Christian Rock has other critics, too, many of them pious and churchgoing. Some insist that the genre is a tool of Satan, and I do not agree with that, either. Mine is a faith in a triune God, and both acoustic and electric chords can echo the three-in-one unity by which Christian baptism initiates people into the church, with (if you'll pardon the elasticity of the metaphor) Father, Son, and Spirit being the original "power trio." I've said that before.
The problem with Christian Rock is it can now be found not just on the radio, but also in the "worship space." That, I do not get. Even the best of the Christian Rock songs (like the Juno-award winning "A Better Way," which is expertly covered by the LIFETEEN band at my own parish) can only be called power ballads. They are not hymns. And that is precisely my quarrel with singing them during a liturgy, even -- perhaps especially-- a liturgy targeted at teenagers.
To put the dilemma a little differently: many Christian churches have traded in choirs for "praise bands," and where praise bands go, power ballads are sure to follow-- even if you you don't join the estimable Lawrence Henry in disparaging praise bands as "whitebread" and "trite."
Catholic parishes were mercifully late to this development by comparison with Reform-minded Christian denominations. Some Protestants first embraced what my kids call "Jesus music" as an outreach tool untainted by the vaguely papist deference to hierarchy implied in the lyrics to such classic hymns as "Holy God We Praise Thy Name." Music directors who'd grown up listening to the Manhattan Transfer ask a telephone operator to "Get Me Jesus on the Line" may not have even been conscious of their own theological assumptions. They simply wanted to "reach people where they're at," and figured that grand old hymns had to go, if for no other reason than that they harkened back to the days of what singer/songwriter John Prine called "stained glass in every window, [and] hearing aids in every pew." Unfortunately, many Catholic parishes that were late to embrace the praise band phenomenon have been making up for lost time in this area.
The chain of events went something like this: First, the folk revival of the Sixties brought "Kumbaya" out from the campfire circle and into church service repertoire, leaving "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" to fend for itself among the Boy Scouts. Andrew Lloyd Weber and some other savvy secularists took a look at that phenomenon and replied via Broadway and the movies through "Jesus Christ, Superstar" and "Godspell," both of which were hits. Nobody managed to turn Jesus into a hippie icon, but that wasn't necessary for positive and negative reasons. On the positive side, Brother Sun, Sister Moon had done a heartwarming job of turning Saints Francis and Claire into flower children. On the negative side, the early Seventies already had a dugout full of icons, with everyone from Che Guevara to Sun Myung Moon stepping up to the plate.
When arena rock arrived to push folk musicians back to Berkeley and Greenwich Village or coffee houses dialed into those mother ships, the praise band subculture saw an opening and sprinted for it with instruments in tow. Musicians who had previously played sweltering summer concerts under revival tents near Igloo-brand coolers filled with sweet tea decided that enclosed sanctuary space was a better place to gig, not least because it had air conditioning.
Most churches had by then lost narrow naves as architects experimented with forms borrowed from theater-in-the-round, flattening Gothic, Baroque, Neo-classical and even Shaker-inspired prairie architecture into Sydney Opera House knockoffs or boxy-looking warehouse megachurches. One thing led to another, and with churches built more wide than high, it was fairly easy to fit a drum kit and maybe a Hammond organ up front near the pulpit. Choirs that had led the congregation in singing from the back of various churches moved forward too, but by then the instrumentalists had claimed all the good spots.
The praise band people meant well. They always do. But they envied the perennial esteem in which a capella gospel groups were held, and they'd drive to rehearsals listening to their commercially successful peers sanctify airwaves in subtle ways with catchy tunes like Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" and The Youngbloods' "Get Together," not to mention the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." Those tunes were great, but they were commercial, and the praise band people humming along in their cars would bless God for having giving them an opportunity to be less circumspect in their praise.
Most of the unknowns couldn't compete with the level of craftsmanship on FM radio, or were loath to persuade their pastors of the merits of things like the reverb pedal and fuzz bass, but that didn't keep them from trying to Rock for Jesus: it was easier than trying to master the old Gospel tunes still sung in predominantly black churches. If you questioned the praise band bias toward performance (as opposed to, say, reverence), the more scripturally literate band directors were quick to point out that in 2 Samuel, King David and all the Israelites danced before the Lord.
In Catholic circles, praise band relocation off the grass and onto the carpet was aided and abetted by liturgists hell-bent on democratizing and de-clericalizing everything about the Mass "in the spirit of Vatican II," and never mind what the actual architects of Vatican II (such as a Polish prelate named Karol Wojtyla who later became Pope John Paul II) had to say. Some of those liturgists worked hand-in-glove with politically correct composers --sons of Salieri, every one of them -- like the irksome Marty Haugen.
Now that praise bands are indoors, they have no intention of returning to the garages, basements, parking lots, and auditoriums from which they came.
As a result of the developments I've sketched above, and the fact that hymnody has fallen victim to the language wars, we now have a sorry situation indeed. But Anthony Esolen understands this phenomenon better than I do. Go read his comments at the link, and the classically literate followup to those comments. In brief, Esolen says that sentimentality, although valuable in its place, is neverthless destructive of genuine feeling. And there you have the problem put in yet another way: when power ballads intrude on the liturgy of heaven (which is what the Mass is), then what Esolen calls "the necessary hypocrisy of small talk" is wrongly raised to the status of a liturgical act.
Power ballad and praise band mediocrity is sometimes justified on the grounds that people need to be met "where they are" with lyrics to which they can relate. This attitude is arrogant on two counts, in that praise band directors have abrogated to themselves an outreach task that properly belongs to the Holy Spirit, while also assuming that straightforward hymnody of the kind exemplified in, for example, "We walk by faith / and not by sight / No gracious words we hear / Of Him who spoke as none e'er spoke / Yet we believe Him near" is somehow less intelligible than what you hear in pop music. Mr. Tom Petty, if you please: "All the vampires / Walking through the Valley / Move west down / Ventura Boulevard / And the bad boys / Are standing in the shadows / While the good girls / Are home with broken hearts. "
Show of hands as to how many people outside California know that Petty is singing about the San Fernando Valley? And how about those vampires, hmmm....? (Bueller? Anyone?)
Like C.S. Lewis wrote in a related context, we need meat, not just milk. Lewis wasn't writing specifically to Catholics at the time, but that he should have to remind Christians whose faith lives are ordered around the eucharist of this fact is testimony to our own failures and the failures of some of our pastors.
H/T to Fr. Z who has interjected his comments into this article, as well. See the comment section too
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