Thursday, June 19, 2014

subterranean connections

Geez, one blog post about Jesus Christ Superstar and then stuff hits the fan.  Steve Webb, the prolific and flamboyant columnist at First Things, fires a salvo:  Christians, especially Roman Catholic ones, need to ditch their distaste for 'praise music."  Webb:

I suspect Christians dislike praise music for the same reasons as the unchurched. The words are too simple, direct, and demanding, the emotions too transparent. Musical sophistication often means little more than genre compartmentalization, which leads many musically sophisticated Christians to try to keep their listening habits separate from their prayer life.

There is a bias among many rock aficionados against any contemporary music that makes the lyrics audible, indeed, that subordinates the tune to the words. Christians should not buy into that. It is especially sad, I think, when Christians immersed in hard rock turn their noses up (or shut their ears to) any music that is uplifting, as if only dark sounds are authentic.

Webb makes two good points here:  "we" (the sophisticated churched and our cultural counterparts, the equally if not more sophisticated unchurched [hipsters]) detect the sappy and immediately, instinctively, turn away.  Back in the 80s the "college music" crowd adored anything by REM but winced anytime pop music surfaced. "Real" music was, by definition, partially, if not wholly, unintelligible.  The bright and clear was necessarily a lie.  Hence Webb's second point:  it's only good if it's dark and dismal.  Unspoken satire here:  we really do like French existentialist ennui.   Oh, the misery that is life!  This Webb seeks to root out of American Catholicism:

Cynicism is a far greater spiritual danger than naivet√©. And if you are Roman Catholic, what’s the worst that can happen to you? You might learn that you actually like singing, and you might take that lesson to the mass.


Just a snippet from the American Catholic cultural tradition that proves Webb has traction here:  the novelist William E. Barrett, author of Lilies of the Field  (1963), the basis for the movie starring Sidney Poitier (for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor--the first African-American to do so).   Barrett's novels and his myriad short stories in prominent weekly magazines like Colliers offered a different world view:  one where choices could lead to better and brighter futures.  To be fair, marked by consequences--Barrett was no pollyanna--but the options were there.  His character could, and often did, improve themselves, however difficult the process.  By contrast, the more popular "Catholic" novelist of the 1950s and 1960s, Graham Greene, offered a more grim, violent world.  Good people did not always fair well. A rather Durocher-ian, "nice guys finish last" world.  Barrett thought this sort of writing diminished literature's liberating, enlivening aspect.  Crucially, discussions of "the real Catholic novelist" rarely include Barrett.

So Webb does have something to stand on, and other voices probe different directions.  Nathaniel Givens probes the relationship between rock music and Christianity, too, and arrives at a different conclusion.  Some of Christianity's rebellion against the world can be captured by the rock-styled spirit, but, Givens divines, it won't always play well in an actual worship setting.  True--especially in the last minute or so of "Some will seek forgiveneess."  I wonder if either Givens or Webb have read Thomas Day's classic Catholic music deconstruction, Why Catholics Can't Sing.  I phrase the matter thusly because it's surprised me over the years just how few folks actually have read it.  Day is not infallible, but he does offer some cutting criticisms of contemporary post-Vatican II music.  Namely, it replace celebrating God with celebrating one's own experience of God.  (Day's targets here:  "Here I am, Lord".)  Surely a balance could be achieved between the emotional authenticity Webb seeks and the sappy experientialism Day decries.

And here's the real kicker:  Webb, like me, is a convert to Catholicism.  Despite the desire for converts, many American parishes really don't seem to know what to do with converts once they get them.  Converts come to the Church with their own real pasts:  theological and spiritual vices and virtues and, importantly, cultural tastes.  Webb's column is an example;  having come from an evangelical background he "gets" worship music that still, 40+ years after the St Louis Jesuits, seems new and which Day targeted over 20 years ago.  But part of conversion to Catholicism is that we bring our pasts with us;  we aren't required to jettison the past as we embrace our present and future faith.  In fact, that's been discussed quite a few times over the years.  But the cradle Catholics, ah, that doesn't always set well.  You joined us--this is how we do things around here.  This groundedness, which often can manifest as myopic arrogance, appears even among contemporary theologians.  Somebody's a convert?  Well, then, take everything they say with a grain of salt...  After so many years of drinking from the Catholic "analogical imagination" well--imbibing occasionally more required than desired--I still find this unease around converts problematic.  If Catholicism truly fosters a "both/and" approach, then why can't convert idiosyncracies exist along the various established patterns--parochial, spiritual, or even vocational?  After all, part of the Vatican II spirit should include an appreciation of the liturgical past, not a wholesale rejection.  So Webb, in his praise of praise music, might actually be "Catholic" in a way unfamiliar to many other quite aware Catholics.  That, though, does not alleviate a broader tension within Catholicism, that between simplicity and complexity seen in Barrett and Greene's literary differences.  Or perhaps Benedict versus Francis?  Oh wait...


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