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Musical Musings: Hymns and Hymnody

What Hollywood Can Teach Christians About Their Hymns

by Patrick O'Hannigan

About ten years ago, a musician named Thomas Day wrote an acerbic little book called, Why Catholics Can't Sing. Thanks to an Oscar-nominated movie and a recent confrontation with the cantor at my Catholic parish, his polemic makes more sense to me now than it once did. What Day said was that choir directors frustrated by unresponsive congregations ought to look hard at the musical and theological failings of the songs they want their co-religionists to sing. Although he wrote from a Catholic and American perspective, Day's indictment of modern composers crossed denominational lines and probably earned him the mark of Cain in church music circles.

The problem, he said, is not that Catholics can't sing; it's that they won't sing, and who can blame them? Two generations of cultural sellout stuffed hymnbooks with bush-league folk music. As a result, Catholics (indeed, Christians of all confessions) neglect their musical patrimony to regurgitate second-rate hymns that are short on sound doctrine.

Day, an organist, did not pine for Gregorian chant or equate modern with bad. He did, however, champion the idea that only the recovery of classics like "Holy God We Praise Thy Name" and "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" can restore Christian congregational singing to its former glory.

When I first read Day's book, it did not fit my experience in a Catholic parish whose music director and cantor had better taste than most. Times have changed, however. The parish of happy memory and the cantor who taught me to sing are denizens of the metropolis from which I escaped five years ago. Elsewhere in that city of angels, the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? has this year been nominated for Academy Awards in screenwriting and cinematography. The movie stars George Clooney as a fugitive in the Depression-era South whose adventures echo those of Odysseus.

Like most of the movies made by Joel and Ethan Coen, this one presents stereotyped characters more artfully than it sustains a plot. On the other hand, the religious songs in its score are more genuinely uplifting than anything I've heard recently in church. Roots music aficionado T-Bone Burnett produced nineteen songs that more than pay their own freight for the film. Movie critic Jane Summer had it right: "that honest-as-dirt soundtrack of mountain music, Delta blues, gospel and chain-gang chants stirs the soul like an old-time locomotive moaning through the night."

A Catholic who sees O Brother, Where Art Thou on Saturday night and goes to Mass the next morning is likely to be disappointed by the contrast between the music in the movie and the music in the church. While there is infinitely more to a Catholic liturgy than its music, such disappointment is neither inconsequential nor inevitable. As Thomas Day might say, it has more to do with song quality or lack of same than with singing ability or seasonal changes in the church music menu.

You can test this theory yourself if you've seen the movie. Summon the memory of Alison Krauss singing "Down to the River to Pray" over film footage of a group baptism, and then juxtapose that memory with any hymn from the last thirty years as sung by your favorite choir. The modern music suffers by comparison.

Like Day, I suspect that this happens partly because old hymns distinguish between creature and creator but newer ones do not. Enthralled by the brotherhood of man, composers today pay short shrift to the fatherhood of God. Their goal instead is self-affirmation. With the loss of perspective that turns even sublime truths into pep-rally bromides, one contemporary hymn triumphantly declares, "We are a pilgrim people, We are the church of God."

Thanks to this attitude, idolatry is even more tempting than it used to be. Consider the words to "Here I Am, Lord," a popular hymn by Dan Schutte. It starts in God's voice:
I, the Lord, of sea and sky
I have heard my people cry.
All who dwell in dark and sin
My hand will save.
I, who made the stars of night,
I will make their darkness bright.
Who will bear my light to them?
Whom shall I send?

The divine question punctuates every verse of the song. Only in the chorus ("Here I am, Lord") do singers revert to their proper (i.e., human) role. But when I mentioned the song's hubris to the cantor at my current parish, she almost had kittens. That hymn by Schutte quotes the bible, she said. Its call-and-response style lets a cantor sing the verses and a congregation sing the chorus. Anyone uncomfortable with singing God's lines can keep silent until the chorus. And how can you have a response without a call?

Unwilling to fight another skirmish in the culture wars just then, I decided not to tell her that putting a cantor in God's place was no better than putting me in God's place. I thanked her for her time and walked away. T-Bone Burnett and his movie mates might have done differently.

While Hollywood cannot be trusted in moral or theological matters, moviemakers understand the relationship of music to faith better than most liturgical composers do. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is just a recent example of this phenomenon. Moviemakers know that Baptists are more likely to sing "Blessed Assurance" than "Kumbaya," for example. Similarly, when the 1992 comedy Sister Act needed Catholic music, it reached back in time for "Hail, Holy Queen," rather than sideways in time for "Morning Has Broken."

Judging from the evidence in a multitude of movie soundtracks, Hollywood understands that religious music is a teaching tool. Every hymn is a response to God's call, but (among other things) good hymns do not mistake you or me for God. Too bad I had to learn that in a movie theater rather than a church pew. Thomas Day saw it coming.

March 5, 2001

Patrick O'Hannigan is a technical writer in California. This article first appeared on the website of Lew Rockwell.

See also CNP's article Ritus Narcissus: Why Do We Sing of Ourselves and Celebrate Ourselves? by Father Paul Scalia

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