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Friday, October 11, 2013

Thoughts about lyrics - 2

Stock photo. No, I'm not the kid on the right.
Yesterday, I started to tell you that there are always things one regrets as one evaluates one’s own music and time goes by. I confessed in my piece on “Triaging All That New Music” that if the lyrics of the piece I’m auditioning from a publisher (assuming that it’s an original text here) don’t do something new with old ideas, or have some fresh insight, if they don’t avoid clichéd rhymes and over-earnest churchspeak, I throw them into the garbage without even listening to the music. I also confess that I feel like I might be one of the only people in the universe who cares about the lyrics of a song—most people don’t really mind anything as long as the music is somehow moving to them. But I find that that is a kind of seduction, and that it can become anything from an open door to heterodoxy to idolatry. It’s for this very reason that some theologians, including St. Augustine, who loved music, mistrusted music in the liturgy. Augustine feared people’s love was misdirected by the beauty of the art away from the love of Christ in God and toward love of the “earthly” music itself. Some Christian traditions even today, though none with any great following, forbid the playing of musical instruments in worship for exactly this reason.

Since I work in a parish and am kind of busy on weekends, I don’t get to hear what other parishes are doing so much. The place where I bump up against this the most is at national Catholic conferences for this or that, mostly within the religious education area, and we’re singing at events together. Now, I understand that there is and should be a lot more leeway at religious education events in the kind of music that can be sung than there is at liturgy. Sometimes the line does get blurred at these things, and God knows with so many different people involved, in really catholic situations, different cultures, language groups, even national churches involved, that there are a lot of demands on the preparers for a wide variety of music. I get this. But don’t the lyrics of the songs actually have to say something in a coherent way? Sometimes I almost literally choke on the words I’m being asked to sing, occasionally because I just don’t believe them, but more often because they’re so poorly constructed.

At this point, I’m going to further admit that as I’ve been thinking this over, I understand in some nascent way that the kind of grammar and syntax I learned might be a kind of cultural imperialism, that is, from within my white middle-class educational and economic background I’m judging as somehow inferior other cultures and backgrounds. That might be true. I suppose that even to judge someone else’s music who is a white middle-class person may be somewhat elitist, I don’t know. But I do feel that some kind of discernment, since we share this faith together, is required. We can’t be asked to sing in ways we don’t believe in. And right now there is a really good chance that, with at least two-thirds of the music published for the American church, no serious theological or linguistic editing is done on any music submitted for publication. There is a sense in which, if the tune is nice and the voice leading works and it sounds good on a recording, the song will be unleashed on the public.

I hesitate further to say much about this, because I know almost all of the people writing church music today, and I know that they don’t make a lot of money from what they do, and that they are people of good will and strong faith. I’m sure that it’s possible that God can bring good out of liturgical “Sugar, Sugar” or “Two Less Lonely People in the World.” (OK, this latter song might have meant that they are now indeed “less lonely” than they were before they met, but that is damning with faint praise. It probably meant “two fewer lonely people,” which is a nice idea, but doesn’t sing as well.) I don’t think the kingdom is going to be blocked by a few mixed metaphors or dangling modifiers or bad rhymes. The empire of God, if it can’t be stopped by the empires of earth, probably can’t even be stopped by sung theologies that perpetuate theocratic wishful thinking about power and glory as signs of God’s presence, rather than kenosis and service. But they can’t be helping much, either.

Here are some examples, from each of the three major publishers. I’m not going to identify titles or composers; I wish there were a way to further shield the authors, as I’m not trying to embarrass anyone personally, just make a point that I’ve already admitted to regarding my own work. Just take these at face value, and don’t go looking for anyone to blame, OK? In a way, it’s all of us, always looking for what’s new and groovy, and bringing consumer mentality into worship music.
“Stand in the light of love shining in our hearts

And illuminates our lives.”

This one doesn’t go by in a hurry, it’s in a refrain, and it’s repeated over and over. If the light is shining in our hearts, how can we stand in it? But more importantly, what is the subject of “illuminates”? If the word were “illuminating,” which could have been done in a simple editorial gesture, adding another subdivision in the rhythm, I probably wouldn’t be having a cow.
Forty days to wander

Forty days to die to self

Forty days to grow stronger

as faith breaks open the gates of hell

the jubilee is over,

but grace is far from gone

in the hearts of the faithful,

broken on the wheels of love.

Color me flummoxed. “Broken on the wheels of love”? Like a catherine wheel, as in torture, Mel Gibson movie stuff? The jubilee is over? Jesus Christ is our jubilee. I never got the message he was “over.” I’m not sure about faith breaking open the gates of hell, either; are we going in, or out? I know how I feel when I read these lyrics. There’s more:
‘Cause in the desert of temptation

lies the storm of true conversion...
where springs of living water bind and break you.

Once again, I confess I don’t get it. This must be a generation Y experience, unavailable to us old fogies. Living water “binds and breaks” you? How does living water do that? Is it good or bad?

You probably know I’m not a big fan of obscurantism. I don’t think that complexity or opaqueness is necessarily either a good symbol or pathway to mystery. If it were, we could all just pray in Aramaic or Kiswahili or Latin, and thus be confident we were in contact with the divine. I’ve even wondered whether my own occasional forays into more complex referents and allusions weren’t too much for liturgy, as in “As We Remember.”
Show us your mercy, show us your mercy,

Your mercy, harsh and lovely as the sea.

Windfall of waybread, scattered on sand,

Lavished by love we cannot understand.

T.S. Eliot and John Donne wrote great metaphysical and even theological poetry (and Herbert, and Hopkins.) That doesn’t mean they would make good liturgical song lyrics. I remember when a good friend of mine, someone whom I respect as a colleague and musician, once asked me, years after I had written this song and when it was fairly popular in Phoenix (though it was being used as a fraction rite, and irritating the previous bishop) what “windfall of waybread” meant. I thought he was kidding, because to me it was obvious. But it’s not obvious, obviously, or this thoughtful and active Christian wouldn’t have asked the question. Sometimes we plant the seeds of our own “truth” too deeply, I guess. The “harsh and lovely” mercy was lost on people, too, who, I guess, had not read or were not familiar with the writings of Dorothy Day, who wrote that “love in reality is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams,” or something to that effect. I think I wrote about that before, and remember she was quoting Dostoevsky, from The Brothers Karamazov.
Evermore I’ll sing your praise

Evermore through endless days

God of all seasons, right and reason,

Lord of love and endless grace.

OK, no one ever needs to rhyme “praise” and “days” again, unless you have something new to say, and the redundancy of “evermore” and “through endless days” is barely excusable, except as liturgical hyperbole. The third line of the strophe is a cheap rhyme, one can barely eke a bit of sense out of it. It’s churchspeak that adds nothing to our appreciation for or love of God, and sets us back a bit because of its tautology and jargon. Also in the “God beyond all meaning” department:
Far beyond all dreaming, far beyond the place of despair,

Far beyond believing you will find God’s love if you dare.
Far beyond riches that fade, far beyond this very day.

“Beyond believing,” eh? What does that mean? This sounds like textbook gnosis. It’s precisely in believing, this very day, that one can find God, which is the meaning of the core proclamation of Jesus: Turn away from sin, believe in the gospel. The empire of God is here now.”

OK, I got it off my chest. We’re all a little afraid that the bishops are going to come down with some narrowly defined codex of music we can use at mass, and honestly, if that happens, it’s partly because of unchallenged omnipresence of texts like the above, and not because of the smarmy comments of the hyper orthodox about the theology in songs like “Gather Us In” and “Sing a New Church.” I don’t even think we ought to start talking about theology until we get the grammar, syntax, and meaning cleared up. 

Gandalf famously says of the palantir something to the effect that "he who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom." Separating a liturgical song into its component parts (lyrics and music) might be doing exactly that, but even more so, taking it out of its essential context, that is, liturgical prayer, may be even less wise. If glossolalia itself is essentially meaningless praise that arises from the experience of worship, who am I to talk about meaning in someone else's words? Ultimately, meaning is made not inside the liturgy but after it and before it, in life on the streets, in the home, at the market. Still, I think something like this more critical thinking needs to be done, ending with the confident prayer, "and may God have mercy on my soul."

The above are examples from all three major RC publishers. The analysis, such as it is, is only my opinion, and not the gospel at all. I’m not trying to diss anybody. We just need to take it a little more slowly, and put some discerning and firm editorial eyes between the creativity of artists and the prayer of the faithful. The former may indeed be inspired, but not every spirit is the Holy Spirit, and even the Holy One’s inspiration is not always inspiration for the church’s public worship. I mean, really, do you want to sing Mt. 1:1-17? Come on, everyone, you know the words! "Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar, O yeah! and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram, praise those crazy days!"

"As We Remember" - download on iTunes