Thursday, April 06, 2006

Chanting the Psalms

Here is a fascinating quote from Fr. Joseph Fessio:

Now, just a little footnote on the Gregorian Chant. In reflecting on these things about Church music, I began to think about the Psalms a few years back. And a very obvious idea suddenly struck me. Why it didn’t come earlier I don’t know, but the fact is that the Psalms are songs. Every one of the 150 Psalms is meant to be sung; and was sung by the Jews. When this thought came to me, I immediately called a friend, a rabbi in San Francisco who runs the Hebrew School, and I asked“Do you sing the Psalms at your synagogue?” “Well, no, we recite them,” he said. “Do you know what they sounded like when they were sung in the Old Testament times and the time of Jesus and the Apostles?” I asked. He said, “No, but why don’t you call this company in Upstate New York. They publish Hebrew music, and they may know.”
So, I called the company and they said, “We don’t know; call 1-800-JUDAISM.” So I did. And I got an information center for Jewish traditions, and they didn’t know either. But they said, “You call this music teacher in Manhattan. He will know.” So, I called this wonderful rabbi in Manhattan and we had a long conversation. At the end, I said, “I want to bring some focus to this, can you give me any idea what it sounded like when Jesus and his Apostles sang the Psalms?” He said, “Of course, Father. It sounded like Gregorian Chant. You got it from us.”
I was amazed. I called Professor William Mahrt, a Professor of Music at Stanford University and a friend. I said, “Bill, is this true?” He said, “Yes. The Psalm tones have their roots in ancient Jewish hymnody and psalmody.” So, you know something? If you sing the Psalms at Mass with the Gregorian tones, you are as close as you can get to praying with Jesus and Mary. They sang the Psalms in tones that have come down to us today in Gregorian Chant.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Aboriginal Christianity

No matter how you analyze worship, the requirements include spiritual involvement and truth, in which understanding is implicit. Involvement in the historic tradition aids both transcendence of the present era and an understanding of doctrines that are based on events in time. To worship is to act out our faith in continuity with a tradition that connects us to the apostles and what they witnessed in the presence of Jesus. Old liturgical forms and music embody the continuity of the church triumphant in the presence of the church militant. And the historic liturgical music of the church is still the most universally understood.

Another interesting thing is how the church occupied and transformed the pagan temples and basilicas of the Roman Empire. One way to understand this is to see it as Christianity infusing more complete meaning into forms that were ancient and beautiful. All beauty is God’s beauty.

Now, apparently, the most moving experiences for many people are rock concerts. There are probably ways that the excitement of these experiences can be salvaged. A lot of good people seem to think so. But it is important to claim the noblest art forms in our culture. These things have been created over many generations.

There is a great old book called "Christianity Rediscovered" by Vincent Donovan that describes seventeen years of mission work in Tanzania. Translation of parables and stories from the Bible into the cultural imagery of indigenous people involved many features of the indigenous culture adapted to communicate Christian doctrine and character ideals to new converts. The difficulty was conveying the original meaning in the forms available in the language and imagery of the people.

Now, advocates of postmodern literary theory argue that there is no authoritative meaning in works of literature and all literature is merely rhetoric in a class struggle. In the church we hear different forms of this argument depending on whether one is involved in a liberal or a conservative church. In liberal churches, it seems the Bible is like any other book and its truths are thought to be culturally relative. In Evangelical churches it is claimed that the gospel must be contextualized to contemporary modes of expression and that artistic form is neutral. Rock music has been in vogue for thirty years, so rock music seems to be the way to communicate the gospel.

The problems of the liberal approach are evident; without moral absolutes, atonement for sin and salvation are nonsense. But there is also a problem communicating the historic tradition of the apostles in art that has no more history than McDonald’s fast-food. The meaning of the gospel is inextricable from the historic church, which is the spiritual body of believers in its teachings and, even more importantly, its witness to the Incarnation and resurrection of Jesus. If the apostles had not succeeded in establishing the church, there would be no Bible, and Christianity would be like the religions of ancient Egypt, unknowable except through the artifacts of archeology.

There have been numerous denominations and movements that have tried to get back to original Christianity without the liturgies and organizational frameworks that are connected to the apostolic tradition. Protestant traditions have emphasized the priesthood of all believers and the doctrine called sola scriptura. But as these movements try to extract the pure gospel out of its cultural and historic embodiment, it is more difficult to recognize Christian worship as distinctly Christian. The time interval from fresh upstart movement to oddball sect is usually only a couple of generations. Already we have grey whiskered rock musicians acting like they were nineteen in nostalgia fests among devotees.

The revival era adapted modes of expression in its hymnody that sounded like Victorian era parlor music. CCM churches are rebelling against these old forms to create their equivalent in currently popular music. This seems reasonable enough until you contrast Victorian culture with the libertinism of post 1960s pop culture. In this framework, it’s hard to accept the arguments we hear all the time about cultural forms being neutral—you know, “Arguing over music is like arguing about the color of the carpet.” It’s even more incredible when youths with green hair and nose rings are singing about Jesus. No missioner in Tanzania would dress and dance like an aboriginal Tanzanian to attract a crowd, but postmod Americans are now doing roughly the same thing under the spotlights of mega-church auditoriums.