Friday, November 21, 2008

Blind Elitism

My first thought at reading this post by the papist Matthew Bellisario at The Catholic Champion (link to post), was "Elitism, alive and kicking in a church with a monarchical episcopate. Who would have guessed?"

It's not simply a matter of Euro-centric elitism at play in Bellisario's obvious preference for Gregorian chanting over Gangsta rap. It's blindness on several levels.

First, Bellisario seems to be blind to the transformation of music for worship into music for entertainment. Gregorian chanting was developed as a musical style during the medieval period primarily as part of worship. Although today some people listen to Gregorian chanting for entertainment, this was not its original or primary purpose. While Bellisario levels the accusation of "degradation" one might argue that taking "sacred music" and putting it to common use is itself a "degradation." To aid in seeing how this works, imagine someone using a large crucifix as a coat rack, or an icon of the Virgin Mary as a doormat. If the Gregorian chant is "sacred" (as Bellisario seems to claim) then surely this conversion of sacred to common is degrading to the thing considered sacred in Catholicism.

While I personally share Bellisario's musical taste (I think Gregorian chanting is much more euphonic than Gangsta rap), Bellisario is (in the second place) blind to the fact that the Gangsta rap piece is not intended for worship. I would agree that the need for reverence in public worship would seem to preclude the Gangsta rap category. Furthermore, the absence of Scriptural warrant for instruments in New Testament worship would encourage the use of musical styles like the Gregorian chant, that do not require instrumental accompaniment. Nevertheless, the Gangsta rap piece does not appear to be intended for worship, but for recreation. It happens to relate to religious themes, but it is not a worship song.

Third, even if the rap piece were a worship song, the two musical styles are about equally unsuitable for congregational singing. While there are some who could probably follow each of the respective styles, most people would have a lot of trouble joining in either song. Accordingly, for the purposes of public worship, neither would be particular suitable in this day and age. Bellisario seems to be blind to this similarity in unsingability.

A fourth area of blindness on Bellisario's part is his failure to consider the communicative aspect of religious song. The Gregorian chant may soothe one's headache or put one to sleep, but it does not edify. This particular chant appears to be in Latin (though the pronunciation of the consonants is so indistinct that it is hard to be sure). If people cannot understand what is being said, they are not edified. In contrast, the rap piece mostly uses enunciated English words (albeit using a certain amount of street slang and an accent that may be challenging for some listeners). Between the two, the message of the rap piece is more clear.

Fifth, Bellisario is blind to the fact that the Gregorian chant itself is a departure from tradition - and has been departed from in Catholicism. Like so much else in Catholicism, the Gregorian chant has its origins in the middle ages. The legend that Gregory himself invented the style is almost certainly false, but it developed not too long after his bishopric. Furthermore, the unaccompanied singing that had marked Christian worship for a long time before the advent of organs and the like instrumental worship became popular. As late as the 13th century, Aquinas himself noted that the church had no musical instruments and defended that practice.

Finally, the sixth aspect of blindness here is the failure to appreciate that the rapper in the rap video is starting from "secular" gangsta rap and Christianizing it. He's not trying to provide a degradation of European musical styles, but an improvement on the urban black music style. Do I fully approve of Christianized gangsta rap? No. I don't. The music still seems violent to me, even with Christian lyrics and message, perhaps simply because of the connotations of the genre.

While certain parts of Romanism are happy to lock up the Word of God in the Latin tongue, parts of "Protestantism" (whatever that may be) are shining forth the light of God into the streets. There will always be those who mock us for taking the Word of God to the poor, of putting the Word of God in the common tongue, and who wish to see that light extinguished. Though the Gregorian piece's title translates to "And light in darkness," it is the rap piece that actually is an example of the light of God's word shining forth in the darkness of the Gangsta rap genre.


N.B. Yes, I am aware that Rome has, in another departure from tradition, stopped requiring the Latin mass and then indicated that it had never turned its back on (ha) the Latin mass. Also, I am aware that "Gangsta rap" has particular significance in the rap world. I may be using the term wrong as an outsider. Combox comments identifying the correct species of rap are welcome.

1 comment:

steve said...

I propose a compromise. Given his Italian heritage and connections with the mob, perhaps the music of Frank Sinatra would be more suitable for the Mass. Rome Sweet Home all the way.