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Will God win a Grammy?

Turn on any radio station from classical to pop, and you're bound to hear music with a Christian beat. Yes, God is topping the charts, and Patrick McCormick examines why.

Jimmy Carter has returned to global politics and Michael Jordan has come home to basketball, but the really big news is that God, it would seem, is suddenly back in the music business. Not since David's psalms packed the house in Jerusalem, or Joshua's trumpeters brought it down in Jericho, has religious and sacred music been seen scaling and topping so many classical and popular charts.

In the U.S., the Christian-music industry has been going through a tremendous growth spurt in the past five years, grossing nearly $1 billion last year in sales and concert tickets. Contemporary and soft-rock Christian artists such as Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith are suddenly being scooped up by major labels and eager mainstream audiences that are turning their recordings into gold and platinum, while Z Music Television is bringing Christian musicians into more than 15 million homes. A New York Times piece recently noted the resurgence of religious and sacred themes in a wide band of contemporary rock artists. "Not since the peace and love era of the '60s, when spiritual transcendence was celebrated by the likes of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and Joni Mitchell, have religious themes been so conspicuously present in pop." God, it seems, is everywhere.

And what, pray tell, might be behind the sudden, even dazzling, popularity of religious themes and forms in contemporary music? In an age when we tend to take every popular trend - and our interpretation of its meaning - much too seriously, it's probably a good idea not to try and read too much into these recent developments.

Still, it does seem clear that the recent introduction of religious notions and motifs into contemporary music has struck a resonant chord with very large audiences of young people at home and abroad, audiences not normally identified with either classical or religious music. It might be a good idea, then, to look into some of these recent developments, particularly the astounding success of the "mystical minimalists" and Gregorian chant.

Along with the Estonian emigre Arvo Part, Henryk Gorecki and John Tavener are recognized as the high priests of "mystical" or "holy" minimalism, a new wave of mostly Eastern European classical composers whose orchestral and choral works are known for their powerful emotional impact, austere simplicity, and deeply religious character.

As Terry Teachout noted in a recent Commentary article, these intensely religious men - Gorecki is Catholic, while Part and Tavener are Orthodox - compose haunting secular and liturgical works, which have succeeded in touching and winning the hearts of massive young audiences.

They do this by weaving the lush tonality, simplicity, and repetition of minimalism into a centuries-old tapestry of medieval folk and religious music - particularly Eastern and Gregorian chant - thereby fashioning compositions described as having a mystical, almost transcendent, quality.

As a result of this marriage of minimalism and the rich religious and liturgical heritage of their faith, Gorecki, Tavener, and Part have - according to their fans - not only created works of breathtaking emotional lushness and nearly hypnotic simplicity but also offered listeners, in the words of critic Charles Michener, "an act of transcendence ... [which] speaks directly to people's hearts." Along with offering listeners highly accessible music with a lavish emotional impact, their compositions supposedly connect modern audiences to a wellspring of ancient liturgical practices reaching back more than a millennium.

Opinions vary on the causes for this phenomenon. Barbara Kantrowitz argues in a Newsweek article that it is middle-aged baby boomers struggling with mortality and the need to offer their children some lasting values who are behind much of the current search for the sacred.

On the other hand, Guy Garcia contends in the New York Times that spiritual and religious issues are attractive to young people who have grown tired of the accelerated and often superficial pace of modern life.

Meanwhile, pieces by Nicholas Williams in The New Statesman & Society and Joe Goldberg in Billboard magazine argue that the present appeal of the spiritual in pop culture may be in response to a deepening sense of uncertainty and anxiety many people are feeling as they face the close of the second millennium.

Whatever the causes, it seems clear that an increasingly large number of people are hoping that spirituality will offer a sense of meaning and certitude they have not found elsewhere.

Critics note that for many Americans this quest for the sacred is personal and psychological. Shaped by a national psyche concerned with self-reliance and self-improvement, and an age in which, as Taylor writes, "psychotherapy has become the world's new sacrament," the current spiritual awakening is concerned with the "alteration of consciousness, the integration of mind and body, and the connection between physical and mental healing."

Pilgrims tend to seek guidance, inner healing, and holistic consciousness, often doing so not by returning to organized religion or serving the needy but by making contact with the transcendent, the mystical, and the other worldly through personal experiences. Thus, at the heart of the quest is a search for some personal experience of the holy.

This could certainly explain why the "mystical minimalists" and Gregorian chant would suddenly find themselves at the top of the charts (and indeed, why all sorts of religious music might be enjoying a real renaissance). For critic after critic has not only pointed out the "mystical" or "transcendental" character of these recordings but also described the altered states of consciousness or inner healing audiences seek or claim to find when listening to them.

As a Catholic, I think there are a number of reasons to be happy about the sudden popularity of religious themes and forms in contemporary music. Since the earliest days of Christianity, music has been at the heart of our worship. The author of Colossians 3:16 gave this direction to early believers: "With psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, sing from the heart in gratitude to God."

And Saint Ambrose suggested that the "one who sings, prays twice." Music has given full-throated voice to our praise, humble supplication to our petition, and haunting anguish to our lament. Its strains have helped break open our hearts and lift our minds to God.

As Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy noted, "The musical tradition of the universal church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art," for music, the bishops argue, is at the center of our common life of prayer, and adorns that prayer to render it more "noble."

So it seems like good news that a treasure such as Gregorian chant, which Benedictine and other monks have kept alive for us for several centuries, should suddenly become accessible to millions of people around the planet. There is something wonderful, even a little humbling, about being introduced to a form of prayer that has sustained communities of Christians for more than 1,500 years.

By the same token I'm grateful that recent trends in pop culture have given the mystical minimalists a large audience and allows them to share with the rest of us a music enriched by their religious faith and liturgical traditions. Even if their compositions are currently enjoying what many critics describe as disproportionate success, can it really be a bad thing that large audiences are being introduced to music that is powerfully evocative and deeply religious?

Certainly such baby steps could lead to a richer and deeper appreciation of the sacred in life and the arts. And if the increasing success of the various forms of contemporary Christian music offers more young people a way to express and feel at home with their faith, isn't that a good thing? Isn't it better than some of the misogynist and violent alternatives they have on MTV and elsewhere?

All the same, I'd like to close with a note of caution. To start with listeners should not confuse the emotional impact of this or any music with transcendence, spirituality, or genuine faith. Transcendence is the experience of opening one's heart and life to the mystery of God, and as former monk, Tony Hendra argues, in a recent issue of GQ, listening to "Chant," the highly successful recording put out by the monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, will not bestow transcendence or spirituality on anyone.

Further, all customers should beware of a "romantic" or "nostalgic" approach to religious music, which hopes to find a magic door back to simpler, easier times. In a searing critique in the Hudson Review, Josiah Fisk argues that the simplicity of the "mystical minimalists" is attractive to fundamentalists searching for "the answer" to life's questions but that it lacks the intellectual toughness, structural complexity, or challenging ambiguity found in either good classical music or real life. Whether Fisk is correct or not in his assessment of the "new simplicity" as characterized by "intellectual flabbiness and a fuzzy blend of platitudes from miscellaneous sources," the point he makes about not using religious music as a way to avoid life's ambiguities and troubles is well taken.

And finally, believers should beware of too steady a diet of "easy listening" religious music or "Gospel lite." While sacred or religious music certainly ought to "soothe the savage beast" and offer comfort to the distressed, Paul Westermeyer notes in an article in Christian Century that religious "music that is all sweet and therefore finally dishonest is all the rage because it manages to wall out the problems we face." Such music, he argues, "builds a saccharine bubble around us which insulates us from the gospel and the world into which we are called."

In the end, the vast treasury of sacred and religious music should help us reach out to and be engaged by the mystery of God, a mystery that believers down through the ages have found so fascinating and terrifying that it changed their lives.

And while it's great that recent trends have made some of this music more accessible to lots of folk, it's also important to remember that sacred song has a place and a role in our encounter with the divine, and is more than just an enchanting melody.

RELATED ARTICLE: Chart toppers worth tuning in

Henryk Gorecki

* "Symphony No. 3" ("Symphony of Sorrowful Songs") Electra Nonesuch 79282

* "Beatus Vir" (Composed for 1979 Papal Pilgrimage to Poland) Argo 436 835-2

Arvo Park

* "Passio" (St. John's Passion) on ECM 837 109

* "Tabula Rasa" on ECM 817 764

John Tavener

* "Mary of Egypt" on Collins Classics 70232

* "Sacred Music" on Hyperion CDA 66464

* "We Shall See Him as He Is" (The Ikon of the Beloved) Chandos CHAN 9218

The monks of Santo Domingo de Silos

* "Chant" on Angel 55138 23
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Title Annotation:growing popularity of Christian music
Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Jul 1, 1995
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