Volume > Issue > The Smoke in the Songs

The Smoke in the Songs

BAD THEOLOGY SET TO MUSIC

By Andrew M. Seddon | June 2024
A retired urgent-care physician, Andrew M. Seddon, M.D., devotes most of his time to writing, both nonfiction and fiction, in multiple genres. His 17 books include The Deadliest Sins, two volumes of Saints Alive!: Saints of Empire and Celtic Paths, Tales from the Brackenwood Ghost Club — a collection of Catholic-flavored ghost stories — and the charity anthology Wolf Wanderings. He lives in Florida with his veterinarian wife, Olivia, and their German shepherd, Baltasar.

When I arrive for Mass, after praying and reviewing the readings, I look to see which songs or hymns will be sung. Occasionally I am delighted, most often resigned, and sometimes have to brace myself to endure what is to come. Bad music has plagued the Church in the decades since Vatican II. In the aftermath of the Council, Pope St. Paul VI famously commented, “Through some crack, the smoke of Satan has entered the Church of God. There is doubt, uncertainty, problems, unrest, dissatisfaction, confrontation.” Could part of this smoke — the doubt and uncertainty that afflicts Catholics — be attributed to the music we have allowed into the sanctuary?

I don’t mean to imply that the writers of contemporary trainwrecks of songs are intentional blowers of wafts of Satanic smoke. Some, perhaps, are merely misguided or uneducated, affected by worldly or syncretistic tendencies or misplaced optimism; others simply lack talent. And it is not as though everything written in the past few decades deserves to be pitched (or pitchforked) into the dustbin; good hymns and songs have been composed as well. Nor do I wish to denigrate the efforts of music directors, choirs, and accompanists. Even less do I desire to malign or insult those who find spiritual benefit in even the poorest of these songs. “God writes straight with crooked lines,” says the aphorism attributed to St. Teresa of Ávila. It’s true.

That’s the bright side. What about the darker side?

For decades now, we’ve been singing songs that sound Christian but aren’t. At best, they’re believable imitations. Whether it be bad grammar, poor catechesis, ignorance of the Catholic faith on the part of non-Catholic songwriters, blindness (or, worse, indifference) on the part of hymnal and missal editors, or simple woolly-mindedness, this musical “smoke” can have a suffocating effect on the spiritual life of individuals and the life of the Church.

One way this can happen is when the words of hymns are not merely banal but express subtle heresies that often go unnoticed. The best example is “Lord of the Dance,” written by Sydney Carter in 1963. This song is sung with gusto by Christians of many stripes. I have heard it described by a cradle Catholic as a “beautiful Catholic song” because of how it presents the life of Christ, and as “harmless” by a very learned, orthodox priest whose opinions I respect greatly, and with whom I hesitate to disagree. But disagree I must.

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