How Lame Music Killed My Faith

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This is an excerpt from my 2008 monologue Totem Figures, explaining why my Catholicism flaked away:

So I was raised pretty strongly Catholic

and I believed with all my heart and soul for a very long time

But the whole venture was ultimately doomed if, for no other reason, because of the music

people singing in churchWhich, on the one hand, is a gross oversimplification of some complex spiritual issues,

But on the other hand, captures it perfectly.

I mean, have you ever listened to the music in a Catholic mass?

And the way people sing it?

Is that the sound of how these people feel about God?

About being personally known and treasured by being who created the entire universe?   


Here's the thing, though - church music lives on its own plain

It doesn't even occur to us to think of it critically

To even think of it as music that some person, somewhere, someone with more or less musical talent sat down and wrote

It's immune from criticism

Just like Christmas music

Just like the national anthem

But what if you did.

What if you looked at it purely as technical songwriting and playing

And as an expression of feeling

How would it stand up?

Can you imagine some nonreligious person listening to it for its own sake?

Can you imagine someone coming home from a hard day's work

Flopping down on the couch

Cracking open a beer

And thinking


I need to blow off some steam...

And doing it

By throwing on a record

Of an amateur three hundred person choir

Of random people

Singing Catholic hymns

With no enthusiasm whatsoever

Accompanied by everyone's favourite musical instrument: the organ!

Also played by an amateur

And just cranking it up

And disappearing into the music


I can't even picture the pope doing that.



And if God really is everything everyone says He is

If He's like, The Guy

Then He's quite certainly many notches above the greatest human geniuses in every possible field

Including music appreciation.

So how would that music sound to Him?!

I mean, it sounds bad to me, and I'm just a human!

And if He's everywhere, all the time, he can't help but listen to it

Week after week

Day after day

In every church on the planet

And He can’t forget any of it

What the hell kind of torture is that?!

I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy!

When I die and go to hell for saying all this

That's probably what they'll do to me.




Is God up there, listening to all this church music

Just diggin' it...

Just boppin' along...

Cuz I wouldn't even be friends with someone whose taste was that bad

Much less worship them


(end of excerpt)


I've since found some religious music I totally fuckin' dig: the Golden Gate Quartet - a cappella gospel singing from the 30s and 40s. Black guys. Mostly doing Old Testament story songs. They were in their late teens/early 20s when they did this recording. Haunting, passionate stuff. God, I imagine, would be impressed.




Endnote: Eddie Izzard covers some of this same territory in a much funnier bit, which sort of inspired this one. 



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  • Comment Link Matthew Lewis Sunday, 06 November 2011 17:11 posted by Matthew Lewis

    While growing up and attending church on a regular basis, I took great joy from the music at church. I think this was because there was a dedicated and skillful volunteer choir who led the singing. They set the tone and filled the church with their voices, allowing the church goers to chime in at whatever level they felt comfortable doing.

    I think the point of church music is more to participate in it than to consume it. The comparison to music that is created purely for consumption doesn't seem correct to me because it is ignoring that context matters here. I agree that hymns and organs are probably not the most beautiful expression of music, but participating in the production of this music is unlike any other experience of music. Even at the best rock concerts I've been to, where a bond has formed between audience and band, I've never been on the band side of that relationship. I can imagine it's much more gratifying to experience that bond from the creative over the consumptive side.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Sunday, 06 November 2011 21:28 posted by TJ Dawe

    I completely agree - the point is for everyone to participate. But the participation at my parish - which was known as a parish where people actually sang - sounded whiny, droney and unenthusiastic.

    This really became clear to me when I went to university and suddenly every party featured at least one room where someone was playing a guitar, and usually that guitar got passed around (or there were several of them) and the songs were ones we all knew, and everybody sang along. With genuine enthusiasm. And they were songs we loved. No one prompted us to sing along. We wanted to. And we meant it. And it fostered a sense of community unlike anything I'd ever experienced in church.

    I was still going off to church on the odd Sunday back then, sneaking to and from the place like I was a high schooler going to a gay bar, and the contrast between the two worlds became more and more apparent. The flimsy simulation of unity and joy at church didn't stand a chance.

    But even when I was fully ensconced in the world of Catholicism, I didn't want to hear the hymns from mass outside of church. No one I knew did. I think from a purely musical point of view, hymns are almost all truly mediocre songs. And that severely hinders earnest, joyful participation.

    I wouldn't expect any church congregation would be able to sing like the Golden Gate Quartet, but it sure would be nice if the hymns were as well written as Homeward Bound, Heart of Gold, Sisters of Mercy, Wish You Were Here or The Weight.

  • Comment Link David Monday, 07 November 2011 01:09 posted by David

    So many great singers inspired by church music. BB King to Elvis would sure disagree with you. Next time in Toronto check out the St. Mikes choir singing the Ave Maria. Southern Black gospel is music I will listen too any time. The music in the church is a reflection on the community it serves.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Monday, 07 November 2011 15:51 posted by TJ Dawe

    David - I totally agree. I'm right with ya on Southern Black gospel music, and I'm sure BB King and Elvis were listening to that and nothing like the moany, drippy Sing A New Song (a hymn frequently sung at my old church growing up)(delivered pretty much exactly like they do in that clip) I embedded in this piece, which I have a hard time imagining as an inspiration to anyone.

  • Comment Link Mary Jo Tuesday, 08 November 2011 22:44 posted by Mary Jo

    TJ- There really needs to be a lot of context in this discussion. For Catholics, honestly, for too long, the PRIME emphasis has been on the sacramental sacrifice that is the action at the altar. The music is there to help the people demonstrate some unified participation in that action. It is another way to pray. That is why the Catholic Church has not encouraged, usually, professional musicians, who might be likely to become "a show". It might distract from "the sacrament". There are many Catholics who really disagreed with the introduction of English hymns and singing by the congregation back in the late 60's. They preferred the more trained choirs who sang Gregorian chant- often in Latin. To them, it gave greater sense of contemplation. There has always been this tension in the Church between participation by the general public and the beauty of the ceremony.
    But if we look at the person of Jesus, and how accommodating He was to the common people, I think He is prone to smile at how we awkwardly attempt to make a communal statement of love and devotion.
    If you really love a Person, you are not likely to wave them off because of the music played by some of their friends at their house. You will find other times and ways to keep that love alive. The important thing is keeping the relationship as one of give and take.

  • Comment Link Bruce Sanguin Wednesday, 09 November 2011 02:51 posted by Bruce Sanguin

    Hey T.J.

    Great piece. As one who has been charged with the responsibility for choosing, with a church musician, (for lo these 25 years), I can tell you that the music is the biggest challenge for me. I mean, the United Church is a "progressive" church, that has put out two new hymn books in the past 10 years or so - precisely to address the issue that drove you away from the Catholic Church.

    When Voices United came out, it was supposed to be cutting edge. There was some ok stuff, but honestly, of approximately 700 songs, there are maybe 35 that I can choose without being embarrassed. I think of people like you showing up on Sunday, trying to sing this stuff, and it all gets quite exhausting.

    We actually sang O God Our Help in Ages Past for Remembrance Sunday. It resonates with our traditional crowd. It reminds me of school assemblies where we were all forced to sing the song in pretty much the exact way that your video depicts.

    (In fairness, if you ever get to sing these old gems with a congregation that actually belts them out, it's very powerful—despite the premodern cosmology. There are some killer harmonies, and when a 30 voice choir kicks in on the last verse, it's kinda like I imagine angels singing around the heavenly throne. Also, check out a Mennonite service some time. These people can flat out sing- the whole congregation sings in harmony. It's pretty amazing.)

    The latest hymn book, More Voices, came out fairly quickly after VU, in part because of a chorus of protesters, asking "Really? This is the best we can come up with?" So, it's got some pretty good music in it.

    The problem is exacerbated since I've taken a turn toward evolutionary Christianity. There is virtually no music out there.
    We're working on it, though. Fortunately, we have a fabulous musician, a great (not amateurish) band - which, you are right, can be pathetic.

    Whenever we do a hymn from the 17th century I bring conscious awareness to it. "Folks, notice how this is pre-modern, reflecting a 3 - tiered universe, and atonement theology, etc. But also notice how kick ass the poetry is - these dudes could write! Still, we can't do it that often, because people like you show up, and wonder WTF am I doing in this place?

    What's really interesting is that the most prolific hymn writer of Protestantism-Charles Wesley (along with his brother)—was roundly criticized for taking bar room melodies of the day, and writing lyrics for them.

    Finding decent music has been the most difficult thing for me as a minister. As I say, the only saving grace is a musician (Neil Weisensel for the record) who loves classical music, is a great composer, loves gospel, sacred chant, has a great band, and really mixes it up. We also have a pretty wonderful choir, and great vocalists. All in all, I think we're doing not too badly.

    But I'm with you. If the music sucks, something is terribly wrong.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Wednesday, 09 November 2011 20:59 posted by TJ Dawe

    Mary Jo - thanks for providing that context. The switch from Latin to English (in both the mass and the music) happened before my time, so the participatory english version was the only one I knew.

    And you're right - the benevolent figure of Jesus would see and appreciate the effort, no matter how awkward the actual musical expression might be. He'd probably also understand and forgive the lack of effort that came from that portion of people attending and participating out of obligation, putting in their one hour a week like a trip to the dentist's, and singing like it too.

    I really do reveal my Enneagram Four-ness in this piece - one of the phrases given in the Wisdom of the Enneagram for Fours is "I can forgive anything except bad taste." Fours can be very judgmental, especially when it comes to art.

    But still I can't let go of my complaint that the hymns themselves are poorly written. The majority of the ones I remember were either credited to Rev Carey Landry, or Bob Dufford. So part of it is my dislike of the songwriting of these two particular talents (and I have similar complaints against some secular songwriters as well). I know they had it in mind to write songs that were simple to learn and easy to sing so that everyone could but.... arrgh!! John Prine's songs never have more than three chords, and his lyrics have a simple poetry to them that's exquisite, and full of wisdom. Why isn't there a John Prine of hymn writing?

    There's no reason religious music and hymns can't be as good as John Prine's songs. In my podcast interview with Rodney Decroo he pointed out how good Dylan's songs from his Christian period are.

    And then there's this - Van Morrison's very traditional version of Be Thou My Vision, which hits me right in the heart: I wouldn't expect the average person to sing with even one one hundredth of the passion and soul Van Morrison displays, but hearing this was a real ear-opener for me, and remains a favourite.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Wednesday, 09 November 2011 21:06 posted by TJ Dawe

    Bruce - thanks for your thoughts on this. Gretta Vosper related a similar experience with trying to find hymns that fit with evolutionary Christianity for her church.

    And I had heard that about Mennonite culture. Ben Heppner - considered one of the top tenor opera singers in the world - is from a BC Mennonite community. Southern black churches are also famous for musicality. In either context, it'd be hard to imagine not getting caught up in the spirit of the service. People would want to participate, even if they weren't the best singer in the room - and this gets back to something I said in a previous comment, contrasting the church music of my youth with the singing everyone did at parties. Everyone wanted to sing, to be a part of it in some way. It brought us together. We kept passing those guitars around as long as there were more songs people knew. It's hopelessly idealistic, but why can't the music in church be like that?

  • Comment Link Juma Wood Wednesday, 09 November 2011 23:56 posted by Juma Wood

    Good conversation.

    I'd say Mary Jo has made some good contexual points for a traditional mass.

    Recognizing and appreciating the different ways to worship is important here. And all have upsides and downsides. The Easter service that Cynthia Bourgeault led (captured wonderfully by Chela in a past piece used a contemplative ritual in which the audience chanted a variation on the Julian of Norwhich refrain (All shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well) as we anointed one another. The chanting combined with the ritual generated a significant deepening. The down side is the one you write about: when the ritual becomes reflexive (as really the bulk of Catholic masses tend to be from my experience in Catholic school. 'And also with you' blah), it loses it's depth. When there is limited skill and depth from the Priest/Minister, the subtle/esoteric is lost. The music is another element of this. Superficial lyrics, poor use during worship, no connection to the ritual, etc.

    Good rockin' music doesn't necessarily take you deeper, but it does take you higher, another form of worship. And perhaps more aligned to our current age. More, higher, further, beyond, ecstatic. This has a down side too. Rockin' music can often be base chakra targeted. Not bad unto itself, depending on how you want to worship.

    This isn't entirely related but it did trigger my memory. The rockin' worship can become somewhat synonymous to the evangelical mega-churches these days.
    The Atlantic had a terrific article a few years ago linking the mega-church phenomenon to the financial crises. Maybe a bit of a reach, but the basic premise is interesting: how the raucous super-charged positive-thinking theology supported impulsive and irrational decision-making.

    These are just various mind thoughts that that the article and the comments triggered. Also forgive any mistakes as I'm writing covertly during a workshop I'm participating in.

  • Comment Link Mary Jo Thursday, 10 November 2011 04:35 posted by Mary Jo

    "A John Prine of religious music"-indeed! for sure! wish I knew of one.
    This all reminds me of a worship service for Good Friday I helped script once, in a former life, for a Methodist congregation in Montana, with the help of a good friend. We used Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" and "The House of the Rising Sun". I thought the imagery was so apt, but I realize now that it left most of the worshipers wondering what in the world we were doing! We did not ask them to sing along either. Well, we were both rather young at that time.
    The dilemma remains between participation and quality performance or quality music.And there are those who would really prefer no music at all so they could have a contemplative experience! But that would not be group worship.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Wednesday, 30 November 2011 18:56 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    I came across this Nietzsche quote this week: "They would have to sing better songs to make me believe in their Redeemer: his disciples would have to look more redeemed!". (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). That was actually in a theology textbook in a class of mine, so there's internal criticism on this one too.

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