Monday, September 04, 2006

And Speaking of Hymnody . . .

Ironically enough, just after I finish posting a piece on the glories of polyphony, comes this item. Via Drew at Shrine of the Holy Whapping, I learn that an essay by Catholic cultural critic extraordinaire George Weigel, on the most deplorable tendencies in contemporary Catholic music, is now available online. Mr. Weigel half-jokingly suggests creating a musical equivalent of the old Index of Forbidden Books, an Index Canticorum Prohibitorum. I read this essay when it first appeared in my diocesan newspaper a couple of years ago. While Mr. Weigel makes several valid points, I must respectfully disagree with him when he says the following:

Next to go should be those "We are Jesus" hymns in which the congregation (for the first time in two millennia of Christian hymnology) pretends that it's Christ . . . . "Be Not Afraid" and "You Are Mine" fit this category, as does the ubiquitous "I Am the Bread of Life," to which I was recently subjected on, of all days, Corpus Christi — the one day in the Church year completely devoted to the fact that we are not a self-feeding community giving each other "the bread of life" but a Eucharistic people nourished by the Lord's free gift of himself. "I am the bread of life" inverts that entire imagery, indeed falsifies it.

Huh? While it is true that "Be Not Afraid" and "You Are Mine" take some liberties with biblical texts and concepts, the lyrics of "I am the bread of life" (at least if they're the ones I'm thinking of) come almost verbatim from Jesus's discourses in the sixth and eleventh chapters of the Gospel of John. The congregation is recalling the words of Christ recorded in Scripture. By that logic, is any lector delivering an Old Testament reading beginning: Thus says the Lord "pretending" to be God? For that matter, is the priest or deacon reading the Gospel and quoting the words of Jesus "pretending" to be Jesus? (Yes, yes, I know, the priest stands in persona Christi, but that's different). If a lector, priest, or deacon can read the words of God, the people of God should be able to sing them.

Furthermore, while listing certain hymns that should be unceremoniously booted from every Catholic hymnal in the land posthaste, Mr. Weigel fails to mention the one that in my humble opinon is the most egregious offender: "Let There Be Peace on Earth."

This piece of drivel (I hesitate to call it a hymn) is so bad on so many levels! Theologically, yes, it mentions God, but only once, and fails to specify whose god is being invoked. Certainly not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or the God who became incarnate in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was born in Bethlehem, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, was buried, and rose again on the third day. Not that God. No, the god the authors of this song want to invoke seems to be some sort of cosmic Santa Claus who is there to make sure we get along with each other and play nice:

"With God as our Father
(Wonder how that got past the Inclusive Language Police?)
Children all are we.
Let us walk with each other,
In perfect har-mo-nee."

Bad poetry? You betcha. Pass the Pepto, I'm about to be ill.

My late father used to say that this song reminded him of that detestable Coke commercial from the late '60s and early '70s. You know the one I mean. ("I'd like to teach the world to sing . . ."). Have to agree with ya there, Dad. Musically, this song always sounded to me as if it would be more at home at a Celine Dion concert than as part of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Yet I have heard parishioners and choir members, mind you, get all teary-eyed and ask, "Isn't it beautiful?" (Well, not if you ask me, but I guess there's no accounting for taste).

It seems to me that Mr. Weigel is straining at gnats and swallowing camels. If he wants to get rid of wretched hymnody, I'm all for it, but let's start at the top and dump this gigantic stinker first. Then we'll move on to the small fry.

There. I feel better. I'll go try and calm down now.

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