Thursday, June 11, 2009

Music Wars

We are at war. Traditionalists want their hymns. Their cries for traditional worship and music are drowned out by the drums, the clashing and clanging of loud cymbols, electric guitars and loud speakers turn up so high as to guarantee the next generation will insure the wealth of those who sell hearing aids. Should we keep the organ and replace it and the grand piano with a cheesy electronic piano. (careful Richard, your bias may be showing)

Hymns with great theological understanding are being replaced by songs with repetitive phrases ad nauseum containing little theology and absolutely inane narcissisic emphasis. Fortunately, some of the new stuff is quite good containing scripture mingled with occasional music with some kind of harmony.

O.K. O.K. I know. I'm exaggerating. There is some good stuff out there and I'm not totally against contemporary music in the church. There is a time and place for everything. But there is a war going on and it has gone on since the beginning of the church. Each generation has complained about the "new" music being introduced into worship. We've all heard how Martin Luther used bar or tavern tunes to compose his music. However, that idea has been disputed by a number of recent musical historians.

I want to look at one person who made a profound empact on music in the church. He was one of the greatest poets the church has ever seen. Many Christians just celebrated his life this past Tuesday. It is said that he wrote three million lines of poetry...all in long hand, mind you. He is the most prolific poet that has possibly ever lived. Of course, being a Catholic, his life was wrapped up in the love of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

He was a keen observer of what was going on around him, a profound theologian and, as his poetry and songs indicate, a master of prayer. He was an ascetic, but also very socially active. He believed faith and love only has meaning in interaction with humanity. So he fought long and hard for the less fortunate. His music was powerful and comforting, especially to those who suffered under severe persecution.

His name? We know him as St. Ephraim. The doctor of deacons and poets. He died in 373 A.D. Apparently he turned down the opportunity to become a priest, although we are not sure why he never became one. In Syria, his home country, he is known as the "Harp of the Holy Spirit". He is the only deacon in the history of the Catholic Church to have been designated a "Doctor" of the church, a very high honor. Millions of today's Syrians hold him up as a patron saint.

St. Ephraim, as I said, was an astute man. He looked at the people around him, saw and heard the music sung by the population, especially those who were in the "heretical" movements. He then took the common music and the songs of the churches that sang corrupt hymns and exhanged their words for his own. He had tapped into a very important clue for gaining a following and for then teaching the truth. It was a method adopted by musicians down through the centuries until today. He took bad theology with it's accompanying music and exchanged it for good theology and teaching.

If St. Ephraim lived today, he'd be right at home with many of the new musicians of today. The major difference I see, is that his music would teach great theological truths as opposed to empty narcissitic phrases. Oh, probably simplified to meet the generation we have today, of course. That's what he did. The result? Well, history tells us the result. St. Ephraim is remembered today by millions, especially in the East. His poetry has an enduring quality.

We might not enjoy his music today in our heavy metal culture, but we most definitely can enjoy the impact he made on the church universal and down through history.

Oh..just a note for my Protestant friends. Get to know your Catholic heritage. You may not agree with all they say, but these are holy people who compiled, edited, canonized and gave us the Bible and most of our church music. The aberrations and sin many fell into in the Catholic church are acknowledged by the Catholics. We have as many aberrations in Protestantism as well, only we do a better job of covering it up. So learn, open your mind and you will be blessed.


  1. I have read that St. Francis of Assisi wrote his songs very much in the style of the troubadours (sp?) of his time, although theologically they may be a little odd to our ears. I appreciate many traditional as well as modern hymns, but there is something captivating about depth. Maybe it relates to your post about prayers becoming a part of you. To hear the truths of our faith over and over in song, is, I think, another way of making and re-making our thoughts to conform with the will of God. And yes, songs are special in their way, for the comfort they bring certainly, but also to joyfully proclaim to the world both seen and unseen those things that I hold most dear.

    It's a lot for someone who can't really hold a tune all that well.

  2. I think you're right Pennyyak regarding the repetition. In a couple of the articles that I read, that was one of the prime tools of liturgical singing and praying. Learning by singing is far more effective in absorbing the scriptures into our lives. As for musically challenged people, take courage, the Bible encourages making a joyful sound, not perfect pitch. Anyway, yes, when people couldn't read, repetition taught them the scriptures. It also cause interior changes that were very profound in many people.