Friday, October 16, 2009

Must the liturgy embrace rock?

Note: I've offered clarification here on statements in this post that an author of the article in question regards as misleading.

As if it were 1966, Tom Beaudoin (Theology, Fordham University) and Brian Robinette (Theology, St. Louis University) make the case for rock music in America magazine this month, and you are free to enjoy their blast from the past online.

Predictably, they write that because people love rock, the liturgy should embrace it. That's pretty much the whole story.

They add only a strange historical myopia to the argument. "Evaluative distinctions like 'high' and 'low' art seem increasingly anachronistic in a secular age and suggest a suspicion of life’s more visceral dimensions, which rock music explores."

It always amuses me when people write as if our age is somehow different from any previous age. The supposition in this case is that the Church has never before dealt with the ubiquity of popular forms of art - as if the Greeks just sat around listening to unmetered plainsong all the time.

The truth is otherwise: popular music has always been with us. Dances, drums, and the "compulsive rhythms, hard-driving bass lines, shimmering guitars and piercing vocals" that the authors celebrate were also features of popular music in the early Church too. The Christians rejected these forms for their worship. Popular music didn't go away. It has a steady tradition from the ancient world to today. No surprise there.

The question has always been whether and to what extent should it be imported to Christian worship. Actually, it's not a question at all. Papal legislation from the beginning until very recently has been very clear on this subject: sacred music belongs in Church; secular music belongs outside Church. That's the essential model, and it's not hard to follow. How and why this argument keeps reappearing is beyond me.

Now, I must say that these authors don't make a very good case. In fact, their writing even seems inadvertently to make the opposite case. One needs only to quote their own article:

Listeners can also rediscover a rootedness in the body, while at the same time experiencing the body’s expansion as it seems to fuse with the music. Many report a deeper awareness of their own bodies, as they take pleasure in moving to an arresting sound, beat and melody. This is similar to the way many people feel during peak religious experiences—taken out of themselves and welcomed into something greater, in a way they remember long after the event itself. Enjoying rock, then, is one way many people reconnect with their bodily existence. It provides a visceral form of transcendence.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: