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The Pope, Style, and God

John on June 27, 2006 at 9:08 am

According to this report:

The Pope has demanded an end to electric guitars and modern music in church and a return to traditional choirs…the use of guitars and tambourines has irritated the Pope, who loves classical music. “It is possible to modernise holy music,” the Pope said, at a concert conducted by Domenico Bartolucci the director of music at the Sistine Chapel. “But it should not happen outside the traditional path of Gregorian chants or sacred polyphonic choral music.”

The Pope’s supporters argue that the music played during Mass is a vital part of the communion between worshippers and God, and that medieval church music, with the liturgy, creates the correct ambience for perceiving God’s mystery.

There are two issues at play here. One, the Pope’s taste in music. He likes classical, which is to say, certain types of classical. Most of us would consider Romantic music like Debussy classical, but I imagine the Pope wouldn’t care for that either. Clearly this is the style which allows him to worship. Hearing noisy guitar music probably does “irritate him.” He can’t imagine how anyone could worship to that sound. So he says something silly like this, with only the best of intentions. A little further thought on his part might have brought to mind the 150th Psalm which reads, in part:

3 Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! 4 Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! 5 Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!

What this shows, of course, is that musical styles change. King David didn’t call for Gregorian chant, because there wasn’t any such thing. We always make a mistake when we assume that our style of interaction with God is the only style that will work for someone else or, for that matter, God himself. Music in worship is a means, not an end. The pope apparently forgot that for a moment.

I said there were two issues. The first is style. The second is related but more important. One of the critical tasks before the church is communication with people outside the church. We severely handicap ourselves when we insist on making church into a time-warp experience for visitors and guests. Worship may seem timeless, perhaps, but not ancient and strange simply because that’s how it was done 1000 years ago. Returning to the article:

Cardinal Carlo Furno, grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, said it was “better to have guitars on the altar and rock and roll Masses than empty churches”. The use of modern music was a “sign of the vitality of the faith”.

First of all, that has to be the best job title ever “Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre.” Wow. Anyway, this Cardinal with the strange job has it exactly right. The Pope’s announcement is one with real world consequences. Forcing people to accept 14th century music along with Christianity is not a strategy for success in today’s world. Not to say the music isn’t all the things Benedict says it is. It’s just that it does not connect to the modern ear. Therefore we have to make a choice. Is the music important? Or is the Gospel?

If I can expand the discussion beyond music to another stylistic issue for a moment, that of architechture. It is widely known that the cathedrals of Europe today stand empty. I’d like to suggest something which would probably make the Pope’s head spin were he to ever hear it.

The Cathedrals themselves may be part of the problem.

Yes, I know they’re immense and beautiful. I’ve seen many of Europe’s best and, even as an atheist (at the time) they moved me. But they were always monuments to a faith of the past. They were testimonials to be sure, but of a faith that existed hundreds and hundreds of years previously. I can’t imagine trying to worship in one of them every week. The hard stone, the echo that goes on forever, the distracting flourishes and artworks…How can anyone get past all those things to worship and pray, I wonder?

Now I don’t want to make the same mistake the Pope apparently has. The fact that I can’t worship in a cathedral (at least not regularly) doesn’t mean others can’t. Surely they can. But I think it remains the case that many modern people have the same reaction I do. The cathedral is a journey backward in time. It’s confusing and strange and therefore creates a great distraction to the message of God’s love, which is the point of the whole thing anyway.

People today are used to public spaces like movie theaters, shopping malls, grocery stores. No wonder then that American megachurches seem less like cathedrals and more like WalMart. That’s exactly right! They are architechture that ennobles without getting in the way…way…way.

Issues of style are secondary. It’s a shame this Pope seems to have forgotten that.

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Category: Religion & Faith |

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