Friday, January 4, 2008

'Musicolatry'

The PCA Magazine By Faith Online has an article about a new classical chamber group at Atlanta's Church of the Redeemer (PCA). This hip young ensemble hopes to reclaim classical music for its generation. The church's Pastor, expressing his fondness for the program, said, "The love for art is built into all of us. With art we symbolize our reality. Art can teach, rebuke, inspire and confound. It speaks to us as it speaks of us."

This made me wonder, if music as art symbolizes our reality, if it teaches and inspires, why not visual art as well? If a beautiful tune can be used to give depth to our prayer (say, the Doxology), why can't a beautiful icon be used to give depth to a sermon?

Martin Luther famously noted, "next to the word of God, music deserves the highest praise" (Preface to Georg Rhau's Symphoniae Iucandae).

What sets the works of Rachmaninoff ahead of those of Rembrandt? "Return of the Prodigal Son" gives depth to my appreciation for the forgiveness I receive every day from Christ. It (like Music) expresses something in a way in which words and the intellect remain mute.

Music is a gift of God, I certainly would agree. Dr. Harold Best, a former Dean of the Wheaton Conservatory said, we sing in worship because we are commanded by God to do so ("Sing to the Lord a new song" - Isaiah 42:10). It is this commandment that empowers music, he warns, and not the reverse. "When we attempt to empower God's commands with something even as wonderful as music we have stepped over a forbidden line, for there is such a thing as musicolatry. (emphasis added)"

What I like about Dr. Best's position is that it is consistent with a practice of exclusion of artful images in worship. What I dislike about Dr. Best's position is that it starts from a negative presumption: 'use nothing but what is explicitly commanded.' But "Sing to the Lord a new song" is hardly a clear commandment about the use music in church services. Can we use it only in the processional and recessional? Can the sermon be sung, if the pastor is particularly talented, to enliven the preaching of the word? What styles are appropriate? The Apostle Paul tells us about appropriate attire, appropriate conduct in communion, and the appropriate use of 'tongues' in church, but does not address contemporary music. Therefore, the position that we only use music because we are commanded to is open-ended, leaving so much room for interpretation that there is no rule at all.

I think he's on to something though, about musicolatry. Christmas concerts are an easy indicator of the passion for the music overflowing the banks of the text it is meant to enhance. Such is a problem, and would also be a problem in iconography, where love of the image takes primacy over enhancement of the imaged.

We use music because it affects our emotions and feelings. Beautiful music humbles me before God. Contemporary music, with its primitive rhythm patterns, excites the body and makes one sway and move. We use it because it affects us in a way in which we want to be affected. Why not do the same with visual art?

5 comments:

Tim A. Troutman said...

In the Eastern liturgy, the entire mass is sung. It is beyond words in beauty. Interestingly though, it's not because of the stunning melody but because of the words themselves. In fact, the melodies are quite plain and intentionally so.

When a visiting Ruthinian priest said mass instead of the usual Ukrainian priest once, he wasn't used to the particular melodies or the translation of Chrysostom's liturgy and musically it sounded... well let's be nice and say unrehearsed. But it was some of the most beautiful music I ever heard.

The music somehow lifts the words. Try singing or chanting your next prayer and see how it changes what you say to God. It isn't simply that we make something interesting out of something plain but music has a God given way of making 'mere' words transcendent.

In the sung liturgy, even the celebrants are pushed aside. It is nearly impossible to take the eyes of your soul off God. At least that was my experience (which is why I attend an Eastern Catholic Church every chance I get).

As for falling in love with the beauty of the art instead of what the art is intended to elevate our minds to, I'm not sure if that can or ever does happen. The interesting thing is that the only time I ever think i see that happening is when the art isn't really beautiful (like contemporary worship services).

If I go to the "folk mass" at my parish, it's interesting that the music (which is terrible) is more the focus than at other masses with more elaborate and beautiful music. Music which is appropriate for worship is that which is transcendent. Thats why the Catholic Church has been clear in stating that Gregorian Chant ought to be the preferred music for mass although few parishes comply.

They prefer instead their Music McNuggets. Its a problem with western culture as much as anything. We want to get away from the pomp of high art when in reality our low 'art' is far more pompous and distracting.

"I'm coming back to the heart of worship because it's all about You Jesus" strikes me as not about Jesus at all but about me and how I worship and how I like to sing really terrible songs and stand up in front of everyone, close my eyes and wave my hands to show everyone I identify and understand the song (when ironically the song would incline me to think those sorts of things would be utterly inappropriate responses to the song's very message).

Whereas the songs we ought to be singing are ones like the Sanctus -

Holy Holy Holy Lord God Almighty Heaven and Earth are full of Your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

And to be sure, in union with all the choirs of angels in Heaven, the Catholic Church does sing this at every mass. In fact this song is being sung somewhere around the world constantly. Now THAT is coming back to the heart of worship and THEN it becomes "All about You Jesus".

Beauty in music or in icons or in statues should never be feared. It's odd to me that Protestants make pilgrimages to Catholic Churches in Rome or speak with glowing approval of the Catholic statues in Rome which tell the gospel story yet are scared to death to embrace them in any liturgical way.

If Churches aren't to be beautiful, then beautiful Churches aren't beautiful at all. In our western minds, beauty has been divorced for truth and truth divorced from goodness yet the three should be in harmony.

Whatever is good is beautiful and whatever is true is good and vice versa. If a thing ought not be made beautiful, then when we see it illicitly beautiful we ought to think of it as hideous. So if a Church ought not be beautiful, it is hypocrisy to make pilgrimage to see great Churches (when in fact they're not great at all).

Why are all monsters and demons ugly? Because that's the way monsters and demons ought to be. And why are all angels beautiful? Because that's what angels ought to be.

Why are Catholic Churches built to be beautiful (or atleast they used to be) because that's what Churches are supposed to be.

But if we were to see a beautiful monster or an ugly Church, we would think something is wrong and rightly so. Likewise, if anyone saw a beautiful angel and thought it wrong, then we would think something is wrong with that person and I think we'd be right.

So we needn't have any fear of something being beautiful anymore than we need to fear something being good (as if we would fall in love with the goodness and not the God from whom the goodness originated).

Name Withheld said...

"Why are Catholic Churches built to be beautiful (or at least they used to be) because that's what Churches are supposed to be."

Tim, you touch on a rather sore spot for me. As it happens, I find the architecture and artwork of my parish church one of the ugliest, neo-brutalistic style structures that the 1979's ever spawned. To make matters even less appealing the liturgical music is often on par with the architecture, if not in its era, at least in its feel. Yet, at the risk of sounding condescending, Mass there is beautiful.

I have not a scrap of doubt that the Mass is fit for and deserving of the greatest cathedrals on earth and the liturgy is fit to be sung by the finest choirs and musical ensembles man can produce. But even set in a stable and accompanied by the braying of beasts, the presence of Christ is the thing that draws mankind to its knees, isn't it?

Humbly submitted.

Name Withheld to avoid insulting folks from my home parish, including the family of the architect that designed the church building.

Thos said...

Tim,

All very interesting, I assure you.

Re: your budding discussion with (name withheld), I can only speak from my Protestant experience about McMusic. I think that (even though we don't have the Mass) there have services where God was worshipped where I was so stoked and mad about the music that I failed to join in. Largely my problem, but I'm *very* sympathetic to your complaints.

Me-Music can put one in such a mood that God-Worship gets to be hard to focus on.

But more to my post, do you feel that music and visual art can't be too far separated? I mean, if one is justified for its beautification of worship, is the other? You said, "Music which is appropriate for worship is that which is transcendent." Can you say the same for visual art?

Of course, you've converted to Catholicism, so you're already won over, but as a matter of logic, and a matter of your Protestant experience, can you think of an argument to include beautifying music and not beautifying iconography?

Peace in Christ,
Thos.

Principium unitatis said...

Tom,

can you think of an argument to include beautifying music and not beautifying iconography?

Not an argument, but a philosophical position: voluntarism, in conjunction with this verse: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." (Exodus 20:4)

(By 'voluntarism' I refer to the philosophical position, often unconsciously held, in which the prescriptives which we are to follow are viewed as grounded ultimately in divine fiat. Voluntarism is immune to objections of arbitrariness, because the grounding of the prescriptive is not consistency but divine origin. Arbitrariness does not falsify or even weaken a prescriptive in a voluntaristic system.)

That is precisely how certain TRs can say that God arbitrarily reprobates some persons to eternal hell fire not based on foreknowledge of their character or works, but simply for His glory. We might say that that interpretation is called into question by our understanding of God's love (see, for example, here). But the TR just says that our understanding of God's love needs to be conformed to that [e.g. supralapsarian] interpretation of Scripture. When voluntarism is in operation, nothing can call the interpretation into question, not even arbitrariness or 'a priori' intuitions about God's love.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Thos said...

Bryan,

I'm sorry I didn't reply sooner, and I hope you still come across this combox.

Thanks for explaining voluntarism. I was exposed to it in an International Law course, but have it confused somewhat (or entirely) with positivism in my mind. Perhaps, in my confusion, the outcome is the same. Where does one find the divine prescriptives in a voluntarist system? I think in your example, they would be found in the Bible, and in that sense it smells like positivism to me - you need it clearly spelled out (though I think properly stated in philosophy, positivism looks only to science and the objective).

At any rate, I think your argument is that one could argue that while all things used in worship to beautify are suspect, but where the Bible calls for one (as it does seem to call for music), then that is to be admitted (while the others, like art, which may seem to share the same principles, are to be excluded).

This involves a certain odd handling of the Bible, no? I think this is Calvin's way -- only what is in Scripture may be done or approved of. It tends to silence reason.

Peace in Christ,
Thos.