. (“Thirty days hath September . . .”). OK, this form of learning has more to do with memory than with understanding, but it does provide a tool for absorbing and retaining information which can later be unpacked and reflected upon. I don’t doubt that the Wesley brothers were very aware of this. All of which points to the need to pay attention to the theological import of hymnodic language.

    But we don’t use this tool much after childhood. Why? Because it’s ineffective. The kind of things you need to teach to anyone who is older than about twelve don’t lend themselves to this. From adolescence onwards we use music in quite a different way. Its primary function is to engage the emotions and the imagination, and the most common mode of participating in music is not to sing or to play but to dance. The sense of the lyrics is comparatively unimportant, which is why we can be deeply moved by music sung in a language that we don’t understand. It’s also why, even when the lyrics are in our own language and we are listening attentively to the music, they mostly pass us by. You thought this was a phenomenon of rock music? Not so, apparently. It’s true for most genres of music, except folk music (which, significantly, exists to be heard and repeated, to pass from singer to singer.)

    So, where does the modern use of hymns fit into this? I think we have a problem. In so far as hymns have an instructional function, communicating theological truths, they are a mode of instruction which our society regards as juvenile. In so far as they are there to engage the imaginations and the emotions, we no longer do this very much by singing, but by listening to music (and by dancing). In so far as the purpose of music is to adorn the liturgy with beauty and transcendence, the universal exposure to recorded music means that the congregation regards this as best done with professional-standard “sacred music”; even enthusiastic congregational singing pales in comparison.

    I don’t think we know what we’re doing with hymnody. Our liturgical musical tradition is stuck in a time-warp in which it has ceased to bear any real relationship to how music actually functions in our culture. The Pentecostalists have attacked this problem by focussing on music as something which engages the emotions and the senses, and enthusiastically doing this in a mode drawn very much from contemporary musical culture. The result makes me want to vomit, but maybe that’s my problem.

    I go for the “beauty and transcendence” thing myself, and of course that also works for the emotions and the imagination. Give me a nice Byrd Mass for Four Voices any day. But that’s not realistic for the regular fare in a typical parish.

    • Tony

      When I read the whole of Rowland’s article, especially the bit about the ‘ Society for a Moratorium on the Music of Marty Haugen and David Hass’, the odor of elitism and snobbery begins to rise. Not that I think such a description is a complete and fair assessment — I think she makes some good points — but it does feed into a ‘them and us’ divide (to go with all the other ‘them and us’ divides) in the church.

      I find your perspective comes across with a much more open mind and generousity of spirit, Pere.

      I come from a … wait for it … ‘Come As You Are’ kind of history, but I’ve certainly learned to appreciate and develop an affection for the ‘Isaac Watts’ perspective*. These days I can appreciate the weaknesses of the former and the strengths of the latter, BUT ‘Come As You Are’ spoke to me at a critical time in my life and find the scorn it attracts quite divisive and catty.

      * Speaking of Watts, I find the syntax of some of the old hymns quite engaging. The one that comes to mind for me is ‘Be Thou My Vision’:

      Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,
      naught be all else to me, save that thou art;
      Thou my best thought by day or by night,
      Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.

      Be thou my wisdom, thou my true word,
      I ever with thee and thou with me Lord;
      Thou my great Father, I thy true son;
      Thou in me dwelling, and I with thee one.

      For a while there ‘naught be all else to me, save that thou art’ made absolutely no sense to me!

  4. Matthias

    Yes the pentecostalists have infected the music stream ofthe church. to the point as Pere correctly notes ,by ” enthusiastically doing this in a mode drawn very much from contemporary musical culture. The result makes me want to vomit, but maybe that’s my problem. ”
    No not your problem Pere,for you have made a comment that I have spoken about at my church.Hillsong music is sung in a lot of churches. I am so sick and tired of it that I now will avoind going to one of my church’s Thursday evening services because of this problem The current music in many churches,is sensual,disrespectful and condescending.
    The final insult is a modernisation of Amazing Grace. Let’ see if these ‘hymns” will be around in 150 years time. Thye do not match anything of Wesley’s or Watts or Bianco di Sienna who wrote“Come Down O Love Divine”
    Here’s a real Proddy revival hymn
    “And can it be that I should gain
    an interest in the Saviour’s Blood
    Died he for me ,who caused His Pain
    For me,For me Who Him to death pursued
    Amazing Love,How can it be
    that though my God should’s die for me?
    Amazing Love,how can it be
    That Thou my God shouldst die for me”
    enough to stir one up and glorify God.

  5. Louise

    “sacro-pop”! love it!

  6. Christine

    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.

    I saw the disconnect myself before I became Catholic. My Catholic husband would accompany me to events at the Lutheran churches my mother, sister and I worshipped at and, being raised in the preconciliar church, the amount of singing going on during the service was an utter puzzlement to him. And even now I hear “music ministers” complaining at some Catholic parishes that the people still don’t sing.

    Of course, even with their fine stable of hymns Lutherans also are no longer exempt from the banal stuff that’s making the rounds either. Whenever I have been forced to endure “Shine, Jesus, Shine” I figure I’ve just shaved off a hundred years of purgatory 🙂

    I go for the “beauty and transcendence” thing myself, and of course that also works for the emotions and the imagination.

    Hear, hear!!

    Give me a nice Byrd Mass for Four Voices any day.

    Can we throw in a bit of Palestrina and Victoria, please?

    But that’s not realistic for the regular fare in a typical parish. Unfortunately, yes.

  7. Matthias

    There was an article on the classic music blog ON AN OVERGROWN PATH attributing graham kendrick ,the Pommy bloke who has written a lot of the modern hymns,as being ‘one of the people who have b—–ed Britain” I tHink he wrote SHINE JESUS SHINE. i have to say that this particular blog loves to promote sacred music of the gregorian kind