How To Assess Personal Taste

To begin with, I don’t think personal taste is a trivial or inconsequential aspect of human judgment.

An example: I don’t like peas. The taste is okay when it’s in a soup. And I’ll tolerate the vegetable in a mixture with other stuff. But I’ve never enjoyed the texture of that food. In context of my overall diet, I have other greens I enjoy eating, so I’m not deprived either nutritionally or in cuisine.

As a parent, I’m aware my daughter doesn’t like mushrooms. I don’t feel it’s important for me to explore why: I will take at face value that either the taste or texture or some negative experience in the past colors her reticence about fungi.

If she weren’t eating any vegetables, then that would be a concern. But as Brittany eats nearly anything, I somewhat avoid cooking with mushrooms, and when I do use them, she doesn’t have to eat them.

Personal taste: a personal judgment, but nor more or no less.

Personal taste devolves into a dictatorship when a few people or one person attempts to dictate based on an argument they can’t take to the next level. We’ve seen a bit of this recently in discussing two favorite hymn texts of the conservative blogosphere: “Gather Us In” and “Sing A New Church.”

Some of my commentariat interpret critique of the critique as being an apologist for Marty Haugen or Delores Dufner. Misguided argument: my beef is with people who, unlike Liam or a few others, cannot argue convincingly against the texts. While I’ve used both hymns in worship planning, I consider them second-tier efforts, especially compared to the contemporary writers I find to have a sound grasp of Scripture, liturgy, and artistry, people like Sr Genevieve Glen.

When Tony comes to my combox and tries to ruffle my feathers by addressing things as heresy, he makes my argument more convincingly than I could make it myself. Not only does he underscore my point of the use of “heresy” as a perjorative (rather than an ecclesiastical charge) but he also illustrates Pope Benedict’s dictatorship of relativism–by self-example.

In this old Adoremus essay, I think Father Paul Scalia stumbles badly in proof-texting for his personal taste, and not reading enough perspective:

“Sing a New Church”, a triumphalist paean to diversity by Delores Dufner, OSB, also fosters the Cult of Us:

Let us bring the gifts that differ
And, in splendid, varied ways,
Sing a new Church into being,
One in faith and love and praise

So the chorus goes, and the verses similarly proclaim us to ourselves. Passing over the tremendous ecclesiological problems in the text, we should question what the song communicates to the congregation: songs about us constitute worship of the Almighty. We have replaced Him as the focus of worship.

Perhaps he thinks he’s piling on evidence like they do on tv legal shows, but he sinks his own case and the boat has a lot of breaches:

1. Triumphalism sure tastes good when it’s on one’s own side.

2. I wonder if Fr Scalia has a problem with the Pauline diversity of Romans 12 or 1 Corinthians 12.

3. It’s easy enough to pull a clause out of a complete sentence in this hymn. My reading of “Sing A New Church” is that each verse+refrain unit constitutes its own sentence, or at least a unified thought.

4. Fr Scalia hints at ecclesiological problems, but unless he’s on a word-count, I’m sure HHH would’ve given him room to elaborate.

5. He fails to realize the context of singing this hymn: the celebration of the Eucharist.

6. Most damning of all: he misquotes the text, attributing a capital “C” where the original text simply reads “church.” Why this error that would lead to an inflamed support for his own undescribed “problems.”

My own analysis of Sing a New Church:

Verse one establishes God’s call and one gift richer than variety: unity in Christ. Verse two roots believers in their baptism. Verse three completes the Trinity and alludes to tradition. Verse four looks outward from the body of believers and suggests a unity of worship and social action. Verse five speaks of evangelization and the hoped-for result of a growing community.

The hymn as a whole describes a rather sound goal, entirely keeping in the Cathlic tradition, that some parishes don’t get: the sacraments are a springboard for spreading the Gospel in the world. In other words, the Mass is source and summit: basic Vatican II.

Some Catholics prefer summit: the worship of God. They may or may not have mastered a sense of the Eucharist as a source from which the power of the Church flows.

Getting back to personal taste … I’ll assess the skill of a person’s argument. If I get the sense we have a conclusion in search of a justification, I have no problem suggesting “personal taste” as a possible diagnosis. It’s not evil or wrong to demur from what amounts to a catechetical song. As long as the person or community in question lives the Christian values behind the text, it would be easy to assess that the teaching is received, and that personal taste, no matter how badly it’s argued, might indicate a different choice for liturgy.

Commentariat, take over, please, and offer your own assessments.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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11 Responses to How To Assess Personal Taste

  1. Liam says:

    Nettleton is a great American processional tune.

    Unfortunately, my experience of the text – which text I could hardly describe as heretical – came in a community that misunderstood it as proclaiming a new Church, ontologically – specifically, a celebration of Our New Church That’s Better Than Their Old One.

    So my recommended praxis would be: progressively inclined intentional communities (or music ministries aspirign to midwife such into being) should abstain from this text if they know what’s good for them.

  2. Liam says:

    Which, I should add, is part of my general approach to look skeptically at using what your personal taste strongly craves. On the general thinking that we often need to thwart our cravings (in a Catholic, not Calvinistic, sense).

  3. Randolph Nichols says:

    Though a lower case “c” changes the emphasis and weakens accusations of heresy, I wonder if a break with the past is in fact the conscious perception of those singing in the pews. It would be interesting to compare the liturgical character (and thus theological leaning) of parishes that regularly sing this hymn with those that don’t.

    In regard to taste, in addition to objective arguments (e.g., derivatives of Kant’s ‘Critique of Judgment’and social/environmenal influences), I wonder if there are innate predispositions that we often overlook. Is it possible we have a kind of Myers-Briggs classification of inner wiring that guides our aesthetic preferences? That would go a long way in explaining why some only feel comfortable in formal, highly controlled liturgies whereas others gravitate to more casual, spontaneous worship. The application of neuroscience to music is still in an infancy stage, but enough is known to raise questions. If there is something to this, it certainly challenges a shared Catholic identity.

  4. Mr. Nichols,
    I think you’re onto something very important in your last paragraph’s “Myers-Briggs classification.” In particular, “If there is something to this, it certainly challenges a shared Catholic identity.”
    Is a shared Catholic identity bare bones origin determined by its liturgical praxis, or its ritual structure? Is it possible to agree that both extremes of “taste” you cite (“formal, highly controlled….casual, spontaneous) can still be performed licitly?
    Is “shared Catholic identity” necessarily dependent upon cultural attributes, whether the native Roman Rite elements such as Latin, plainsong, polyphony, etc.? Or does that identity include other cultural attributes, which have in common the canons of the rites?
    I’m not in your intellectual league, but I’d love to hear your reflections on this.

  5. RP Burke says:

    Getting back to personal taste … I’ll assess the skill of a person’s argument. If I get the sense we have a conclusion in search of a justification, I have no problem suggesting “personal taste” as a possible diagnosis.

    Non sequitur. A conclusion in search of a justification is nothing more than a conclusion in search of a justification, a flawed argument. To assume that said flawed argument is evidence of “personal taste” sounds like the creationists’ claim that a flaw in the evolutionist argument means that the creationist argument is therefore valid and true. Hogwash there, and hogwash in the accusation of “personal taste.”

  6. Randolph Nichols says:

    Charles,
    Perhaps I implied something not intended. I don’t question the validity of liturgy in various cultural guises. If a person insists he is drawn closer to God through a manner of worship that others find unappealing, we should at the very least accept his conviction as genuine. I am merely probing the complexity behind why that worship style does not speak to me. To stretch this in a more extreme direction, David Letvin, author of ‘Music and the Brain’ said in an radio interview that perhaps at least ten percent of the population doesn’t understand what the fuss over music (of any kind) is all about. If that is indeed the case, and most neighborhood piano teachers would probably agree it is, that means in large Catholic parishes a lot of people probably feel music is being forced down their throats – regardless of style.
    I happen to feel most comfortable in what can be classified as a high church environment with all the smells and bells. This was apparent at a very early age. Some would explain this from a psychological angle – particularly in light of my Baptist father’s anti-Catholic tendencies, others as a result of the religious dimension to the social hierarchy in my hometown. I’ve never been satisfied that these exclamations tell the whole story. Something seems hardwired.

  7. Understood and thank you for taking the time.
    In my case, I was essentially unchurched through the first 18 years; fell into the highly charged, energized ritual of the Catholic Church in 1970 which, at Oakland’s Cathedral, covered the musical waterfront wonderfully, and knew this was how I was to worship the God I knew had to be, since I could remember. Still working at it.

  8. I entirely agree with your sentiment, Todd, that we should avoid indulging our own personal tastes, particularly in our worship in the Divine Liturgy.

    Thus, I offer an alternative: we might want to follow the directives of the Second Vatican Council, and to start by giving chant (including, but not limited to, Gregorian chant) pride of place in all liturgical gatherings. The call of the priest and deacon, and the response of the cantors and people, go back to the Temple in Jerusalem, the Dramas of the Greeks, and the chants of the Egyptians, three of the earliest expressions of holiness in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

    Then we might want, as the council Fathers had recommended, to give the whole treasury of sacred polyphony, to those worshiping, from sequentiae with their melismatic movements, through organum, to the triumphs of harmony and counterpoint from the 14th through the 18th centuries.

    And then, finally, within that context, we might want to introduce the hymnography of the people which has developed in the last four or so centuries. Certainly German and English work, as well as French, Italian and Spanish. I’ve heard some decent stuff done in Africa, Asia, and the Islands.

    In my one expression of personal taste, I actually like Bob Haas’ “And Holy is Your Name” mainly because of his outright theft of a beautiful trad. Irish song, and his adoption of a decent version of the Magnificat.

    The problem is that it would appear, because of the personal taste of a fair number of choir directors and people, RC worshipers have had a diet largely of “Sing a New Church”, and other examples of corn, for the past 40 years. Now, I have nothing against corn. It can be nourishing, and it can be used in a good number of ways. But it is still corny. And a diet exclusively of corn will lead to allergies. Or have you never heard the proverb, “The elders have eaten sour grapes, and their children’s teeth are set on edge”?

  9. Gavin says:

    Bernard hits the nail on the head. I wasn’t terribly inclined to comment, but Bernard made the point that needs to be made – chant removes taste.

    The fact is that chant is what the Church wants to be used. When I do chant the propers (which is rarely), if someone should say to me “I don’t like that,” my response will be, verbatim, “It doesn’t matter.” Because it doesn’t. If you don’t like the “Ego pastor bonus” for communion today, write a letter to the pope and say “Mr. Pope, as an arrogant American, I demand you change the communion proper to the 4th Sunday of Easter in Year A to Like A Shepherd.” Actually, with the previous guy it might have worked… (*COUGH*DIVINEMERCYSUNDAY*COUGH*)

    I do chant no more as a matter of taste than my priest wears his chausible over the stole as a matter of flair. This blog will be filled with debate after debate over whether “Sing a New Church” is better or “Adoro Te”. And honestly, I’m inclined to agree with Todd that so many have a seriously blinding bias towards anything and every related to the past 40 years, due mostly to matters of taste. BUT the way to get over those debates is NOT to argue until Todd talks more than everyone and we’re all forced to sing our new churches. The solution is to appeal to an outside authority, in this case the Church, and do what it says, in this case chanting the Mass.

  10. Todd says:

    Thanks for the commentary on this, gentlemen. The real interpretation is what constitutes pride of place for chant, especially in communities that don’t sing it or that have had bad experiences with it.

    I’d say for most North American parishes, a chant ordinary for ordinary time is basic. A mixture of psalmody for the Word and for Communion from By Flowing Waters or a similar resource would be good.

    And hymnody? I’d say that contemporary work from Lucien Deiss, and the St Louis Jesuits sticks a little closer to Catholic tradition with the antiphon & psalm verses format.

    My choir’s ability to pull off polyphony has varied greatly from parish to parish. I don’t see choral performance as essential to “singing the Mass,” but I do think it’s helpful for singers to get experience singing in various styles.

    And as a North American, my natural bias would be against European or Asian or African music and more in favor of homegrown traditions: spirituals, fuguing tunes, jazz, plus American composers of the present day. I think the reinforcement of culture is an important value for liturgical music in the Americas.

  11. Jimmy Mac says:

    Charles in CentCA: I, too, am a veteran of the old Oakland Cathedral days and was blessed by the music virtuosity of E. Donald Osuna. Having been away for many years, this experience was heady enough that I (almost) forgave the RCC for many things that I believed (and still do) to be wrong-headed.

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