Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Appeal of the Remote

Sure, I read Shakespeare at the appointed times in school, but when I attend a play these days, the language and world it reveals still surprises me.

I’ll arrive without much thought, and find myself startled in the first few minutes. I can’t understand a word these people are saying! Five minutes go by and I realize that I need to change my thinking. I have to listen more carefully. I keep working at it. After about ten minutes, I finally begin to catch up with the sensibility and pacing. After twenty minutes, I’m fully there, following most everything. By the end, the language seems natural and normal, and I feel like I’ve experienced something completely different from the every day. It is more memorable and meaningful because of it. I’ve applied myself and taken more away.

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. Shakespeare is not our vernacular. It hasn’t been for hundreds of years, and probably wasn’t even in the author’s time. It asks something from us. The meaning is not entirely obvious. The richness and fullness of the text is something we are called upon to discover. It is not given to us in our own language. It is a challenge for us and we rise to the occasion.

You know where I’m going with this, as it pertains to sacred liturgy and music. A common assumption is that the music of the Mass. must be immediate and accessible, familiar enough to people so that they are happy as with pop music. If it is distant, remote, too challenging, much less in another language like Latin, the meaning will escape people. People don’t like that so they will stop coming.

I don’t believe a word of this conventional wisdom. The opposite is true. Remoteness asks something of us. It calls on us to apply ourselves in a special way. In so doing, it introduces us into a realm that is not the same as we encounter in everyday conversation.

Consider too that not even pop music embraces the view that more familiar is always better. Before lyrics of songs were posted on the web, I couldn’t understand even a third of what many rock singers were singing. And it is even more intense in a world like rap, which uses a language set that is radically unfamiliar -- terms we don’t use every day because they are supposedly from the ‘hood and are not ours.

For years I dismissed rap music as nothing but racket. But the other day, I really tried to figure out its appeal, especially given its amazing triumph in nearly all genres of music. It is hard to escape some rap styles even in the most bubble-gum pop music you find in the top 40. Rap is ubiquitous.

So I decided to figure it out to my own satisfaction. Once you get passed the profanity and the lewdness, what you find is actually very surprising. Some of it has a dry wit, a funny storytelling talent, hilarious words and rhymes. There is even a brilliance to it all once you consider it on its own merits.

However, none of this is discoverable on first listening mainly because, as with Shakespeare, the language is radically unfamiliar. You have to listen extremely carefully to discover the narrative. But once you do, you find the aspects of it that are revealing of a world most of us do not know. Rap provides a picture of a different realm -- except in all its grittiness and peculiarities.

Why, then, do people insist on driving liturgical music down to the point that it is immediately accessible to us, offers no intellectual challenge, offers no spiritual challenge? Why do people imagine that liturgical music cannot meet anyone’s needs until it becomes more and more like a commercial jingle and feeds only the simplest possible understanding of the faith?

This same debate took place over the new Missal. People said that the language was too difficult and remote, that it is not written in the plain language of the people so therefore it won’t connect with anyone. Indeed, the screams against the proposed Missal came close to hysteria, implying that people were being robbed of a simple faith and being given a replacement that is utterly incomprehensible. This was the rap on MR3.

Now, one year later, every survey shows the opposite. The Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, The Catholic University of America, and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Georgetown University, took a survey of Catholics and found that the new Missal is overwhelmingly approved by Catholics, especially those who attend Mass every week.

“Catholics who attend Mass weekly are among the most likely to agree that the new translation of the Mass is a good thing. Eighty-four percent responded as such (47 percent strongly agree with this statement). By comparison, 63 percent of those who rarely or never attend Mass agree with this statement (only 4 percent strongly agree).”

The more that people attend Mass, the more inclined they are to like the new Missal. The unfamiliar turns out to be the enticement. The remoteness of the language causes people to draw closer to it, not be repelled by it. This should not be surprising. This is what we see in many areas of life. It it counterintuitive but nonetheless true.

Another factor is present too. The new Missal is truer to the Missal text itself, a better expression of the essential message of the ritual itself. It is not trying to be something it is not. It is the real thing. You can sense the integrity from the pews. It is a more believable expression of the faith. Yes, it requires more of us, but that is a good thing. As with other enduring aspects of literature and art, it reveals its truths to us only once we have made some degree of effort to overcome the distance it seems to have from our daily lives.

As usual, if we just get over our own subjective sense of what should work and what we should do, and defer to the history and tradition, doing what the Church asks of us, we will find more success in the end, as musicians or whatever role we happen to play in the production of the liturgical art. It never really works to try to outsmart tradition.

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