Heap Songs Upon Their Heads

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In my previous article, I said I had two recommendations for how we might deal with people who are so irrationally hostile to religious faith that they could not even put up with a secular talk show host, for the Australian Broadcasting Company, discussing with a New Testament scholar the stories about the birth of Jesus. The reactions to the program were bizarre—a flailing of anger and contempt and, though no one would admit it, bad conscience and fear.

So, my first recommendation was to heap truth upon their heads. This second one I like better. It is to heap songs upon their heads.

I was in an antique store today, and the proprietors had the radio turned on to a station playing the top fifty songs on the charts in December from the years when I was a small boy. “Monday, Monday,” sang The Mamas and the Papas, with their clear voices and the intricate harmonies they made sound easy. I needn’t say that the song is a great work of art. It doesn’t pretend to be. But it is a work of art, and a very good one; it has its modest and attractive beauty. And just here is where our current world must hang its head in shame. We are the most beauty-starved people, I am persuaded, who have ever trod the earth.

Sure, I know that the aboriginal tribes of North America had no great architecture.  There was no Salisbury Cathedral on the Missouri River. If you wanted a marble statue of Hiawatha, you had to wait until the classically trained Augustus Saint-Gaudens made one for you. But the natives, like the people of all human cultures before our time, had song and poetry, the fundamental and universal human art; and they took their ornaments of dress seriously; and they lived outdoors, in that world of great beauty—sometimes subtle, sometimes spectacular, sometimes terrifying. We live indoors—and we have no songs passed down from one generation to the next. 

The peasants on the mountain where my father’s people lived (Caserta Vecchia, Italy) went to their church on a Sunday and were immediately in the midst of ancient and tremendous beauty, and that was before they heard a single word of the Gospel, or before they heard a single note from the choir. The typical unbeliever of our time never has such an experience. The typical believer of our time, given what we have done to strip our churches bare of good and great art, whether musical or poetic, whether in painting or sculpture or architecture, hardly has such an experience. So then: let us give ourselves over to beauty, and let us burden the secular world with it. 

I am, of course, speaking in jest—partly. A few nights ago, the students from Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts came by our house to regale us with Advent and Christmas songs: “People, Look East,” “Joy to the World,” “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” and others. Now, in a normal human culture, it is common to hear your neighbors singing. It is not common among us. I will wager that very few of us, to take one example, have ever heard a group of boys singing—we hardly know what that sounds like. 

In any case, the students at our college sing very well because everyone takes part in the choir, and when they sang the carols and hymns, they sang them in harmony, sometimes adding a special descant for the climactic final verse. And while they were singing, and being cheerful about it, a few of my neighbors stayed around to listen. That included people who have just moved in, whom I don’t know yet. There is something immediately and powerfully attractive about young people having fun and singing their hearts out; and something additionally powerful when they are singing hymns.

Here I might complain about how wretched are most of the contemporary hymn-impostors in Glory and Praise, Gather, and Worship, and the clumsy, stupid, often ungrammatical, sometimes heretical, and always unnecessary grubbing of the old hymns the editors engage in. For most Catholics themselves have very little notion of the richness of English hymnody. Let us then take for granted that you aren’t going to attract anybody by schmaltz because everybody has heard that stuff. We want to give people what they have not heard but what will stir a sympathetic chord in their souls; because whether they know it or not, and even whether it pleases them or not, their souls are made for beauty.

Imagine if my students had sung—and they are quite capable of it—Victoria’s O Magnum mysterium. My neighbors would have been more, or other, than pleased. They would have been stunned. They would not have been able to think, “This is silly,” or “This is pleasantly sentimental,” or “This is charming, but childlike.”  The first emotion that Victoria’s composition stirs is fear, and not the jiggered neural thing that noisy action films make but a brooding, powerful, sacred terror, as if you had entered a door and come into a different universe, a true one. The music soars and ends in a joy that is inseparable from the sense of solemnity and holiness. Most people in our time will never have heard anything like it.

This is what I mean by taking our faith into the public square. You go into the public square. You traverse the streets in procession. You stop for prayer and for song. Or you take your choir outdoors, wherever people will pass by. You sing. Again, even though singing is natural to every human culture, most people in the post-Christian and post-cultural West do not sing. They know no folk songs. They know no hymns. 

We do not want to make our faith familiar. The gas station is familiar. The town dump is familiar. When we heap our enemies with songs, we show ourselves to be strange, and in an arresting and appealing way. For man cannot thrive in a world where all things are mud. Modern materialism is a philosophy of mud; call them quasars or quanta if you like, but mud is mud, unless it has been touched into existence by God. 

Modern materialism is a philosophy of death. The whole universe is running down like an old clock. So is your body, once you have passed your noonday prime. Forget the familiar things. The faith is strange—as all of the truest and most powerful stories are. We have a task that no missionary of old ever had. He had to meet cultures where they were. We have no real culture to meet. He had to lift up the human things to Heaven. We have to supply the human things to begin with. 

 We are almost the only people remaining in the West who will sing for devotion, contrition, gratitude, love, and joy. It is like saying that we are almost the only people left who enjoy racing about on two legs. Let us then do it, in the open. Some of those who see and hear us will grumble and go off to a dank cell somewhere. But others will say, “I don’t know what they have been drinking, but I want some of it.” And we have the best drink, too.

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]

By

Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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