Candidate, Doctor of Musical Arts, University of Notre Dame
Have you read “Revelation,” a short story by Flannery O’Connor? It is the story of hers that I find the most moving, and it is digestible even by readers of the weakest constitutions when it comes to the Southern grotesque. In sum – and without ruining it for you – “Revelation” is the story of a woman whose understanding of herself in the eyes of God is turned upside down. She is made to see the greater faults in herself and the hidden virtues in others, and in an ending that I think is one of the most beautiful in fictional literature, O’Connor describes the fullness of this woman’s revelation; it entails the strange and ineffable grandeur of the Kingdom of God. I would encourage you to go here and read the story right this very minute. Please do. I will not be upset if you stop reading this post.
It did not occur to me that “Revelation” was an Advent story until I read the Gospel for Monday in the first week of Advent. It was the passage from Matthew in which the Roman centurion asks the Lord to heal his sick servant. The centurion is the man from whom we have received a congregational response of the Mass: “Lord, I am not worthy, that You should enter under my roof…” What I had never taken notice of before is the entirety of Jesus’ response to the soldier’s request. He of course says, “In no one in Israel have I found such faith.” But then He says, “I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 8:11).
The Lord seems to be remarking that the table of the Heavenly Banquet will be filled with more than just the usual suspects. Whenever I hear the words “east and west” in Scripture, I immediately think of the three kings; those exotic, noble men, most likely unaware of the salvation history of the people of Israel, coming from the Orient to adore a baby simply because they knew a cosmic event when they saw one. For all their regality and fineness, they carried within them humble hearts, awake and ready to receive the Wonder to which the star had led them. These men of Oriental nobility are not the type of folks you would have thought would have been among the first to recognize and believe in the Messiah. They share that quality in common with the Roman centurion.
A few days later, on the Second Sunday of Advent, we heard the words “east and west” once again:
“Up, Jerusalem! Stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God” (Bar. 5: 1-9).
These words are from the first reading, and they hearken to a lesser known “O Antiphon” that was sung in the medieval Church. It is the antiphon dedicated to Jerusalem, the Heavenly City:
O Hierusalem! Civitas Dei summi, leva in circuitu oculos tuos; et vide Dominum tuum, quia jam veniet solvere te a vinculis.
“O Jerusalem! City of the great God: lift up thine eyes round about, and see thy Lord, for he is coming to loose thee from thy chains.”
Jerusalem, the Heavenly City, is the destination of all peoples, from all sides of the world. Every single person of every single race, country, and creed, is meant to be a child of this Kingdom. And Jesus seems to want to tell us that the strongest faith is found in the most surprising of places. His own experience certainly reflects this: He struggled over and over again to communicate the truth of His mission to the religious leaders in His midst who were supposedly of a faith that had been waiting for a Savior for hundreds of years. Then, out of nowhere comes the centurion, graced with a faith in Jesus that, according to a history of religion, had no business being there. “Never make the mistake of thinking you have pegged people,” the Lord seems to say. “The sheep who hear my voice may not look the way you think they would.”
You really must read Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” because it situates the universality of the heavenly Jerusalem in the daily environment of a doctor’s office, a conversation amongst strangers, and the relationship between a Southern woman and the people who work for her. As Advent draws to a close, this story can help us to see how we may have made the perfect Christian believer in our own image and likeness. We expect the population of the Holy City to be widely made up of people like ourselves, but the Sciptural characters of the Christmas season show us that such an idea could not be further from the truth. On the heavenly day we arrive at the gates of the Holy City, our brothers and sisters from the east and the west will astonish us in their strange, unpredictable, and glorious variety. O Jerusalem, eternal home of us all, let us welcome our coming Lord with joy!
Echo Apprentice at Epiphany of the Lord Catholic Community (Houston, TX)
Christmas is coming: the decorations are out at the stores, the music has already started playing and the parish that I am serving at as a catechetical leader in Houston is following suit, preparing our Advent festivities for the Faith Formation program. Something that I am hoping to emphasize in my lessons with the kids in my Faith Formation classes as we approach Advent is the three-fold nature of Christ’s coming to our world. He came and was born to the Virgin Mary, laid in a manger in Bethlehem. He is coming again at the end of time. Yet he is also coming to us right now, in this very moment as an open invitation. This three-fold coming connects all time: past, present and future to the coming of Christ. One way that I think could be useful in conveying this concept in catechesis is through the use of music, which also has a way of connecting past, present and future. To exemplify this point, I will discuss five very different pieces of Christmastime music that I think could prove very useful in catechesis during Advent.
Interwoven in this discussion are the arguments made by Jeremy Begbie in his book Theology, Music and Time. Here, he argues that “far from abstracting us out of time, the vision opened up by music in this way is one in which to be ‘saved’ is, among other things, to be given new resources for living ‘peaceably’ with time” (152). This means that we can participate in music not just as a remembrance of the past but also as an effective act in the present that allows us to respond to the Incarnation within our time. Time is not the enemy that must be shed but is the reality in which we can engage with the Incarnate Word. This theme runs deep in each of these five selections of Christmas music.
In O Magnum Mysterium (Tomas Luis de Victoria), the rounds of voices bring the past to the present and the present to the future. The four voices come together and move apart again and again in rounds, reminding us that “to share in music is to find temporality in which- at least to some extent- past, present and future have been made to interweave fruitfully” (150). The rounds create the feeling that the past is never totally behind you nor the future too inaccessible because while one voice may end, another continues and then another begins again. The piece grows and grows to the Alleluia, which serves as a call to us to join in and as a reminder that this Alleluia is not just something for the angels to proclaim but for us now to proclaim. The Alleluia brings the piece to a fulfillment, however the voices break apart at the end and continue onward, anticipating that Christ entering this world to save us is not just something that occurred in the past and can be looked upon remotely but is a constant joy and celebration, a constant hope that we also need to join our voices to.
In In splendoribus (James MacMillan), the soft chant is interrupted at a frequent rate with trumpets, trumpets announcing Jesus’ arrival into our world. This announcement shows again the connection between past, present and future. The trumpets are not only recalling an announcement made far in the past to a world we would barely recognize but are also announcing to us this same news of Jesus’ Incarnation today. This announcement is not just a memory of how people in Jesus’ time were called to respond to his birth; it is a call to us to respond to the Incarnation. The calming contemplative chant that remains in the background gives us the opportunity between the trumpet calls to contemplate how we are called to respond to this announcement. Though the trumpets frequently come back, we do not know exactly when they will reenter and thus a sense of urgency to respond is built in us as we listen. The urgency here in MacMillian’s piece reminds us that “the Son of God inhabits this time with us as one of us” (148) and thus we are called to respond today, here within time.
In Today the Virgin, John Tavener takes a slightly different approach to the integration of time into music. Tavener believes that “the more deeply we relate to God, the more we will need to abstract ourselves from time” (145). For him, then, the music is embracing Christ’s time, his entrance into the world and following the simple command put forth in the chorus to “Rejoice, O World: With the Angels and the Shepherds. Give glory to the Child! Alleluia!” The alternating male and female vocals of Mary and Joseph communicating allow a place for a community to insert themselves in this song of rejoice. The drone in the background reflects what Begbie refers to as Tavener’s intensification of a “contemplative ambience” by giving stability and repetition to the background so that the listener has a “simple space” (144) to shed off the cloak of time and enter into a simple shout of praise in response to the Incarnation.
In Gustav Holst’s, In the Bleak Midwinter, we are placed directly in the Nativity as Jesus enters our world in an environment that is imagined to be somewhat like the winters of South Bend that are not too far from my memory. The song’s slow progress leads to a contemplative atmosphere, a lack of urgency and a feeling that we too are caught in that snow-covered scene. We are not only called to bring ourselves out of this moment into that one in the past but rather are called to integrate the two and give our own response to Christ’s birth. This is reflected in the final lyrics of the piece:
“What can I give Him, Poor as I am?’
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wiseman, I would do my part,
Yet what can I give Him, Give him my heart.”
In this way we are not called to simply insert ourselves in the past, but we are called to “a present through which past is directed towards future, in which a past occurrence does not retreat into an ever-receding and unreal ‘beyond’, and in which future occurrences are not totally unknowable or unreal but can, in various ways, be intuited now” (149). We are invited here to participate in Christ’s arrival by answering now and in our time what we might bring to him at this scene in the cold winter.
Looking at Sufjan Steven’s, ‘Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming”, the piece most notably makes use of dramatic pauses throughout, building both a gentle anticipation and a constant hope. Whereas Begbie noted that a constant pulse “insists that all moments are the same, that the past, the present and the future are identifiable” (140), this piece and its lack of a constant continuous pulse provides the opposite experience. There is a clearly defined start and finish to thoughts and thus we experience time as a clear acting force. Though the past is not the same entity as the present or future here, Stevens traces the past, present and future in this song, truly interweaving the three. He references the coming of Christ, the prophecies of Isaiah and continues through Jesus’ birth before concluding with a foretelling of Christ’s death. The piece speaks of Christ’s birth in past tense, telling the story, but ends in present tense, saying “He saves us, And lightens every load.” This calls us to share in this salvation that was and yet still is. Begbie sees this taking place as a ‘looking back’ with thankfulness…but this is not a wistful longing, nor an attempt to transport what was into the now, but an act of gratitude flowing from a sense that the benefits of the past, remembered now, anticipate the future’ (151).
Through many of these pieces I have found that we can use music as a catechetical tool, especially as we approach Advent. Through music we can allow those in formation to participate in the coming of Christ not just as a remembrance of the past but as an effective act in the present that allows them to actively respond to the Incarnation within our time, a time that Christ himself entered.
For the Lord has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling, saying, “This is my resting place for ever and ever.”
You better come on in this house, cause it’s gonna rain. Rain down, Zion, it’s gonna rain.
-“Sunday Candy”, Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment
I don’t listen to rap often, but when I do, I prefer for it to be imbued with tones of Eucharistic self-gift. This may seem like a tall order, but it’s exactly what the listener encounters in the song “Sunday Candy,” featuring a joy-filled gospel choir, the rhymes of Chance the Rapper, the vocals of Jamila Woods, and some tremendously triumphant trumpeting. When Woods begins her hook, the trumpets pause and a church organ reverberates under her words: “You gotta move it slowly/ Take and eat my body like it’s holy”. Chance joins Woods as she repeats this gentle hook a second time, and as their voices meld together in a duet, a theme begins to emerge: one of right-ordered sexuality, the kind that calls us home to what it means to be human. The very title of the song speaks of a call to express our human sexuality in a way that encompasses not only the sweetness and playfulness of candy but also the reverently respected sacredness of a Sunday.
Chance and Jamila are singing for joy: and it’s the sweetness of a relationship in which there is holiness of waiting (“I’ve been waiting for you”) and praying (I’ve been praying for you”), and honestly, it’s a whole lot of fun. In Chance’s words we might even uncover something of the beauty of a relationship in which two draw each other closer to God: “You’re my dreamcatcher, dream team, team captain/ Matter fact, I ain’t seen you in a minute let me take my butt to church”. The desire to see and spend time with his beloved spurs him to church- and rightly so, for as we might add, it is in loving one another well that we enter into the dwelling place of the Lord, who is Love Itself. This notion of the way we love and the way we dwell with God being intertwined comes up again when Chance describes the one he loves in the second verse: ” You sound like why the gospel choir got so tired/ Singin’ his praise on daily basis so I gotta try it”. In other words, the way that she loves sounds like the praise of a gospel choir, a choir that gives fully and to the end, each day. In Chance’s words, a very Christian truth shines through: in the way that we love, we give praise to the Lord, and we come to dwell with Him daily.
Thus, in this song we catch a glimmer of what it means to be truly human: to give of ourselves lovingly and dwell joyfully in the place of the Lord. It means, as the song puts it, to “come on in this house,” into shelter from the rain and into the holy house of Zion. Our call to dwell in this holy place is a call to respond to God’s abundant gift of Himself in the Eucharist by becoming abundant gifts ourselves. Perhaps “Sunday Candy” can be for us a small example of the way that we sing to God with joy through the ways we express our sexuality, a most sweet and sacred thing. It can be reminder of the beauty of relationships in which dwelling with each other leads us to dwell with God. Where Chance speaks of dinner rolls on his plate at Christmas dinner, we can speak of the Eucharist, and of the shelter we find as we allow the Bread we take and eat to form the pattern in which we share ourselves in relationship. We can trust that in the patience and the prayerfulness of this sort of sharing, there is also such great sweetness.
I looked back at the previous 10 years and realized I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity. And that was a pretty serious conviction. You can say, “Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so,” or “Hey kids, be more kind because the Bible says so!” But that isn’t Christianity, it’s morality. . . .
And that was such a huge shift for me from the American Christian ideal. We’re drinking a cocktail that’s a mix of the Protestant work ethic, the American dream, and the gospel. And we’ve intertwined them so completely that we can’t tell them apart anymore. Our gospel has become a gospel of following your dreams and being good so God will make all your dreams come true. It’s the Oprah god. So I had to peel that apart. I realized I’m not supposed to be pursuing impact, I’m supposed to be pursuing God. And when I pursue God I will have exactly as much impact as He wants me to have.
Veggie Tales and other forms of religious media for children (including far too many children bibles) reduces the mystery of what is revealed in Jesus Christ to maxims that one graduates from as you mature toward adulthood. Perhaps, a nostalgia may bring you back toward watching such media when you’re older. But, fundamentally, religion becomes a school of elementary morals, not a milieu of mystery.
Thus, on a recent road trip with a toddler, it was a gift to discover the music of Justin Roberts. Justin Roberts is a children’s singer and songwriter, who also happens to have studied theology at the University of Chicago. His two-disc collection of songs from the Old Testament and New Testament (Why Not Sea Monsters) is an invitation to enter into the mystery of salvation not simply for children but for adults as well. This collection begins with a whimsical treatment of the narrative of creation in which God calls into existence all of the created order (and I do mean all of it). Yet, the climax of the tune is the creation of men and women in the image and likeness of God:
On the sixth day
Why not a vision of us
someone to reflect all this stuff
All the sparks and the seas and the birds and the trees…
Here, creation becomes a stunning moment in which God does not simply make us but shares the entirety of divine life with human beings. When we say that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, it is precisely this that is meant. Roberts introduces the narrative of creation as a divine self-gift in such a way that the adult and child listener alike is moved toward contemplative worship.
Although not written by Roberts (but Craig Wright), the collection on the Old Testament also includes a selection from the Book of Job (a children’s record that deals with Job…I know).
Where were you when I set the earth’s foundations?/Where were you when I set the stars in place?/and they all sang together/and they all sang together.
This piece in particular represents the pedagogy of mystery that pervades every song, inviting the listener not toward reading the Scriptures as moralism first and foremost but immersion into the mystery of God. That human life is oriented first and foremost toward gratitude for God’s gracious divine love poured out over the created order. This song once again reaches its pinnacle in the creation of humanity:
Where were you when I crafted you a language?/And where were you when I filled your mind with words?/so you could cry, so you could sing/sprinkle names on everything/so you could laugh, tell a joke/imagine towers wreathed with smoke/so you could live and die with dignity/and shake your fist with poetry/imagining creation from the first?
This passage demonstrates that listening to Roberts’ religious music is not simply a pleasant diversion for children on car trips. Rather, it’s to find yourself contemplating the narrative of salvation anew as an adult, restoring wonder to a de-sanctified cosmos. Jesus’ miracles are described without providing a scientific explanation or attempting to find the “moral” of the story. His parables are presented without offering a definitive meaning but presented in all their contemplative wonder. Christianity is restored to its place as an encounter.
Unfortunately, it is extraordinarily difficult to find these Roberts albums (Amazon lists them both as well over $65.00). Nonetheless, they should be re-issued and be required listening for all those involved in the biblical and liturgical formation of not simply children but homilists and composers alike. The poetry of these songs should in some sense shame our homilists and composers, who too often fail to evoke the same contemplative wonder in their own crafting of words and music. If children can delight in such poetry, as offered by Roberts, why not our entire assemblies?
At the very least, making these albums more accessible will make for more pleasant car trips with toddlers for adults. And they may even offer to families an occasion to have a conversation about the very meaning of existence itself, at the same time that they clap and sing. That would be a very good thing.
But, the question of what constitutes “beauty” in liturgy raises the stakes relative to liturgical polarization. Indeed, the problem of judging the beautiful is not unique to the liturgy. The humanities themselves seems to have given up on the project as a whole. As Roger Scruton writes:
“It is true…that people no longer see works of art as objects of judgement or as expressions of the moral life: increasingly many teachers of the humanities agree with their incoming students, that there is no distinction between good and bad taste, but only between your taste and mine” (Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, 84).
In liturgical art, this means that anything is potentially beautiful and thus acceptable for worship if there is some group of people, who find the piece of art beautiful. All liturgical music that is published is potentially beautiful as long as the liturgy or music director says that it is (and people enjoy singing it). All liturgical architecture is beautiful if there are members of the assembly who experience a space as beautiful.
Yet, the dilemma of assessing liturgical beauty is not merely a matter of the subjective turn in aesthetic taste. Rather, an additional source of polarization is an argument over form and function. That churches exist solely for the sake of liturgical action, and thus their “sacredness” is dependent upon the activity of the People of God. A space or piece of music should be “beautiful” but the measure of what makes such a space or piece of music “beautiful” is the quality of worship that is facilitated among those gathered. Thus, every church should be made in a circle insofar as it facilitates the act of singing. Every hymn should be sung by everyone, which means that a certain repertoire of music no longer is appropriate for worship (Palestrina, William Byrd, and even James MacMillan). Any architecture used, any musical style employed is necessarily sacred. And implicitly, the closer that this style is to daily life, to what we experience on the radio or in work, the better.
In recent years, there has been a reaction against functionalism and the elimination of the category of the sacred in liturgical art. Duncan Stroik in his “Ten Myths of Contemporary Sacred Architecture” writes:
From the beginning of time, God has chosen to meet his people in sacred places. The ‘holy ground’ of Mount Sinai became translated into the tent in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem. With the advent of Christianity, believers constructed buildings specifically for the divine liturgy which would reflect the heavenly temple, the upper room, and other holy places…As a place set apart for the reception of the sacraments, the church itself becomes sacramental, having as its focus the sanctuary, which means ‘a holy place.’ Just as the ceremonies, elements such as the altar and the ambo, and the art are all referred to as ‘sacred,’ so are the buildings designed for them. Therefore, to seek to remove the distinction of the church as a sacred place for sacred activity is to diminish our reverence of God, which the building should help to engender (The Church Building as a Sacred Place, 64).
That is, it is not enough to say that the People of God is the source of splendor within the Church. Instead, matter itself is integral to worship, to fostering the disposition of reverence. Human beings within the Church are beautiful but so also are stones, crosses, sound, space, and color (to name a few). And there are ways of organizing such matter in artistic form that are not simply to be sloughed off in the name of the avant-garde. To say that it is those within the Church who are the source of beauty, to deny that styles and forms of art are part and parcel of the tradition of the Church, is to ultimately deny that matter and history, well, matters.
But, of course, we have wandered into yet another area of polarization. That is, perhaps the real problem with liturgical aesthetics is that it is impossible to celebrate beautifully within the context of the reformed rites. That the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council destroyed traditions; and the only thing to do is to return to an exclusive celebration of the Extraordinary Form. Only then will the rich tradition of liturgical beauty be restored to the Church.
Thus, the possibility for polarization within liturgical prayer relative to beauty is three-fold.
Beauty is simply in the eye of the beholder, and thus there is no way to have a reasonable conversation about what constitutes beauty in worship. What I like, I like. What you like, so be it.
What really matters in liturgical beauty is not outdated categories like the sacred. Instead, the source of beauty in any act of worship may be found exclusively in the people who are gathered in the assembly. The category of the “sacred” should be done away with.
The Extraordinary Form alone can restore the beauty of the Church. Liturgical ugliness results from the reformed rites.
Transcending polarization will necessitate some sort of response to these three “potentially” polarizing assumptions.
A Non-Polarized Liturgical Aesthetics
1. Beauty Is Objective…We Learn to See It in Christ
Within the framework of the Catholic liturgical and sacramental imagination, it is problematic to simply say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder for two reasons. First, there is an objective source of revelation in Catholicism, the beauty of Jesus Christ. Second, the tradition of art within the Church is not simply to be dismissed insofar as it presents to us an incarnate account of what constitutes salvific beautiful.
Jesus Christ is the source of all conversations about beauty within Catholicism. What is revealed is the total, agapic and erotic, love of God. It is a form of love that humanity could not construct upon its own. The crucifixes within our churches are not intended to make us feel guilt for the suffering of the Son. Instead, they manifest to us a new way of perceiving the entirety of creation itself. As Hans ur von Balthasar writes:
…the paradoxical events with which God ‘shocks’ sinful man are seen as an invitation and stimulus to overleap the bounds of a closed world of finite ideas and to share in God’s self-manifestation and openness, something to which the creaturely condition itself points, though unable to attain it (“Revelation and the Beautiful,” 114).
An objective (and new) sense of beauty now orders the world. The beauty of a body given over in the totality of love. A beauty that is never simply a judgement subject to culturally-inscribed taste. God’s total self-giving love is the origin of all that is beautiful. And now the beauty of the created world itself can only be understood in light of Christ’s self-giving love. As I have written elsewhere, “A Christian notion of beauty is not an idea or an abstraction. It is a deeper immersion into the particularities of the mystery of divine love enshrined in salvation history…” (Liturgy and the New Evangelization, 118).
And this objective sense of beauty has itself taken flesh in art, which is inscribed in specific cultures. The problem with the plainness of so many churches today, of the less than poetic images of the hymns that we sing, of presiding styles that put more emphasis upon the prelate’s own self than Christ, is that it detracts from what is revealed in Christ. The tradition of liturgical art is valuable in that it enshrines for us the Church’s centuries own reflection upon this beauty. The aesthetics of liturgical practice (the structure of Eucharistic prayers and the rituals performed), incarnate in the rites of the Church, also form us to see this beauty.
Thus, not only is there is an objective sense of beauty within Catholicism. But, we can learn to see such beauty through the artistic tradition of the Church. To reject these traditions because we perceive them as “too old,” “antiquated,” not sufficient for expressing our sense of beauty today is as dangerous as denying that the specific language of Christian doctrine matters. We will lose some aspect of our capacity to contemplate the beautiful One when we get rid of Romanesque and Baroque churches, crosses that present the beauty of the crucified one, altar pieces that provide grist for the imagination, and music that gifts us with the ability to see how time itself is taken up into the transcendent.
2. The Sacred Matters
Though related to the previous point, it is essential to recognize that the category of the sacred cannot be done away without denying the graced orientation of creation itself. “Natural” religion reveals something about what human beings need in order to worship. There are moments of our lives, which necessarily stand apart from others. We are born, we make a life time commitment, we have a child, we experience illness, we retire from our career, and we approach death. “Sacred” spaces, spaces apart, are not contrary to the intimate union of love made possible through the gift of Christ’s sacrifice. Rather, nature itself is lifted up and transformed in the process.
In this way, the various possibilities of religious experience must be employed if art is to be beautiful. Contemporary liturgical art too often reduces human experience only to the intimate, to music that does not strike one with awe, to art that is folksy. Our churches are small in size. They have walls that recall not a grand basilica or a mighty cathedral but a quiet, sleepy office building. The music is not an icon, an experience of participating in heavenly worship, but feels more like a protest song on a city street. There are spaces for this form of music. But the reduction of religious experience to this one mode reduces what it means to be human before God.
Perhaps, it is this reason that natural religion still (at least for now) interrupts when young women and men want to get married in “traditionally” beautiful churches. And even those who are not interested in being married within such spaces still want to choose landscapes in which the drama of the commitment unfolds (beaches, mountain peaks, etc.).
For this reason, relative to liturgical beauty, it is acceptable to acknowledge the existence of the sacred, of that which “gives meaning to” the ordinariness of life. This does not mean that every piece of liturgical art must be expensive or comprehensible only to the artistically literate. It simply means that we find things beautiful that are set apart, which enable us to have the variety of human experiences that are part and parcel of the religious life.
The total elimination of chant, of polyphony, of certain architectural motifs and sacred art from parishes, of the use of an organ, etc. is not simply a rejection of all art that has come before. Rather, it seems to say that the religious experience enshrined into ancient hymns and practices of chant and altarpieces and the use of incense and stained glass…well, it’s not authentic religious experience. Sacred art is sacred because it’s set apart; it’s beloved because it reveals to us something about what it means to be human in Christ.
3. The Aesthetics of the Ordinary and Extraordinary Form
It is simply untrue (and ecclesiologically problematic) to say that only the Extraordinary Form offers a legitimate experience of beauty in liturgical prayer. It is often the case that those who celebrate the Ordinary Form of the Mass experience a less than beautiful event. The music is often poorly done, the preaching is aesthetically (and theologically) repugnant, and the space feels more like a living room.
Yet, the young adults whom I have taught this semester at Notre Dame (in a course on liturgy and aesthetics nonetheless) have made it clear that they find ample beauty in the worship of the Church today. They see the benefit of intimate gatherings in dorm chapels; massive spaces with professional choirs for the celebration of the Triduum; architecture that reflects the rich diversity of Catholic experience. They want the old. They want the new. They want both. Can we have both in the Church today? If we do, can we have them without leading to the other being perceived as “more authentic” than the other?
Liturgy is beautiful insofar as it is contemplative. That is, beauty is never simply a matter of “sensation.” It is not pleasure alone. We can gaze into the face of an elderly couple, holding hands while sitting in a park, and see beauty. The beauty that we perceive is not their wrinkled flesh. Rather, to see an old couple still holding hands is to encounter the beauty of a love that has lasted. Yet, if we move so quickly through the world that we cannot gaze upon this couple, that we cannot take a step back and contemplate this love, then we will not see the beauty.
The danger of the Ordinary Form of the Rite is that every space for contemplation is taken away by the choir, the presider, the announcements, etc. No space is given to perceive the beauty that unfolds in the silence of the heart. Every verse of every hymn must be sung by everyone (and if the liturgical action is not finished, the hymn must begin again). The words of the hymns themselves seem to say everything, leaving little room for mystical silence (as one finds in the great liturgical poetry of the tradition). If the Extraordinary Form has anything to “teach” us who practice the Ordinary Form, it is to make room for this contemplative silence. The kind of silence that Aidan Kavanagh notes:
“…is not the embarrassed, barren, uncontrolled lack of sound which occurs when things break down and no one knows what to say or do. Liturgical silence is purposeful, pregnant, and controlled–the thunderous quiet of people communicating that which escapes being put into mere words” (Elements of Rite, 51).
That being said, the pedagogical dialectic will go both ways. The gift of the Ordinary Form (when done well) infuses the beauty of ordinary life into the liturgical celebration. Of families bringing up gifts to the altar. Of men and women offering their voices to the living God in hymns of praise. Of a community of disciples gathered together to participate in the breaking of the bread.
These are not mutually exclusive visions within Catholicism. In fact, anyone who says that only one offers the proper vision, the proper sense of what it means to be Catholic, has failed to see the most frustrating reality of Catholicism: that there are often multiple goods, which seem contradictory, but must be perceived together.
This last point will bring us to our final column in our series on liturgical polarization: priesthood and laity.
On Ash Wednesday, I happened to see this picture posted by the Catholic Radio Channel’s Twitter account:
I enjoy a lot of the programming from the Catholic Channel and have made it through many a commute and car ride listening to its various programs. Thanks to Gus Lloyd’s “Seize the Day” program, I still greet a lot of my friends with “Good morning, child of God!” (and usually do so when it’s too early for anyone to be talking). The graphic design folks who made this edgy-looking graphic with the opening stanza of “Wake Me Up” had a nice thought for the beginning of Lent. The lyrics convey a message that probably resembles the way that many of us pray as Lent begins: “Allrighty, Lord, 40 days, here we go; I have no clue about how this is going to go, but something tells me things ought to be different. I don’t know where it will end, but here I am Lord, and I am trying to start.”
I admire this sentiment, but actually think that the helpfulness of the song “Wake Me Up” as an admirable Lenten posture stops there. Seeing the graphic using the song lyrics in this way on the first day of Lent gave me one more excuse to think about the song as a whole, since I began chewing on the lyrics a few months ago. Only half-jokingly, I had started referring to “Wake Me Up” as a kind of secularized “Amazing Grace” since it mentions “finding myself, when I didn’t even know I was lost!” instead of any recognition of the need to be found or an understanding of the need for grace or outside help. After further reflection, I actually think that not only is “Wake Me Up” a version of a secularized “Amazing Grace” but also that the song’s overall posture is a pretty problematic one. In fact, it demonstrates exactly the opposite of the Christian understanding of conversion and specifically the season of Lent and the practices we undertake in Lent.
Let’s look at the next part of the song:
“They tell me I’m too young to understand
They say I’m caught up in a dream
Well, life will pass me by if I don’t open up my eyes
Well that’s fine by me
So wake me up when it’s all over
When I’m wiser and I’m older
All this time I was finding myself
And I didn’t know I was lost.”
The entire point and posture of the rest of “Wake Me Up,” (contrary to the title) is not actually about waking up or changing at all! Instead, its message encourages sleeping through any kind of growth– or we might add, any kind of grace, repentance, or call to conversion. The subject of “Wake Me Up” is absolutely fine with life passing by as he passively sleeps, and he makes no effort to participate in his growth; he asks only that someone awaken him after everything is “all over” and he is a complete project: “wiser and older.”
The refrain of “Wake Me Up” would at the least undervalue and at the most disdain any Lent-like season in our lives, or the spirit of conversion and repentance for which Lent exists. As a Church, during the season of Lent we deliberately ask God to awaken us to what keeps us from loving Him and His creation in a way that we ought to. With the prophet Hosea, we express our desire to: “Say no more, ‘our god;’ to the work of our hands” but to remember who it is we are called to worship with both our lips and our actions.
Rather than sleeping through another season of our lives, in Lent we ask again and again to be awakened to our sins, to reflect on those sins, and through our commitments to make a physically conscious effort in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to turn back to God with our whole hearts. In St. Augustine’s “City of God,” he mentions that “A true sacrifice, then, is every work done in order that we may draw near to God in holy fellowship…” (City of God, Book X). The practices of penitence that we take up and the sacrifices we make during the season of Lent help us to both identify with the sacrifice of Christ and to re-awaken our knowledge of the need for conversion. (We might remember here that the word conversion comes from the Greek “metanoia” which means, “to turn.”)
While it is true that at all times in our lives we are supposed to be ready for the coming of Christ, the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent help us to keep this truth in mind and to do so more deliberately; this is helpful, because our liturgical attention spans are often short! Lent call us to action in ways that respond to God’s call to turn away from sin, to keep turning, to keep moving, to keep converting.
Sometimes at the beginning of Lent, I re-read C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters,” because the process of reading and chewing on the texts ends up working like a book-long examination of conscience. In the “Screwtape Letters,” the demon Screwtape writes to his pupil Wormwood, giving advice on how to lead astray a fellow who keeps seeming like he is edging towards a conversion. Some of his “advice” to Wormwood can help us think about why persevering through our Lenten practices matters for our life-long journeys of conversion as a whole:
“…the great thing is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it**; that is often an excellent way of sterilizing the seeds which the Enemy plants in human soul. Let him do anything but act. No amount of piety in his imaginations and affections will harm us if we can keep it out of his will…” (Screwtape Letters 66-67).
The call to repentance in Lent and the physical practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving help us to wake up to those areas of sin in our lives, to realize where we have created idols that have misplaced our Lord. We recognize through these practices that require our physical involvement along with our thoughts and convictions that our bodies and souls are linked, and that while it might be easier to sleep through another liturgical season, the actions we take with our bodies affect the truths that we hold in our souls.
Maybe, if we realize that our own attitude toward Lent in the past has been more like Avicii’s than anything else, this Lent we might make a further commitment to the practices we began last week and as an alternative to “Wake me up when it’s all over” try to pray and sing with the psalmist:
A pure heart create for me, O God,
Put a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
Nor deprive me of your holy spirit.
Give me again the joy of your help;
With a spirit of fervor [not sleepiness!] sustain me,
That I may teach transgressors your ways
And sinners may return to you. (Psalm 51)
It is true that as we begin our second week of Lent that we do not know exactly where our own souls will be at the end of this Lent. Nevertheless, this Lent, we do not pray, “Lord, wake me up when it’s all over, at the end of these 40 days, when I’m wiser and I’m older.” We do not ask to mentally “find ourselves” through Lent, as if Lent was just an extension or a do-over of New Years’ self-improvement resolutions. In Lent we ask—and sometimes plead, if we have a difficult time maintaining constancy, for the grace to continue with our Lenten observances, to see where God leads us and to do so actively. Our bodies and souls are united as human beings, and our souls are affected by what we do with our bodies. In her wisdom, the Church recognizes this always, but she especially reminds us of it in Lent in the calls we will continue to hear about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
“Awake, my soul… ” (Psalm 57:9)
**(Or a blog post. Guilty as charged, C.S. Lewis. This writer herself is usually horribly bad at persevering in Lent.)
Editors’ Note: In anticipation of the 87th Academy Awards on February 22, we present a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture. (Caveat: spoilers ahead.)
Harmed in the Making: Whiplash and the Ethics of Art
Whiplash is a story about choices. Andrew (Miles Teller) enrolls as a freshman in fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York City to study jazz drumming. The movie opens with the lights on Andrew, practicing in an otherwise dark room at the end of a hallway.
Faculty conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) covertly listens to Andrew, emerges from the dark hallway and chooses him to join his advanced ensemble. When Andrew comes for the first rehearsal, Fletcher replaces the upperclassmen lead drummer with Andrew. Fletcher encourages him, “The key is — relax. Don’t worry about the numbers or what the other players think. You’re here for a reason. You believe that, don’t you?”
Not for long. Within minutes, Fletcher has thrown a chair at Andrew and violently slapped him. He abuses his band, curses them out, makes them weep, sweat and bleed. Because of Fletcher, a former student commits suicide.
As the movie continues, it becomes clear why he does what he does.
The one thing he wants is to make someone into a “great.” Throughout the movie he and Andrew cite how conductor Jo Jones motivated saxophonist Charlie Parker by hurling a cymbal at him. Fletcher explains to Andrew:
Young kid, pretty good on the sax, goes up to play his solo in a cutting session, f***s up — and Jones comes this close to slicing his head off for it. He’s laughed off-stage. Cries himself to sleep that night. But the next morning, what does he do? He practices. And practices and practices. With one goal in mind: that he never ever be laughed off-stage again. A year later he goes back . . . and he plays the best motherf***ing solo the world had ever heard.
In the same scene Fletcher articulates his philosophy, a moral imperative about talent:
Any idiot can move his hands and keep people in tempo. No, it’s about pushing people beyond what’s expected of them. And I believe that is an absolute necessity. Because without it you’re depriving the world of its next [Louis] Armstrong. Its next Parker.
Fletcher’s violent pedagogy points out a dilemma. You can have healthy humans, ones whose hands aren’t bleeding from hours of practice, or you can have really good art.
Can we blame Fletcher for implicitly raising this thorny issue? Fletcher’s position shows that human goods often conflict and compete. Practicing the amount it takes to become an expert means giving things up.
At the beginning of college, Andrew still attends the movies weekly with his loyal father, a struggling writer. Not long after he starts in the new band, he ends the practice.
Andrew then forsakes his relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a sweet Fordham freshman who works at the movie theater. After barely a date or two Andrew explains to Nicole why they can’t stay together. He wants to be great. He will keep practicing more, she’ll be upset with him for not spending time with her, so he’ll start resenting her. It’ll become a ball of hate and fall apart. So he ends it.
Nicole is one the film’s few images of tenderness. She presents a hope that Andrew might hold back from subsuming his humanity in his art. She represents human-ness, a light in which Andrew could see himself first as a person, then an artist. But he can’t see this. She’s standing in front of his greatness.
As the movie continues, Andrew’s pride and obsession with drumming grow together. Fletcher continues his verbal, physical and emotional abuse, eventually gaining a psychological hold on Andrew. Andrew wants Fletcher’s favor, for which it turns out he is willing almost to die.
But what Fletcher sells and Andrew buys is art that’s lost its goal and context. Art is an inherent good, but humans alone make and experience it. That means it’s a good in itself for humans to pursue. Its goodness is not regardless of, separate from, or outside its relation to human beings. This doesn’t mean art is a means to the end of human flourishing. Instead, art is part of becoming human.
“Art for its own sake” — ars gratia artis — is a lie. Whiplash shows what happens when art forgets its humanity. It becomes a beast. Fletcher has made art a greater good than human life. For the sake of creating art, Fletcher is willing to destroy people. In his world, the human is subsumed in sacrifice to the life of art. It is a greater crime to deprive the world of real art than to deprive it of a real person.
Why does Fletcher think this is his duty? The viewer learns little about him, except for a hint that he is estranged from his wife and daughter. Even without this estrangement, it’s not hard to imagine how art could overtake his worldview. Beauty’s power, sensibly more immediate than truth or goodness, charms the susceptible heart.
This heart can easily go astray. Beauty can soothe the savage breast or incite a new one. Art away from its human context won’t destroy people. But if people accept contextless art, they can destroy themselves with it.
This is, at least by my lights, what continues happening to Andrew. What is Whiplash‘s position on the problem of art and human life? Despite director Damien Chazelle’s remarks that the movie is a condemnation of abusive art training, Whiplash seems at best ambivalent about the apparent conflict:
Fletcher is fired from Shaffer for abuse, in part because of a report by Andrew’s father. In the scene where Fletcher explains his philosophy he also tricks Andrew into joining a new band for a major gig. It’s a retaliatory setup. He gives Andrew the wrong music so Andrew can make a fool of himself in front of New York. Andrew doesn’t take this quietly, but turns it into an opportunity to show up Fletcher. He interrupts his conductor and begins a solo.
Fletcher in turn doesn’t take this lightly, but begins to play Andrew’s game. Fletcher approaches the drum set and uses his prowess, knowledge, and psychological power over Andrew to elicit a remarkable solo, giving Andrew specific verbal and physical cues about how to perform. The result is exhilarating.
The screen blacks at the end of the solo. As at the beginning, the lights are focused on Andrew. But in the last shot, he’s now soaked in brilliant stage light and applauded by all the New Yorkers whose opinions matter. The light radiates on him. It’s glory. But it’s sickening glory, won only because Fletcher used his power to wrench greatness from Andrew. The film doesn’t seem to mind that cost.
The soundtrack — crisp, blazing, big band jazz — is one of Whiplash’s major highlights. Hours and years of hard practice produced that skill musicianship. In light of the movie’s questions, this music should make us wonder. A great soundtrack. At what cost?
Perhaps the problem with specific fairy tales becoming our shared myths, in the sense Warner suggests, is that they turn so easily these days into dramas of the individual psyche with supernatural special effects: either leaving us in a world of paralysing moral ambiguity or (in the Disneyfied version) offering salvation through the discovery of unsuspected inner resources (we can all be what we most want to be). Against this, both the original fairy tales and the chaotic romance of the Arabic wonder stories present a world of sharper edges, larger shocks, and possibilities of unmerited help, as well as danger, from outside. And that, in one form or another, may turn out to be more like the mythology we really need.
MTS Student, History of Christianity, University of Notre Dame
“The purpose of all Christian liturgy is to express in a ritual moment that which should be the basic stance of every moment of our lives.” – Robert Taft
One of my responsibilities as an Assistant Rector is to coordinate the communal spiritual and liturgical life of the undergraduate men’s residence hall in which I live. This involves a lot of planning: I work with Campus Ministry and undergraduate “liturgical commissioners,” sacristans and musicians to ensure we are well-stocked in chapel supplies, prepared with music, Extraordinary Ministers and Lectors, and priests lined up to celebrate Mass every Sunday through Thursday, among other things.
As I am sure anyone involved in the planning of liturgy – be it as a choir director, Master of Ceremonies, or sacristan – can tell you, it can be very easy to get distracted from one’s own prayer before and during Mass by all of the responsibilities that come with planning a liturgy: Did we put enough hosts out? Do these hymns make sense with today’s readings? Do these Mass Settings have enough Latin in them to pacify the ‘traditionals’ while also appealing to the ‘liberals’? Did I put too many coals in the thurible (should we even have done incense at all…)? I thought I specifically told the choir not to play ‘Lord of the Dance’… (author’s note: “Lord of the Dance” has been one of my favorite songs since second grade, and I will always stand by it. But if you’d ever like to discuss it’s place in the Mass, I would be happy to talk through that with you sometime).
At least in my own experience, I can sometimes get so caught up in the external trappings of the liturgy (which are nevertheless important), while forgetting to acknowledge the underlying reality that the liturgy expresses. Or, to borrow from Taft, I am often too preoccupied by the individual “ritual moment,” in a way that distracts me from the “basic [liturgical] stance” that should underlie “every moment of our lives.”
I think this is also what David W. Fagerberg means when he speaks of the term liturgical as having two uses – one thin, and one thick: “Temple decorum and ritual protocol is liturgy only in its thin sense; in its thick sense, liturgy is theological and ascetical.” (Theologia Prima: What is Liturgical Theology?: 9) Alexander Schmemann also speaks to this distinction when he writes:
To find the Ordo behind the “rubrics,” regulations and rules – to find the unchanging principle, the living norm or “logos” of worship as a whole, within what is accidental and temporary: this is the primary task which faces those who regard liturgical theology not as the collecting of accidental and arbitrary explanation of services but as the systematic study of the lex orandi of the Church. This is nothing but the search for or identification of that element of the Typicon which is presupposed by its whole content, rather than contained by it… (Introduction to Liturgical Theology, 31)
Lest the reader think I am attempting to dispense of attention to liturgy in its ‘thin’ sense, I should note that the external trappings and ritual protocol of the liturgy are indispensable, as are the people who are committed to its planning and ‘execution,’ so to speak. This is an important role, and should not be dismissed. I am a big believer in beautiful liturgy (to the extent that human hands can make a liturgy beautiful). But it can behoove even – or rather, it can behoove especially – those of us involved in liturgical ministries to have liturgy’s “thick” sense held before our faces a little more often; to be reminded of the basic stance that is expressed by the individual “ritual moment” that is the Mass.
More than hymns, incense, prayers and ritual – though it includes all of these things – liturgy is fundamentally an eternal reality, expressed in an individual moment. I think we should concern ourselves with the planning of reverent and well-thought out liturgies, but this work should draw us further into the ‘thick’ sense of liturgy – not further away from it. So often we are so concerned with thin liturgy, that we completely lose sight of thick litourgia. And it is the thick sense of liturgy – the underlying reality of the Eucharist, the kenotic love of the Trinity extended eternally and through all ages – that we are called to live. Again, the externals of the Mass play a significant part in this, but ultimately it is the total self-emptying of Christ in the Eucharist that I participate in and that overflows into my life and ministry as an Assistant Rector.
This kenosis, this gift of self, defines liturgy in its most fundamental (thick) sense, and it is such a disposition – a liturgicalstance of self-emptying love – that should undergird every moment of our lives. To recognize such does not invalidate our attention to the “externals” of the liturgy, but rather expands and reorients such attention, reminding us that the true source of liturgy is Christ’s work, not ours. And our efforts to coordinate and plan beautiful liturgies – which are not by any means rendered meaningless by this recognition – should serve only one purpose: to lead all (ourselves included) deeper into the mystery that is Christ’s self-gift in the Eucharist.
Liturgy is meant to be lived, even more so than it is meant to be planned. I have learned as an Assistant Rector that things like setting up for Mass, scheduling priests and choosing hymns can also serve as external expressions of an eternal kenosis, when I allow them to.
Confession: I love pop culture, particularly as it’s expressed through the films of Walt Disney Studios. Films like Aladdin, characters like the Yzma and Kronk from The Emperor’s New Groove, iconic images like the sun piercing the clouds over Pride Rock as a baboon holds aloft the future Lion King—these are some of the greatest expressions of American pop culture ever produced. And the pop continues. With the release of Frozen this past year, Disney has outdone itself in terms of producing a film that not only immediately entered the cultural mainstream, but has also been hailed by many a film critic as “an instant classic.”
Another, more dangerous confession: when I left the theatre after watching Frozen with my sweet little six-year-old niece, I was ambivalent. I was not joyously floored as I had been after seeing Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King or The Princess and the Frog for the first time. Initially, I kept my thoughts to myself, mostly because I didn’t want to upset my niece or my family and friends who loved the movie, but also because it seemed that any ambivalence or (heaven forbid) critique regarding Frozen was met with dismissal, rejection, or just plain outrage. People REALLY love this movie.
Diplomatic armchair film critic that I am, I figured that there might in fact be something wrong with me (wouldn’t be the first time), and that I needed to give the movie another shot. Watching Frozen a second and even third time, I noticed some delightful elements that I had failed to appreciate fully in the first viewing. Example: the clever way that Disney essentially makes fun of its previous films by critiquing the “love at first sight” trope with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Or the beautifully moving depiction of love in its familial, platonic, and yes, romantic forms. Or, most importantly, the affirmation that true love puts others’ needs before its own. This assertion is, in the final analysis, the gift of Frozen, an assertion that, one could argue, find resonances in Scripture. Anna’s sacrifice, made in love to save her sister, carries Christian overtones, and perhaps even calls to viewers’ minds the words of Jesus himself: “No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). Yet, despite this message of self-giving love, and despite the stunning visuals and the breathtaking animation, something still didn’t quite ring true for me, and recently I finally realized what it was: the music.
Anyone who has ever watched a movie, Disney or otherwise, is well aware of the power of music. Music helps to tell the story of the film in a way that enhances the narrative, even transcends the actors’ performances. Without music, we’d never know that a great white shark was lurking just beneath the water’s surface, and Forrest Gump would just be a guy on a nice long run. Movie musicals harness this power on an even higher level as the characters themselves break into song, and Disney movie musicals on a level still higher than that, for in Disney films, there is always that one song that stands out above the rest—that one song that distills the narrative into a singable form, enriches the central message with melody and harmony, and makes a merely memorable story truly unforgettable. In point of fact, that one song serves as a musical icon—it enables us to enter into the film, even without sitting down to watch it. Think for a moment about the great Disney songs from just the past 25 years: “Part of Your World,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” “Colors of the Wind”—all of these songs present the foundational narrative of the film in miniature form. These songs convey the essence, the heart of their respective films: when you hear the lyrics of “Circle of Life,” you know that The Lion King is about finding, accepting, and living out who you were created to be. Thus, in the Wonderful World of Disney, as in the world of musicals (and really just the world in general), when there is something really important to say, you never *just* say it. You sing it. And if you’re going to sing it in a Disney film, you have to make sure that it’s a message that rings true by upholding virtues in the hero or heroine and alerting us to the vices of the villain.
Which brings us to the songs of Frozen. While the melodies are unbelievably catchy, the lyrics range from hilariously ironic (“In Summer”) to mildly pedestrian (“For the First Time in Forever”). Most importantly, there is no one song that encapsulates the film’s central message. Put simply, Frozen’s signature song, the now-ubiquitous pop culture phenomenon “Let It Go,” doesn’t bear the moral weight of the powerful theme conveyed in the rest of the film, which is that love sacrifices the self for the good of the other.
Rather, “Let It Go” actually contradicts that theme (albeit with an incredibly catchy, can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head, sing-it-at-the-top-of-your-lungs melody), with lyrics celebrating self-centeredness (“Turn away and slam the door; / I don’t care what they’re going to say…”), self-preservation (“I’m never going back—the past is in the past”), and even moral relativism (“No right, no wrong, no rules for me—I’m free!”). Most distressingly, it seems that Elsa has decided to embrace the perception others have of her as some sort of monster, belting unapologetically near the song’s climactic moment: “That perfect girl is gone.” Is this message what we really ought to be taking away from the film? If not, then what are we to make of this song?
At this point, it may help to remember that, when “Let It Go” was written, Elsa was actually intended to be the villain, so it makes sense for the song to celebrate the good girl gone bad because, well, she originally was the bad guy… girl. Oddly enough, it was this song that inspired the film’s writers to change the trajectory of the story, recasting Elsa as a tortured protagonist instead of the villain. So, instead of the definitive turn from virtue to vice, this song becomes, in the context of the rest of the film, a moment in Elsa’s journey toward conversion. The problem is, we aren’t given another iconic anthem that crystallizes (sorry—couldn’t resist) the rest of the story. After she ostensibly breaks free, Elsa learns that, despite her previous assertions, there is a right and wrong, and that her magic does have consequences (as magic always does), not only for herself but also for her subjects and especially for her sister Anna. In the end, Elsa embraces the rules she was so willing to ‘let go’ of, because she learns from Anna—the true heroine of the film and, one could even argue, a kind of Christ figure—that self-giving love is the only rule by which she ought to live.
Unfortunately, no one sings about this, and without another powerhouse song to serve as a counterweight to “Let it Go” and present the ultimate moral truths of the film, audiences are left with the one breakout musical number that tells only half of the story. This is irresponsible of the writers on one level, and even dangerous to the audience on another, considering that young children are the ones for whom Frozen was intended. These films leave a deep and lasting impression, and it’s critical that children come away from them with an impression that will form their moral imaginations for the good. To quote G.K. Chesterton, “[This] is the one eternal education; to be sure enough that something is true that you dare to tell it to a child” (What’s Wrong with the World, 254). Or, if you prefer a musical spin on this important lesson, we need only turn to Stephen Sondheim’s classic fairy tale adaptation Into the Woods: “Careful the things you say… children will listen.” These caveats that would have us guard what we say hold all the more true for what we sing, since children—even very young children—remember songs far more easily than they do speech. If you’re going to sing it, make sure you’re singing the truth, especially if you’re going to sing it to little ones.
After several viewings now, I’m less ambivalent about Frozen than I was before. It differs from other fairy tale adaptations in its complexities and temporary ambiguities, but ultimately, its message is one that audiences of all ages can and should strive to emulate in their own relationships. In the end, its only shortcoming happens to be the one thing that everyone remembers about it. All I can say is, when my sweet little niece leaves home for college someday, I hope she’s forgotten “No right, no wrong, no rules for me” and remembers instead the ultimate point of Frozen, that, to quote Olaf, “Love is about putting someone else’s needs before your own.” Think of the iconic song that could have been created to body forth such a powerful, formative message. Let’s hope they write it for the forthcoming Broadway adaptation. I’m thinking an epic reconciliation duet for Anna and Elsa. . . .
Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life