Good Music is bad!

So sayeth Bernard Holland in the New York Times. I must admit, I am no musical expert, liturgical or otherwise, but I am very perplexed by Mr. Holland. Maybe you can make heads or tails of it.

He starts by decrying the banality of the music in a recent ceremony at St. Patrick’s cathedral.

With its hand-clapping, inspirational, just-folks character, how different this music is from a tradition that ran from plainchant through Josquin and Palestrina to Mozart and Beethoven, and finally to Messiaen and Britten. Without the church to inspire — not to mention finance — great composers, how diminished the history of music might seem to us.

Beauty of musical color, elegance of harmony, soundness of construction and exquisiteness of originality once worked as the lure that would draw the faltering worshiper nearer. Music, as well as architecture and visual art, represented heaven to the earthbound, something dazzling and unapproachable, an advertisement for a paradise still held at arm’s length.

So far, so good. But then things get weird.

The church has reason to fear great beauty, hence the effort to rescue our attention, through plainspoken and deliberately flat-footed modern texts, from the mesmerizing graces of the Latin Mass or the splendid poetry of the Anglican Church’s Book of Common Prayer. I am one small example, having spent the Sunday mornings of my youth in the Episcopal Church allowing Thomas Cranmer’s magical imagery and liquid liturgical responses to roll off my tongue without a thought to God at all.

Bad and banal music is apparently the answer.

In a television interview not long ago the novelist Margaret Atwood gave as good a reason as any that a recognizably human, touchable God so engages spiritual seekers. People are lonely, she said. When they look out at the universe, they don’t want to see rocks and gases; they want someone to talk to.

Do we go the other way, approach God as spectators and accept religious art’s tantalizing promises of a kingdom of heaven filled with nonstop Mozart and Michelangelo? Or do we sit down, take our maker by the shoulder, put beauty in its place and work things out person to person?

Simple music forms faith. Good music is a distraction. So good music that lifts us up to heaven and God is bad. Instead, bad music is to be preferred because it brings God down to our level.

Which heaven do you want? A kingdom of heaven filled with nonstop Mozart and Michelangelo or do you prefer a poor mans heaven with angels singing Marty Haugen or Paul (ch-ch-ch) Inwood. I will take Mozart any day.