Prohibited Words

“The deadest words are the merely ‘poetic’ ones, words once alive but now embalmed long since. Some readers, seeing them only in poetry of the past and thinking of them as uncontaminated by daily handling, may believe them especially worthy of the poet’s attention. But devotion to such words or phrases…is a kind of necrophilia.” (John Frederick Nims, Western Wind, Random House (1974), 148)

“The norm for a poet’s language is the way his contemporaries talk.” T. S. Eliot

The following words ought to be prohibited in all church music because either (1) they are so overused that their effectiveness has been totally destroyed or (2) they are not used in any diction today except for hymnody.

bounteous
bountiful
plenteous
plentiful
boundless
wondrous
matchless
radiant
terrestrial
celestial
gladsome
wandering
enthroned
starry
ethereal
meadow
vale
well-spring
dew
scepter
Jehovah (this should be removed from everything, actually)
balm
the deep
spheres
crystal
pearl
golden
maiden
splendor
gild
gleam
beam
resound
ills
ails
vault
verdant
hail
lo
behold
accord
decked
clime
billow
assail
henceforth
o’er
‘twixt
doth
hast
art
wilt
-eth
-th
-est
-st
-folgd
be-
’tis
thy
thine
thee
thou
ye

Many of these words are anti-words. They subvert the entire point of words. They have ceased to signify some meaning greater than themselves. Instead of thinking of an objective idea when we hear these words, we think “hymn words” when we hear these words, because they only appear in hymns. Correlation requires real-world corollaries and these words have none. And that, more than anything else, is why you are always bored and never think about what you’re singing when you sing hymns.

Advertisements

Beethoven Politics

“If we listen to Beethoven and do not hear anything of the revolutionary bourgeoisie—not the echo of its slogans, the need to realize them, the cry for that totality in which reason and freedom are to have their warrant—we understand Beethoven no better than does one who cannot follow the purely musical content of his pieces.” (Theodor Adorno from Mark Berry’s Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire)

We are Mozartians

“The Viennese classics have shaped our musical expectations and values to such an extent that we expect these values to inform any music we encounter. Carolyn Abbate’s argument against plot-centered, as opposed to narrator-centered, understanding of musical narrative exemplifies how widespread the assumption is that all music must be essentially temporal, that the disposition of events in time always matters in music: since all music is temporal, Abbate argues—that is, since music always has a temporal arrangement of events or ‘plot’—it is all ‘narrative,’ and hence applying the term, taken in this sense, to music is redundant. But for music written a mere half century before the Viennese classics this assumption of the primacy of the temporal disposition of events is invalid.” (Karol Berger, Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow)

The Monuments Men

I recently watched The Monuments Men, a George Clooney film about the men who saved European art from destruction at the end of World War II. It was very much a throw-back to the movies I grew up on, like The Great Escape or Bridge on the River Kwai and so on. One of the interesting decisions that Clooney made was to focus the movie on this central question: what is about this art that makes it worth dying for?

And another interesting decision was how he chose to answer that question. He did not choose the obvious answer, that this is Great Art. Clooney’s character (a thin disguise for Clooney’s viewpoint, I guess) was not that this art had some intrinsic value that necessitated its saving. Men did not have to die because Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child was just So Damn Good. The movie obviously doesn’t deny that the art is amazing and repeated study.

The argument is, instead, framed quite elegantly in terms of a thought experiment: if Hitler destroyed all the individual people of Western civilization, it would strangely still pop up again soon enough. If Hitler really wanted to destroy Western civilization, he would have to destroy things like its art. Art is our communal identity.

And here I muse off in my own direction. This art was not Great Art, in that it bore in itself such surpassing worthiness to cost two men’s lives in its protection. No, this art carries with it, sacramentally, who we are. It is molded by us and its greatness is the way it too molds us even further. Western culture molded Michelangelo and he expressed what we taught him better than we ourselves could have conceived. Michelangelo has molded us.

But the value of art is contingent. It is not inherent; it would not exist in a vacuum. It is context-specific. This does not mean that standards go away, or that I am favoring artistic relativism. Those who would insist on an artistic relativism can be refuted easily without insisting on the idea of Great Art that exists in some ideal world of forms. We don’t need to become Platonists to appreciate art.

The CREC in the Wilderness: A Parable

And they all cried out to God, and said, “God, sure we have Reformed theology, but we want to change the world with it! We want to do the work of your kingdom. Give us weapons of warfare. Give us food and nourishment.”

So God thought to himself, “I will give them the ultimate weapon of warfare and the most filling food: I will give them the ability to sing the Psalms. But I will test them and only give them 2/3 of the Psalter in a little red book, and see if they complain.”

So the people enthusiastically began singing the Psalms and even were enthusiastic about the Goudimel and the wild word order of the Scottish psalter. But soon the food became bland to them and they lost interest in using the Psalms as weapons. They complained against their leaders, and even some of their leaders began to complain as well: the settings were too hard. “We would rather go back to singing Egyptian songs than have to sing this stuff.” And so they did, or, if they sang the Psalms, they sang only a fraction of the 2/3 of the Psalter they had, and pretty gloomily at that.

And they looked around and saw some mildly disappointing results. Churches fizzled or split, reformations didn’t seem to happen, congregations were remarkably self-absorbed and acted confused when the evangelical Baptists would get the jump on them in ministering to the world. And they all cried out, “God, you need to come down and start a reformation! We need congregations that are aflame with faith, and free! You know, the single sword to Thee bit?”

But God was busy scratching his head, wondering when they would start complaining about only having 2/3 of the Psalter to sing.

And they looked around and saw the poor and destitute, widows and orphans, persecuted and helpless. They saw wicked men, tyrants, abusers, molesters. They saw abortion, genocide, all sorts of awful things. And they all cried out, “God, how do you expect us to deal with all of this? We need a battle plan, we need some paradigm, we need a mechanism for social justice, we need some totally different approach to this that will change everything! Why aren’t you the God of our fathers, David, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, the God of the Reformation, of Luther, of Knox, of Calvin?”

But God was busy scratching his head, wondering when they would start complaining about only having 2/3 of the Psalter to sing.

The Right Kind of Traditionalism

“‘Fairy-story’ is really an adult genre, and one for which a starving audience exists… As C. S. Lewis said to me long ago, more or less–(I do not suppose my memory of his dicta is any more precisely accurate than his of mine: I often find strange things attributed to me in his works)–’if they won’t write the kind of books we want to read, we shall have to write them ourselves,’” (Tolkien, HT GMBurrahobbit).