And yet, thank goodness for aesthetic snobs. The alternative is mediocrity, is ugliness. You want Palestrina, or you want Marty Haugen?Pause right there, sir. That's one point made in full.
No offense to Mr. Haugen, whose Mass of Creation isn't all that bad (it's "Gather Us In" that I find unbearable.) But in my opinion, nobody since Palestrina has created music more innovative and beautiful all at once. Certainly nobody in the last hundred years, and abso-freaking-definitely nobody in recent Christian music history.
I sparked this blogalectic by complaining about the artistic elitism that fails to recognize literary value in a book like Little Women. When it comes to literature, I tend to see the glory in the simple and innocent as well as in the complex and masterful, and I defend those works correspondingly.
But make the switch to music, particularly church music, and out comes a different perspective.
Now, I half-promised Laura a post about this subject, so forgive me if I wax tangential. I'll make it back around to the main point, I promise.
I have three very big problems with the bulk of modern church music: #1 is the "sheen" that Michael Gungor mentioned. Which seems due in part to an undefined and mistaken notion that being a Christian makes your life easier. Also, it owes to problem #2, likewise noted by Mr. Gungor: the failure of many Christian recording artists to realize that music itself actually means something, not just the lyrics. Most rock music means sex, anger or rebellious exodus, none of which translate well to attempts at worship.
My third problem with the generality of works written under almost any definition of Christian music in the past century is this: at its best it shows the immanence and love and nearness of God very well, but it fails with reverence. It shows the Great Love of God, and that's as close as it dares get. This owes as much to intimate, soulful vocals and instrumentation as to lyrics, if not more, which takes us back to problem #2. I don't think I've ever heard a song from the Christian record labels that expressed the fear of God convincingly.
No, I'm not talking about an "oh, God'll send me to hell 'cause I thought something mean about my sister last week" fear of God; I'm thinking more along the lines of "'Course He isn't safe. But He's good."
I've felt that good fear, that joyful solemnity, in my bones listening to Gregorian chant—or Palestrina (particularly, since we're talking art, in the acoustic spaces such works were designed for). And lest anyone think I'm praising the Catholics at the expense of the Protestants (a touchy subject for a Catholic who used to be an evangelical), the current Catholic state is worse than the Protestant one by far. Lucky Catholics with popular sensibilities get Protestant praise anthems. Anyone with traditional tastes goes begging for hymns by Luther and Wesley; chant is unloved and polyphony forgotten. Instead, our hymnals contain some of the worst schlock I've ever caught posing as music: lyrics that would make a cheap Hallmark card blush, syncopation that no one but Vince Guaraldi could pull off, and sentimental attempts at poetic expression that basically mean nothing or are bad theology.
There—look at me hating. I try not to do that. Most of the time.
So I'll give Masha and Mr. Pond this much: there is, in fact, a place in my heart that despises mediocrity. Most of it happens to be aimed at myself and my own work (at least, when I'm not taking potshots at Christian music). I'm not usually much of what Dreher calls a hater, and I hope I never will be. But despite my defense of the literary status of a handful of books written in unimposing prose, my ultimate convictions are in favor of refined art. When it comes to my own writing, however often I fail, I can't imagine striving for anything less.
EDIT: Thanks to a mild oh-really from Mr. Pond, I've corrected my haphazard claim that no one has since made "music as innovative and beautiful" as Palestrina's to say "music more innovative and beautiful." This sort of mistake always happens when I write sleepy. But perhaps I may be forgiven for being hyperbolic about Palestrina when I say that the song in the above video may be my favorite single work of art in existence.