Thus spake St. Augustine in the Confessions about the first time he heard music in a church. He debated whether having music in worship was a good idea, period. Augustine could see that the emotions were a powerful force to drive the human spirit, but if they got too strong they could actually become a distraction from real spirituality, which is ultimately a silent and invisible relationship measured by conformity of the intellect and will to God… One might end up conforming himself to the music instead.
Obviously, we’ve settled that debate, and it is safe to assume that we came down on the right side. But now there is a new debate – and yes, it is new – over what kind of music is appropriate for aiding prayer.
I would like to offer an example of extremes.
Here is a song with 16 million hits on YouTube called “Touch the Sky.” It is by Hillsong United, one of the most popular Christian bands in living memory.
Here is a song with 3.6 million (and that many only because it is being conducted by Leonard Bernstein) called “Ave Verum Corpus.” It is by Mozart.
It doesn’t seem that any serious person could equate the two, and yet it is not an uncommon experience to hear both a “praise and worship” song and a “classical” song in the same mass. I think that was once turned into a play.
If all you’ve ever had is grape juice, how will you appreciate fine wine? It’s not a wonder that a culture increasingly obsessed with the ephemeral and emotional is drawn to a sentimental spirituality summed up by C-G-Am-F.
Yes, this music can be a channel of grace. Yes, it can pick people up when they’re down. But to insist on this to the exclusion of the real musical heritage of the Church is a little bit like picking through the dumpster in the back of a fancy restaurant because the leftovers have calories and nutrients. Go into the restaurant instead.