Some time ago now, a friend with whom I went to Bible college in my old Protestant days, who later went on to have a career composing “praise and worship music”, remarked that of all the musical genres out there, the genre of “Christian music” is unique, because it is based not on a particular style, but rather on its content. Put another way, there is no such thing as “Christian music”, only Christian lyrics set to music of whatever genre one prefers. I reminded him that this isn’t exactly true—that there are, in fact, specific “styles” of Christian music, such as Gregorian Chant, which were composed exclusively in, and exclusively for, the Christian liturgical worship of God.
It’s interesting to note how the “Christian music” to which my friend referred is often deemed substandard compared to its secular counterparts (even if the composition and performance of the music is itself equal or even superior). Perusing Youtube once looking for some Gregorian Chant to provide some ambiance while I painted, I came across a band that would perform secular songs in a “Gregorian Chant” style. Intrigued, I tried listening to something, but quickly turned it off with a similar sense of disappointed revulsion that those who dislike Christian music tend to express. If nothing else, this juxtaposition of secular lyrics with sacred melodies reinforced my claim that there is indeed a truly Christian “style” of music, that is only fittingly accompanied with sacred words, in precisely the same way that sacred words are often perceived to be jarringly out-of-sync with secular rhythms.
Now, I’m not suggesting that one should not pair Christian words with secular music, or that someone couldn’t derive spiritual edification from such arrangements. I am suggesting, however, that such musical arrangements will always be in some way inferior to arrangements in which the content of the lyrics matches more organically the spirit of the music. The music produced for the Christian subculture which apes the secular counterpart will always seem lifeless and didactic, and as an avenue of proclaiming the Gospel to the world at large, will be as ineffective and, let’s admit it, as insulting to them, as preachy movies like “God’s Not Dead” are.
My deep enjoyment of Gregorian Chant led me a couple years ago to purchase a CD put out by the Dominican Friars in Washington, DC, which they titled, “In Medio Ecclesiae: Music for the New Evangelization”. As much as a love the album, I couldn’t help but be a little sceptical of the subtitle. Part of me thought, Sure, listening to Sacred Music might help me enter more deeply into a prayerful spirit, but how is it going to help me to share my faith? Why would a non-Christian friend be led to Christ by mediaeval hymns sung in Latin?
Then one day I was leaving work, and a coworker stopped me to ask a question about something. The Friars were chanting through my car speakers when my coworker poked his head in through the window. I answered whatever query he had at the time and drove home, thinking nothing about it. The next day, however, he demanded to know what I had been listening to, saying it was the most beautiful thing he had ever heard! He then asked whether I could get him a copy of the CD for himself! This was followed up a few weeks later with him asking for a rosary and an explanation that he was feeling pulled back to his abandoned childhood faith!
Preaching and apologetics and the “usual methods” still have their place in the proclamation of the Gospel. But in our world so hell-bent on denying the truths of Catholic faith and morals (and denying the existence of Truth itself!), there needs to be a shift in our thinking about how evangelising is done. While the world around us may have erected barriers against the Good and the True, it is the Beautiful that will find its way through the cracks in the walls, or as Solzhenitsyn put it:
[T]here is a special quality in the essence of beauty, a special quality in the status of art: the conviction carried by a genuine work of art is absolutely indisputable and tames even the strongly opposed heart….. It is vain to affirm what the heart does not confirm. In contrast, a work of art bears within itself its own confirmation:…. Works steeped in truth and presenting it to us vividly alive will take hold of us, will attract us to themselves with great power—and no one, ever, even in a later age, will presume to negate it. And so perhaps that old trinity of Truth and Good and Beauty is not just the formal outworn formula it used to seem to us during our heady, materialistic youth. If the crests of these three trees join together, as the investigators and explorers used to affirm, and if the too obvious, too straight branches of Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light—yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three.
And in that case it was not a slip of the tongue for Dostoevsky to say that “Beauty will save the world,” but a prophecy.
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