Friday, April 17, 2009

Singing Satan's Parts?

Many persons I know of who are concerned about the current state of liturgical music often gripe about the fact that in many of the sappy GIA songs, the composers have set up the lyrics so that the congregation ends up singing words that can only rightly be spoken by God (see here). So for example, in the song "Be Not Afraid" by Bob Dufford, SJ, we have the people singing:

Be not afraid
I go before you always
Come follow me
and I will give you rest

I think we are right to be troubled by this. Traditionally, the cantor of a piece of religious music does not usually sing the parts of God. There are exceptions, however - just this past Holy Week we all sung the Impropreria, in which the people singing assume the voice of God. So it is not intrinsically wrong - but it is endemic in the pop post-Vatican II Church.

However, I was really stunned when during Lent I attended a liturgical function put on by the diocese in which I live and found that one of the texts we were singing had the congregation not saying the words of God but saying the words of SATAN. That's right - we were singing the words of the devil!

How I wish I could remember the name of that song! Perhaps some of you out there know of it. It had as its theme the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, and it had the congregation for each verse saying things like, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread," and so forth for each one of the temptations. In essence, we were speaking the words uttered by the devil to tempt our Lord! The real crazy thing was that the music itself was really upbeat and positive sounding. It was used as a processional!

Whatever you may think about singing the words of God, I hope we can all agree that singing the words of Satan seems particularly inappropriate. I can think of several reasons for this:

First: I just don't think there is any precedent for this anywhere in Tradition. To my knowledge, there has never been any liturgical chant or antiphon where the cantor or choir uses the words of the devil. It is a complete innovation.

Two: These words, though they are part of Scripture, are diabolical in origin. If we think of texts like the Sanctus and the Gloria, we must realize that these came from the lips of angels. These words are heavenly in origin - as such, we see them as particularly fitting to use in a liturgical setting. Now, if the fact that some words have an angelic origin renders them fit for liturgical use, wouldn't the opposite be true as well; i.e., that words having a diabolical origin are unfit for liturgical use? Just a hunch.

Three: Words have real meaning. Even if we are only singing something as part of a song and don't really mean it (and this applies to the songs where we sing God's parts as well), when we say something enough times it tends to sink in. If we sing enough hymns for enough decades where we sing God's part, we start to think in those terms. This is the case with the song "I Myself Am the Bread of Life" by Rory Cooney, where the terms applicable to the Eucharist are transposed to apply to the people. How much more unhealthy would it be, then, to be singing words diabolical in origin that we know from our Lord can only be lies? Can it be hepful to repeat these over and over again in verse?

Well, I know I am preaching to the choir here. If anybody knows what song I am talking about, please let me know.

In the meantime, enjoy some "Jerusalem, My Destiny" by Rory Cooney (notice the conductor absolutely taking herself way too seriously):

Well, at least they're using the choir loft.


Anonymous said...

First of all, forgive me if I hurt any religious feeling, because I will here express only my own point of view and I am religious but not Catholic. Also, take into account my English is poor for this is not my "mother-tongue".

You say "singing the words of Satan seems particularly inappropriate". What I think would be really inappropriate for a believer is having no idea of whose role he / she is playing, be it God, an angel, a human, Christ or the devil.

Think of drama. We allow, usually we encourage children to take part in theatre plays. Sometimes they play evil roles, but they are conscious of what they are doing is just a role. So playing these roles must mean they are getting evil? Or are they learning the difference between good and evil?

Boniface said...


The biggest thing is that acting by its nature is farcical; it is make believe. In the liturgy we are meant to be doing one of the most serious and real things a human can do. Playing an evil role in a play/film where you know it is farce is different from singing the parts of Satan in the liturgy, where you are partaking in something serious and truthful.

Anonymous said...

Forgive me if I go beyond the topic... In many fields you are several steps above from my knowledge, especially speaking about Catholic liturgy, but I will try to point a pair of things.

We are humans and suffer temptations every day, maybe I myself, writing this, am full of them. Let us accept Jesus existed and was also tempted. If you believe Jesus was, at least, a remarkable human, knowing his struggle against temptation can be illuminative.

I would pay more attention to everybody's understanding whose role is playing. Those who sing and those who listen. And obviously insist on everybody's fighting against quotidian temptations. God bless you.

Maggie said...

Don't even get me started on inappropriate first person phrasage in the post-VII pop music (ab)used in the liturgy.

I am not the Lord of Sea and Sky. I am not the Bread of Life. Jesus is. When we sing these songs in church I try to skip the phrases that belong properly to Jesus. Argh.