Stones Instead of Bread: Reflections on Contemporary Hymns: Part VII

by Mary Oberle Hubley

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Besides the (1) emotional quality of popular music, other characteristics are: (2) lack of originality, (3) use of cliché, (4) imitation of "what's out there," (5) impermanency, (6) predictability, and (7) datedness.

With few exceptions, the music contained in the ubiquitous Glory & Praise,1 (Volumes I, II, III) exemplifies the above characteristics. (Many of the Glory and Praise songs do double duty in the pages of various missalettes, also).

Although occasionally a text in Glory and Praise songs may be above criticism (many are not) the music, by its association with or reminder of media pop music, pronounces it to be secular. It is related to the world, but not to God Who created the world. It quite well expresses our human and societal milieu, but not the divine and heavenly. It is not set apart from the world; it actually represents it. A lot of songs, especially from Volumes I and II, are dated; people are tired of them. Their music does not direct our people to the spiritual, transcendent "Other" which is the Bread their souls crave. Instead, it proffers an anti-spiritual, anti-transcendent stone which leaves the spirit impoverished though the outer self is suffused with contentment, and oftentimes excitement.

Only A Shadow2 is a well-known and popular song. Its emotional quality evokes a sentimental, warm and fuzzy, "care-bear" feeling. It represents a musical immaturity commensurate to its juvenile shallowness. It possesses no depth of music (i.e. melody, harmony) to match what ought to be an awesome and profound reflection, since it is of the very essence and attributes of God.

Another song, One Bread, One Body3 is reminiscent of Only A Shadow due to its power to wrap the singers in big, warm, soft communal blankets of comfortable well-being. It lulls the mind to sleep, and consequently the person's moral accountability. It is musically trite and predictable: we know "where it is going" and, as with trite things, "what is going to happen." There is no development of melody, for it is akin to trite novels or stories which have no development of characters or plot. Its melodic patterns are used at the expense of the text; and even if the lyrics had some dignity, as befitting the texts which it paraphrases, it lacks a proper musical setting. Like Muzak in countless stores and offices, it makes no demands on one's intelligence and serious attention.

On Eagle's Wings4 has taken our Catholic faithful by storm because of its delightful and attractive tune. The melody is, in fact, so appealing in its sentimental and romantic expansiveness that the person's response to it is not only immediate and expansive, but actually cathartic. People experience such an enthusiastic response to this music that they do not have to "go any further," such as reaching out further to God. The music really impedes this "reaching out to God," which is an act of the will, because the person is too spent emotionally to do so.

This kind of song, though beautiful in itself as are a number of Glory and Praise songs, is wholly inappropriate for use in our Catholic liturgies. It creates a very dangerous and fraudulent effect: in the Catholic church, led by a priest, in the context of the Sacred Liturgy, such music leads the person to believe that a religious experience has been had when, in response to the powerful music, merely an emotional experience has been enjoyed. What was apprehended was not God, but one's emotions. It is not worship "in spirit and in truth," but sensual enjoyment under the guise of worship: entertainment in the House of God.

On Eagle's Wings is a parish version of that dated hit Climb Every Mountain from The Sound of Music. It would be appropriate and well-received in a Broadway musical; it could easily vie with Chariots of Fire as fine film music; it would be a big hit on the Christian "rock" radio stations, where it belongs. However, Jesus Christ angrily whipped the moneychangers out of the temple; would He be less angry at entertainment in His Father's House?

 


1North American Liturgical Resources, Glory & Praise: Songs for Christian Assembly (Phoenix, Arizona: 1977)
 
2 Ibid., Volume 1, p.54; by (former Rev.) Carey Landry.
 
3 Ibid., Volume 2, p.47; by John Foley, SJ.
 
4 Ibid., Volume 2, p.46; by Rev. Michael Joncas.