Gnosticism and Contemporary Church Music

There’s a lively discussion on Vox Nova’s chant thread. One commenter, “Ut videam,” plays the anti-Gnosticism card this morning. Exactly to what this is a response, I’m not sure. My point on the thread was that an absolute faithfulness to the given liturgical or Scriptural text is ideal for chant and other music that doesn’t need to paraphrase the text in order to utilize it for music.

Back to gnosticism. When pressed for examples of a “clear agenda” in contemporary music, Ut videam quoted:

Sing a new church into being.

Let us build the city of God.

After all… not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven light years away, but here in this place the new light is shining. Now is the kingdom! Now is the day!

In other words… the agenda is the good old Gnostic heresy of immanentizing the eschaton.

In other words, the same old scapegoats of proof-texting. Or cherry-picking texts over which the tongue stumbles.

The first line is from a hymn that places the agency of grace with God, “Summoned by the God who made us,” a rather inconvenient point for detractors.

The second line comes from a hymn that paraphrases passages describing God’s leadership from darkness to light in Isaiah and 1 John. The context is clear enough that God inspires human beings to respond to grace, and the line following, “May our tears be turned into dancing,” seems to put the whole refrain in context of a hopeful prayer.

Critics of “Gather Us In” seem to miss the direct second-person address in the second half of every verse. The title itself echoes the prayer.

Blogger Henry Karlson has more the measure of such complaint:

And where do we see the idea that the early Church rejected a realized eschatology? For indeed, we find Scripture has several passages which represent such a view — indeed, the kingdom of God is at hand.. it is here.. it is within… is found throughout Scripture, and Jesus said there would be those who see it in glory (the cross and resurrection). The denial of the immanent aspect of eschatology is very gnostic in orientation, because this is a denial of the flesh, a denial of the world, and a denial of the relationship between Christ and the World which is found at the Cross.

I’ve mentioned several times that publishers often discourage composers from making use of an exact text in composition. A few alterations enable the escape from delivering half the royalties to the USCCB. If there is an error in that kind of practice, I don’t think it’s gnosticism. Lacking any national, regional, or diocesan direction from bishops or a bishop, we remain in a state of affairs in which just about anything goes for church music. Many music directors successfully navigate the waters of heresy. The situation might be far worse were there no Catholic music publishers on the scene and everyone was using home-made songs without even an editorial board’s view to make adjustments before publication.

There is, of course, a favorite conspiaracy theory trotted out:

Post-Vatican II, however, chant has been actively suppressed by those hostile to the liturgical tradition of the Church. I contend that this is the chief reason for its relative absence from our churches today …

More likely that chant never took root in pre-conciliar parishes. And where it did, it might have been a performance vehicle–that’s how the Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos promoted it. More likely it was a disinterest in music conservatories to early music in general–something that didn’t begin to see correction until the 80’s. More likely, conservatories at Catholic universities emphasized other forms of classical music. More likely, publishers indeed saw chant as part of a musical firmament they offered–it just wasn’t front and center as a moneymaker.

Ultimately, chant will rise or fall on its musical merits as interpreted by parish musicians. The Latin versus vernacular debate will affect the outcome somewhat. Access to repertoire has never been greater. Will the training of chant leaders and teachers be up to the task? Let’s see.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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18 Responses to Gnosticism and Contemporary Church Music

  1. You are right; when there are problems, it is not gnosticism nor does one bad hymn condemn the lot. One could suggest chiliasm has influenced some modern hymns (far more than gnosticism); but when this happens, it does not make the whole enterprise heretical any more than Peter Abelard writing chants makes all chant nominalism.

    Indeed, if anyone has done any study of the history of sacred hymns, one will note that great theologian/saints like Ephrem took the tunes which were popular at the time and made orthodox words to go along with them. We must recognize that we might not always like changes in style, but changes in style happen and the church needs to meet those changes, as it has done so before.

    Of course this does not mean we should reject what was done in the past, either; we can appreciate and employ classical traditions as well: there is no need for one exclusive musical tradition, and there are elements from each tradition which can inspire in ways unique to them and to experience them all is to experience various reflections of and responses to the human experience of the glory of God.

  2. Todd says:

    Thanks for coming by to comment, Henry. Faulty diagnosis of the problems with particular hymns or with church music in general can get us sidetracked from the real problems. This kind of argument can be more of a hindrance.

    There’s no doubt we have much progress ahead of us to make good liturgical music better, and to steer poor choices away from consideration. I believe chant is an authentic part of the solution. Conspiracy theories, even if they were objectively true under some pastors, do the cause little good.

  3. Tony says:

    Sing a New Church. Our pastor has placed a permanent moritorium on that particular piece of narssicistic drek in our parish, and that’s fine and dandy with me.

    And “summoned by God” is the last time His name is mentioned as an agency of change. The rest is us, Us, US!

    “And sings my soul, my fellow parishioners to thee, how great we art!!! How great we art!!!” :P

    Forget about singing a new church, I’d just like to sing myself a nice cold beer.

  4. RP Burke says:

    Sorry, Todd, but “Gather Us In” is all about how neat we are. Really and truly. Needs to be attainted.

  5. Mike says:

    Sorry, Todd, but “Gather Us In” is all about how neat we are

    Sorry, Mr. Burke, but that’s simply false. Your turn.

  6. Liam says:

    But it is a tedious piece of poorly written hymnody (both musically and lyrically – hardly a unique fault) and for that reason alone should be retired.

  7. Todd says:

    I think the question at hand is this: Does the hymn text forward a questionable agenda?

    I’d say that’s reading far too much into it. I’d say the limit of its insidiousness is putting the line “give us the courage to enter the song” at the end of verse 2 when many music directors cut.

    The text speaks of a sense of lay empowerment–not a bad thing given the goals and aspirations of the liturgical movement. None of us here will be solely responsible for its fate in the 22nd century repertoire. My sense is that it’s here to stay, at least for another generation.

  8. RP Burke says:

    Let us compare “GUI” to another “gathering” hymn, “We Gather Together” — not the Westendorf text that Mike Joncas lampooned as a hymn to rubrics, but the more familiar hymn.

    Gather Us In talks about ourselves, about what “we” are to do, and makes an essentially protestant statement about the eucharist (“bread that is you” is consubstantiation, for example). We Gather Together is about the actual reason we gather, about God. Wins the battle every time.

    Your turn.

  9. Mike says:

    I don’t question your taste here, as I much prefer “We Gather Together” musically and lyrically, but your interpretation of the lyrics of “Gather Us In” is simply wrong. “Bread that is you” is transubstantiation, if you believe in transubstantiation and understand that lyrics can be descriptive and poetic at the same time. You’re also assuming that a lyric that says “what we are to do” is illegitimate, because songs can only be about the reason we gather before God. That’s true as a matter of taste, but wrong as a matter of rules.

  10. Todd says:

    RP, I think Mike’s got you on the interpretation of lyrics. The second half of each stanza addresses God directly, as I mentioned in my original post.

    Like Liam, I think there are better formulations for a hymn designed as an explicit “gathering” piece. And I think stylistic criticism are within bounds on “Gather Us In.” But I think you and Ut videam and others do your argument little justice by misreading what should be, by your own definition, hymns that lack serious depth.

    In Ut Videam’s case it might be a matter of redefining “heresy” as “religious stuff I don’t like.” In your case, I can appreciate the dislike of the hymn and understand your misreading of it. As for me, I program it about four times a year. I don’t particularly like playing or singing it. If I worked in a parish that didn’t know it, I don’t know that I’d be inclined to introduce it.

    But the charge of gnosticism is right out the window, I’d say.

  11. Sam Schmitt says:

    No need for a “conspiracy” to eradicate chant (if by conspiracy you mean an centralized effort). Clearly, chant was discouraged so much, so often and so vociferously in some cases that there must be some explanation.

    A similar case – the practice of the sacrament confession has gone way down in the past 40 years. No need for a vast conspiracy coming out of some university or chancery office somewhere, just the culmination of confusing catechesis, poor formation of priests, weak sacramental theology being taught, etc. The same thing happened to discourage chant. It wasn’t just each individual pastor on his own intiative – an anti-traditional stance was definitely out there, the result of some fo the things I’ve mentioned above, which discouraged chant along with a lot of other things.

  12. John Rae says:

    GUI is about us, where does it praise God? It should be commissioned to the garbage bin with most of Dan Shutte, SLJs etc 60/70s anti-Church drivel. Hymns should be Scripturally based, lyrically and praising of God alone. Any Psalm can teach the glory of God infintely better than the whole Haugen etc catalog. Paid Directors of Music should be assigned to the same garbase recpticle. Taking money for playing music for God is a travesty.

  13. Todd says:

    On the outside chance your post is serious, John, I should point out that nearly all of the SLJ output is based on Scripture, unlike, perhaps, classics like Panis Angelicus, Holy God, or Salve Regina.

    Church musicians have “taken money” for centuries. Since Vatican II it’s usually the volunteers who catch the heat for not being musically astute.

    I’ve known parishioners who live in a sort of fantasy world, one in which they can drop a George (coin or bill) in the collection plate, enjoy $100/year tuition in the parish school for their child, and watch the pastor riding the mower before hearing Saturday confessions.

    It’s a nice picture, but it is totally without basis in reality, either the present or the past.

  14. John Rae says:

    “the liturgy is not a theatrical text, and the altar is not a stage . . . It is important not to become merely actors in a spectacle.”

  15. Todd says:

    I agree, John. Contemporary liturgists would also–many of us would interpret priest-centered liturgy of the 1570 Missal to be excessively performance-oriented: say the black, do the red–that kind of thing.

    If we want to assess particulars: priests and musicians in isolated parishes, then we need specifics. No denying there are examples today, as there were fifty or a hundred years ago. But you’ll need better examples than the SLJ’s, who abjured hymn settings for the most part, and adopted the more traditionally Catholic practice of antiphons wedded to psalm verses.

    There is much to criticize in Catholic liturgy, but it’s important that such criticism be grounded in history and modern practice, and not by our personal taste in music or, if we choose, our volunteers.

  16. John Rae says:

    Todd – I am shocked at this thread. Are you actually comparing ‘liturgists” with the prayer of the Church patterned on the liturgical posture of the priest,1570 or at any time, who is the “other Christ”? You truly have to review what the Mass is and Who is really present. Neither you or anyone else has the “right” to criticize the role of our priests in the Liturgy at any time in the history of our Church. There is nothing to critize in our Liturgy: since it is the vehicle that delivers the Real Presence of Our Lord. And that is the 2000 year and counting privelege we are given by our Awesome God and His Church.

  17. Todd says:

    John, I’m saying that human ambitions and ego transfer very easily to liturgy, a very public and visible expression. I certainly believe that God works with human weakness (or in spite of it) to provide grace.

    I fail to see the distinction in your shock of my criticism of the behaviors and attitudes of a few priests. You yourself have offered very strong criticisms of both priests and lay people who serve the Church as composers and musicians. Their service is all flawed inasmuch as all of us mortals fall short of divine perfection. You’re not suggesting you can point out error and I cannot, are you?

    I would also stand on an important distinction between the overall effectiveness of the liturgy as a means to worship God and to impart grace, and the finessing of particulars that might impede the clarity of that purpose.

    May I be a critic of musical presentation that may be improved? May I criticize liturgical ministers, including the clergy, who attempt to usurp the centrality of the Mass from Christ? Is it my place to suggest improvements? If any or all of these point more directly to Christ, I would say the answer is in the affirmative.

    That doesn’t imply I criticize in any way the action of God in the Mass. That divine aspect of liturgy is way beyond my power to bring about, change, or prevent.

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