Deep in the silence of the Roman catacombs, a dim light grows brighter from around the corner as several torchbearers approach. There is urgency in their demeanor, but there is also a peacefulness. As they turn into the long, narrow corridor, the figure of an emaciated but sturdy pontiff can be seen slowly making his way behind them in full vesture. He is preparing to celebrate Mass over the tomb of one of his favorite martyrs, but he is trying to escape the notice of the emperor’s soldiers above. He turns to one of his deacons: “We’ll keep the volume on the amps down this evening, but I think we can still use the drum set.” The little group starts their liturgy to a hushed rendition of “Gather Us In.”
Suddenly, several of the emperor’s guard are heard rushing down from above! But the worship leaders will not be deterred, singing all the louder, “Gather us in, the rich and the haughty, gather us in, the proud and the strong…” The men get closer and closer. “Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven light years away…”
You decide what happens next: Are the soldiers so touched by the devotion and beauty of what they encounter that they are miraculously converted, or is this pope martyred for having terrible taste in music?
This is a ridiculous example meant to illumine a serious problem… The crisis of liturgical music, and even more broadly, the crisis of Christian music today in general.
Before we get into it, can we atone for the sins of the video above with a sample of something that won’t offend our sensibilities and is possibly similar (albeit very distantly) to what might have actually been sung in such a setting?
Ahh. That’s better.
We can realize the disparity in the dignity of the two pieces. We laugh at the thought of acoustic guitar accompanying someone like Pope St. Sixtus II, whose mere memory emboldens faith and charity. But when we imagine him being surrounded with this wonderful a capella piece performed by Ensemble Organum, it moves the mind to another world – we sense that this chant has a gravity and that anything done while it is sung is at least similarly serious. (And yes, it is a capella… The deep tones are droning.)
You will no doubt agree that this music is ordered to the praise and worship of God. Why then, does “Praise and Worship” refer to a class of music with such vast differences, like “Gather Us In,” (which, to be honest, is really more like a hymn than real P&W) or the stuff you would hear on the local Christian music radio station?
It starts in the same time and place that many other important things began to be destroyed: the late 1960’s in California. Coming on the heels of the secular music revolution going on at that time, “Jesus music” made its debut. A small group of hippies figured out that “free love” wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and starting becoming “born-again” Christians. Then they simply incorporated biblical messages into the music they were already playing in the back of the van and on the street corner. The growing popularity of the music of the ecumenical Taizé community in France also had some influence over the new genre, which is not so bad in itself, but when combined with 70’s guitar gets a little strange.
Credit needs to be given for the desire to leave a terrible way of life and to embrace and share the Christian faith. But if you are listening from far away, you ought to be able to tell whether a song is more likely to be about the Incarnation or about dropping acid. It is fundamentally a problem of proportion between means and ends. (This will be explored in other posts.)
The novelty of such a strange mix took off, and it turned into a bona fide industry within a few years. Soon it became “contemporary Christian music,” even having its very own magazine.
This all of course also conveniently followed the Council, which had set the stage for a plethora of misguided innovations.
So whence did the name “praise and worship” come? Perhaps there was some event or concert that first popularized the phrase, or maybe some big producer started talking about the music in that way. But that it has become accepted terminology – over and against Mozart – is surely more than hearing other people use the term. There must have been some kind of large-scale interior breakdown of the sense of latria (adoration) in order to identify praising and worshiping with only a specific kind of Christian music, and music of dubious liturgical quality at that. It would seem that the Church of What’s Happening Now deemed its music to be superior to all that had gone before, and thus gave it the truly dignified title of “praise and worship” – as if it were the first time music had ever been used for such things… And this is to make no mention of the often self-centered lyrics that sort of miss the point of praise and worship to begin with. (This one might be the worst.) If the songs you sing at church use personal pronouns more than “You,” “God,” “Christ,” etc., then there might be a problem.
Maybe this theory is a little “out there.” But then again, the 70’s were “out there” too.
How is this for a thought: if it isn’t praising God, or aiding in the worship of Him, then it really isn’t Christian music at all. It might be about Christian themes, it might be done by people who are not afraid to say they are Christians, etc. But if we really want to bestow the name “Christian” onto something, it had better be ordered toward Christ. We should remind ourselves how seriously St. Ignatius of Antioch took that title.
There’s no easy solution to this. But let it be known that the official stance of CRM is that all Christian music is also Praise and Worship music. Maybe introducing this idea in our parishes and schools could help recall to mind the truth of the matter and tone down some of the craziness.
Main image credit: http://www.confrontmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/crowd2.jpg