Pray Tell’s Teresa Berger interviews two colleagues about the upcoming Coronation

Since I work, at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, with two scholars who have real expertise related to the liturgical and musical aspects of the upcoming Coronation (and are both British, too), I sat down with them for a conversation about the liturgy and music to be expected on May 6th. Oh, and I got to ask about bells too 🙂

Here is the link to the video of the interview [it’s about 30 minuts in length]:

Brief Book Review: Imagining Our Neighbors As Ourselves

Imagining Our Neighbors As Ourselves: How Art Shapes Empathy

By Mary W. McCampbell

What’s the main point? Those who engage with art, especially literature, film, and television, are given the opportunity to break down self-centered tendencies and foster empathy (not merely sympathy!) toward others.

Why does it matter? Seeing others – our neighbors – empathetically is essential for Christian formation: “We fail to love God when we neglect to see and cherish the imago Dei in other human beings.” (3)

What will get you thinking? Rather than applying terms of high and low culture to art, McCampbell seems to distinguish between art as prophetic (stretching our imaginations and grappling honestly with the human condition) and popular (which can often rely on one-dimensional characters and simplistic plot formulae).

Why is this book practical? For preaching and teaching purposes, McCampbell’s insightful analyses cover a wide-range of materials, including Flannery O’Connor, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Toni Morrison, and Better Caul Saul. Noteworthy is her baptismal treatment of Douglas Coupland’s Life After God and her eucharistic connections to Abel Ferarra’s The Addiction.

Kudos to her progression of thought. After setting out the importance of artistic engagement and subsequently, the universal human condition, she begins a movement outward. Art facilitates honest self-reflection, a first step in spiritual transformation. To the degree that we can see ourselves reflected in particular characters, we can begin the work of engaging with their stories to critique our own way of being, and perhaps to foster empathy for ourselves as “wretched and glorious” human persons. This can lead toward empathetic engagement with others, of seeing the world through the eyes of those who are different, yet not so entirely different, from ourselves. From there, however, we are challenged to look toward those with whom we might disagree to find, even there, a common humanity.

Quibble: The subtitle is misleading. It identifies “art” as the subject of McCampbell’s investigation, but the term really should have been “narrative art.” She references Jeremy Begbie and his treatment of the arts early in the text further setting up the expectation. But other than offering a visual and sonic analysis of some of the scenes within Three Colours: Blue, McCampbell treats narrative. Most clear in this regard is her treatment of Sufjan Stevens’s album The Age of Adz. While noting the importance of the musical texture (and quoting Stevens’s opening track regarding the futility of words), she largely analyzes his lyrics and offers only tantalizing instances of the relationship of music to empathy. I was intrigued by her insights here – it is clear that she has something to say – and I would have been interested to read more in this vein.

McCampbell, Mary W. Imagining Our Neighbors As Ourselves: How Art Shapes Empathy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2022. 219 pages. $28.00. ISBN: 9781506473901.

REVIEWER: David A. Pitt
David A. Pitt is Associate Professor of Liturgical and Sacramental Theology
at Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa.

Anything you can sing, I can sing 

If you’ve not yet read Paul Inwood’s excellent PrayTell post “Can we sing just anything at Mass?” (from this past July), I recommend that you do so. Even if you have, a re-read would likely be a good thing.

In the post, he makes reference to people who have said or written that there’s no liturgical rule stating that the song of the day needs to match the [Lectionary] scriptures of the day. Since I am someone who has made statements similar to that (though not precisely like it), this led me to do some further reflection.

The early decades of post-conciliar reform in the U.S. often found parish musicians and/or music committees searching each week for a song or songs that directly quoted (full disclosure: “parroted” is the term I’ve often used when referring to this phenomenon) a scripture of the day. Most often it was the Gospel, but if a favorite prophet—often Isaiah—or St. Paul had ended up as the lyricist, then that was the song to be done! There was a flurry of Lectionary-based songs and hymns writing, which was a good thing. In my view, the effort got derailed in the quest to essentially set every Lectionary reading, verbatim, to music. We ended up with a sola lectionarium or sola evangelium approach, which (to use a favorite term of mine, learned from Fr. Lucien Deiss) is an “unnecessary impoverishment” since it frequently doesn’t encourage a more thoughtful opening up of the scripture passages.

Annie Get Your Gun:
Anything You Can Sing 

Yes, the weekly song of the assembly needs a connection to the lections of the day. But that connection doesn’t need to be outright—or even close to—repetition. Perhaps to think of the assembly’s song as having resonance with the scriptures may be a better (and more sonic) way to approach it. Sometimes that resonance will occur in the propers of the day in the Missal or one of the Graduals. Sometimes it doesn’t. Let’s search, then, for that resonance outside the propers on those occasions. If the theme of mercy is woven through the readings, find a sung text that amplifies that theme—perhaps quoting another scripture on the topic of mercy, or opening up that focus in a new or different way.

I realize that the advocates of always/only using prescribed texts are correct that these texts don’t (or rarely) run the risk of error. While I wholeheartedly agree, it simultaneously occurs to me that their use likewise doesn’t run the risk of creativity. If we only allow new (or only allow inherited) musical settings of the same fixed texts, then we have—to an extent—quenched the Spirit. (This attitude, for example, would have discouraged Aquinas from writing his eucharistic hymn texts.)

Our attitude in this matter certainly cannot be cavalier, for we know the power that music has to help people embrace things “by heart.” I will, however, likewise trust that Spirit to guide us in avoiding, correcting, or occasionally forbidding error when or if it arises.

No, we cannot sing just anything at Mass. But, on the flip side, neither can we be certain that our mere correctness, or accuracy, or purity alone—much less our inflexibility—will guarantee that the song of the Body offering the sacrifice of praise will truly lift our praise to the living God.

Brief Book Review: Theology, Music, & Modernity

Theology, Music, & Modernity: Struggles for Freedom
Edited by Jeremy Begbie, Daniel K. L. Chua, and Markus Rathey

What’s the main point? In the editors’ and authors’ words, music “can provide a distinctive ‘theological performance’ of some of modernity’s most characteristic impulses and orientations,” particularly the way it shapes our “imagination of freedom” (2). In doing so, it “can supply us with an alternative metaphorical system for thinking about the freedom displayed in and offered by Jesus Christ” (87).

Who should read this? The book requires some background in music theory or musicology to clearly understand some of the articles, but it creatively engages liturgical and non-liturgical music from socio-cultural, philosophical, aesthetic, and theological perspectives. That said, I recommend it to anyone interested in the connections between music and theology and how those connections shape our theological imagination.

Why is this book significant? The book represents a deep engagement by theologians and musicologists with each other and, together, with “matters of religion and theology.” By focusing on a specific time period (1740-1850) and representative musical repertoire from that period, the authors develop an imaginative conversation between music and theology and the shaping of modernity.

 Why is this book useful? Some will find most useful the extensive and current bibliographies provided at the conclusion of each chapter; they point the way for readers to explore more deeply the questions addressed in the chapter. However, what also makes the book useful is the way each of the four major sections makes a single musical work or corpus of music (Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 Eroica; Bach’s St. Matthew Passion; Richard Allen’s hymnals, Haydn’s The Creation) the focus of conversation between theologians and musicologists.

What will get you (the reader) thinking? At the very least, this book will help you consider some old and new questions: What claims can we make about the meaning of music—especially music which does not accompany or is not accompanied by text? Separated from language, what and how does music signify? What does music present? In what ways does music both express and construct the ways in which we imagine freedom in a particular age? And, in what ways does music open “a unique avenue to the infinite or divine” (293)?

Kudos. Some edited collections lack coherence as well as conversation between the articles in the collection—they are simply “collections”. That is not true here—the articles in each of the four major parts of the book reflect extended conversations among the authors over several years, clear engagement with each other’s work and, as a result, make for more engaging reading as we immerse ourselves in their conversation. Kudos also for publishing the book as part of Oxford Scholarship Online, making individual articles or sections of the book more widely available as well as more useful to graduate seminars. For example, the focus in Pt. III on the hymnals of Richard Allen (founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church) makes it a valuable resource in a course in hymnology.

Suggestions. Given the strength of the introduction to the book, which describes the context out of which the book emerged and sets out the central questions for the project, as well as the strength of the brief introductions to each of the four sections, I would have appreciated something more of a conclusion to the whole. We are left on our own to draw such conclusions—though that may be the point.

Applications. Pervading all the articles is the idea, only formally articulated by Norman Wirzba in his chapter “The Witness of Praise—The Hope of Dwelling,” that listening and what we listen to is important to the shaping of human life. Wirzba writes: “Listening is the crucial posture, since listening presupposes one’s openness to another in all its uniqueness, and a commitment to take seriously another as worthy of attention and respect” (351). This is true whether we are listening to God or to a human other, whether we are listening to a symphony, oratorio, or congregational song.

Next steps. What kind of conversation would develop and what conclusions might be reached about music’s distinct “avenue to the infinite and divine” were we to consider a more recent time period? How is music shaping a post-modern imagination?

Begbie, Jeremy, Daniel K. L. Chua, and Markus Rathey, eds. Theology, Music, & Modernity: Struggles for Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021. 400 pages. $115.00. ISBN: 9780198846550.

REVIEWER: Ron Anderson
Byron (Ron) Anderson is Styberg Professor of Worship at
Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, IL,
and currently president of Societas Liturgica.

Brief Book Review: Exploring the Spiritual in Popular Music

Exploring the Spiritual in Popular Music: Beautified Beats
Edited by Mike Dines and Georgina Gregory

Who’s it for? Meant for academics of religious studies, cultural studies, and popular music, yet anyone curious about the currents of spiritual expression and implicit religion in and through popular music will enjoy this collection of essays.

What’s the main point? There is sacred power in pop music, and it is worthy of scholarly attention.

What intrigued me the most? I was most intrigued by essays that dealt with the spiritual content of selected genres (such as Straight Edge Punk and EDM) or composers in popular music, such as the essay by JirĂ­ MĂȘsĂ­c on threads of Sufi mysticism in the work of Leonard Cohen.

Quibbles. The essays do not neatly dialogue with each other. In part, this is due to the nature of an interdisciplinary volume with a diverse collection of authors from many countries. There is not a common understanding of religion/ the sacred/ spirituality between and even within the essays. Most are written from scholars of music, pop culture, and media out of the United Kingdom. And some of the groupings of essays into sections seemed clunky (such as the essay on the Rastafarianism of Congo Natty under the “Christian” section
while the essay on country music and Christianity was placed under “Personal Spirituality”). As a scholar of religion, specifically Christian Liturgy and technoculture, I regularly questioned what religious and spiritual framework authors were using to engage popular music’s spirituality. Theological frameworks are not operative, rather religious studies and anthropological/sociological approaches to the sacred.

Kudos. Some authors offered intriguing and fascinating insight into the power of popular music to cultivate and amplify the sense of the sacred. The fall of Christian Britain did not mean people wandered away from the spiritual and many essays speak to pop music as an individual/communal mean to organize dis-enchanted 21st century Westerners with a sense of belonging and certain practices and behaviors to deepen the belonging to a particular pop genre or star. It behooves religious leaders —and this book speaks to Sufism, Christianity, occultism, Krishnacore, atheism and more—to move past notions that pop music is merely throw away art or even crude, offensive acts. These essays reinforce the power of music to express what is sacred, beyond boundaries of religions, no matter the instrumentation of the era.

Dines, Mike, and Georgina Gregory, eds. Exploring the Spiritual in Popular Music: Beautified Beats. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. 244 pages. $82.00. ISBN: 9781350086944.

REVIEWER: The Rev. Dr. Casey Thornburgh Sigmon
is assistant professor of preaching and worship at
Saint Paul School of Theology in Leawood, Kansas.