Part I of III
It’s that time of the day when you know you should go to the gym. But after a long day at work, you really don’t feel like it. But still, you know going would be good for you. So you slip on the head phones, and put on “Till I Collapse” by Eminem to help get you off the couch, into the gym and motivated to work out, despite your tiredness. This is a pretty common experience, especially for the youth. If anything can be concluded from this observation, it’s that music, specifically the melody, can affect our emotions and moods including the intensity of each. What is it about that Eminem song that pumps us up, or any song that we classify as “motivational music”? Just open Pandora and add the “Workout Radio” and I will guarantee that Mozart or Beethoven will not play on that station. That is because classical music does not give us that “pumped up” feeling. Clearly then, different melodies cause different emotions to be felt. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Music is an art that can express all sorts of realities in life, including the type of things we go through personally. Included in this, is worship of God. The most important action that helps fulfill our human nature is worship of God. And certain melodies can help play a role in directing our mind and soul to God during this act. At the same time however, other melodies can do the opposite by deceiving us with sentimentality and intense feelings of pleasure as a form of worship.
There is a large number of Catholics that listen to a certain genre of music known as “Christian Music”, “Contemporary Church Music” or more commonly “Praise & Worship” (P&W). This type of music is created and typically led by lay people who are known as “worship leaders”, “worship bands” or something similar. Not coincidently, this type of music contains the melodies that seek and cause emotional experiences, usually sentimental or “feel-good” experiences. The genre is well known to be very similar to pop music. This “new” genre of music, if you can even say “new”, since it is just stolen from the world with a “Christian” label on it, is wrongfully believed to be true praise and true worship of God. This is very deceiving and far from the truth. This music not only misleads people in true prayer it also is hurtful to their spirituality and relationship with God.
Without doubt, Scripture tells us to sing praise to God, especially throughout Psalms: “Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament” (Psalms 150:1). There is absolutely no argument against singing to the Lord. In fact the Church encourages this. Even in the New Testament, Paul says: “Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, “(Ephesians 5:19). So again, to be clear, singing and giving praise to our Lord is encouraged by the Church as instructed by Scripture. So what is wrong with P&W? Does it not seek devotion and worship to God? The answer is no. It seeks pleasure while the purpose of true praise and true worship is to give to the Lord. By using a specific melody that intensifies emotions, P&W aims at people feeling good while they “praise & worship” God. Thomas Aquinas understood this to be a wrong form or worship. He was even against all musical instruments. He states: “For such like musical instruments move the soul to pleasure rather than create a good disposition within it”1. Aquinas noted that musical instruments are used to change one’s emotions, which according to him is typically some form of pleasure. He saw the danger of seeking pleasure while attempting to glorify God. He goes on further to state: “The soul is distracted from that which is sung by a chant that is employed for the purpose of giving pleasure. But if the singer chant for the sake of devotion, he pays more attention to what he says…”1 He is even criticizing certain chants that have an aim at pleasure. What’s important to note is not the form of music itself, but the effect it could produce that gets mistaken for worship. Aquinas is against seeking pleasure as an end to worshiping God. Whether it be via music, chant or whatever other way one can think of, pleasure and prayer should not be confused. “The soul is distracted” he says, because the soul’s main purpose is to glorify God properly, by giving him glory, praise and thanksgiving. The next verse in Ephesians above states: “…always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father” (5:20). In the context of singing hymns and psalms, the next line tells us to give thanks, not to receive anything. Scripture is telling us this immediately after instructing us to sing hymns, psalms and spiritual songs. There is no accident here. A common theme throughout Scripture is to give glory, praise and thanks to God. It is no different while singing, but when the type of song or melody aims at some form of pleasure, we sell ourselves short resulting in some skin-deep feeling as opposed to the real gift we receive from worshipping God, which is something deep, mysterious and virtuous.
1Summa Theologica 2.2. Question 91:Art. 2 – Whether God should be praised with song?