Christopher McElroy

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Encountering God through music

In recent years there has been a renewed popularity in religious themed music, both ancient (e.g. Gregorian chant, Bach) and modern (e.g. John Tavener, James McMillan.) The advent of CD’s means that those people who would never dream of entering a church are able to find enjoyment in music that is written for or about religion and the church. One wonders why, other than general availability, such music has become so popular. Is it a sign of spiritual hunger in an essentially materialistic culture? Or perhaps has sacred music lost its ‘sacredness’/ ‘religious function’ therefore allowing it to become popular? Probably there is no single cause. It is a reminder however, of the intimate connection between music (and the other arts) and religion.

In his many encyclicals, Pope John Paul II addressed three principal elements of art: Truth, Goodness and Beauty. An artefact, whether a painting or a musical composition is not a natural object, but one shaped by an artist. Whether we are able to see God in a piece of music, one created by human hands, rather relies on how we view the processes of creating and receiving the artefact in question. How we see truth, goodness and beauty in a composition depends on what we consider to equal those things.

Two lenses that we might look through to increase our understanding of how God may be seen in our singing are poietic and esthesic analysis. To look at some thing poietically means to look at how it came to be, examining the process by which it was created. Does it matter for example whether the person who wrote a hymn was a Catholic, or whether the tune was originally written as a pub drinking song? Would these, or other factors concerning the history of the music and text affect whether we are able to see God in it?

The other lens is esthesically, how we receive or interpret an artefact. For example, the hymn ‘Eternal Father strong to Save’ is a well known hymn, but it will hold an additional set of values for those who have been involved in the Navy as it is often known as the seafarers’ hymn. Different images in different people can be thought up from the same text or piece of music. Let us take a CD of Gregorian Chant – a grandmother and granddaughter are likely to receive this music in very different ways. The granddaughter may well see the music as spiritual, meditative, soothing whereas for the grandmother it might bring back memories of Latin, strict schools and covering of heads in church.

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