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Let Men Their Songs Employ? (Or, What to Do About Bad Christmas Music)

Music is the breath of culture, just as cuisine is it’s body and worship it’s soul. A civilization is judged as weak or strong according to how well it engages in art, cooking and prayer. These are the three things that human beings do at their own prompting, the three things that, unlike any other activities, we perform not simply because we have to, but because we want to. And while it is true that there is certain necessity involved in each, that without food we could not live, without creative we could not communicate and without praise we could not commune, it is likewise true that humanity always uses these things to transcend the raw utility of life. I have seen men starve themselves because the purely-utilitarian meal prepared for them failed to feed their humanity. We have seen revolutions overthrow governments when people are prevented from praying.

Likewise, when song is reduced to mere ceremony, men abandon hope, women abandon compassion and culture begins to asphyxiate. That is why bad Christmas music does more than simply annoy. When a culture fails to robustly celebrate a holiday, when artists neglect rigorous writing, it is symptomatic of decline. The artists of our day seem to care more about fulfilling contractual obligations than celebrating even a secular Christmas. For those that are Christians, all I can say is that their devotion and artistry have, in large part, failed to produce anything other than watered-down versions of the rich hymns produced by older believers who now sleep in Christ.

I do not believe that this is because we have given up on Christmas. Nor do I question the sincerity of the faith of those artists honestly trying to tell the Christmas story in verse. What I do question is the amount of care and attention our culture puts into deeply communicating it’s true message, the “Christmas ‘kerygma’.” It is not impossible to produce profoundly moving art based upon this age old story of the God-man born in Bethlehem. In different cultures, and in other mediums within our own culture, there have been wonderful examples of good Christmas art. Yet, in the realm of music (as also in the realms of decoration, preparation and gift-giving) we have surrendered our sacred heritage in favor of a quicker, more consumeristic approach. Like I stated at the beginning, this demonstrates a decline in the life-breath of our culture.

The fact of the matter is that the Christmas story remains as radical as it ever has. God becomes man. King Herod persecutes the King of Kings. A star rises in the east, like a newer, smaller dawn, and sages travel by its light to be taught at the feet of a baby. The God who created the universe is born underground, into the heart of the earth. A silent father listens to the inspiration of angels and a holy mother ponders all these things in her heart. The story lacks none of the necessary ingredients for poetry. Yet, our musicians consistently fail to communicate the drama, the passion and the amazing grace. Or, they simply choose to sing about snowmen, ringing bells or yuletide romance. The back of their album cover boasts a glossy picture of our artists smiling in green and red, claiming to be able to bring us in touch with the true meaning of Christmas. Pop the album into the stereo, however, and the best you can hope for is an electronic remix of an old song that you could have sung more meaningfully all by yourself.

We simply must not settle for this! Christmas is deeper, simpler and stranger than any amount of dime-store Christmas CD’s would lead us to believe. And I do believe that there are artists out there trying to communicate this Christmas mystery with greater acumen. I will leave you with one example of what I mean. At first, it will not sound like a Christmas song at all, but I think that its merit lies precisely in that fact. It breaks from the idea that Christmas music must be comforting and cliche. It reintroduces as sense of penance and praise. But most of all, it is a simple and good song:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8U0_OYCqHPM

About Daniel Lacourrege

Daniel Lacourrege is a 20-something year old theologian living in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. It is the best place in the world to be a 20-something. It is the third best place in the world to be a Catholic (Rome & Jerusalem claiming first & second).
His life has become one adventure right after another. Most of them start in a classroom or library, but very few of them finish there. He likes most things, but usually must be in the mood for them. The only thing he is never in the mood for is traffic.
If you feel so moved, you may email him at lacourrege4@archbishopshaw.us.

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