Monthly Archives: August 2013

Infidelity: the necessary appendage of a man of fashion

“Christianity on Trial” by Vincent Carroll & David Shiflett takes on a number of accusations lobbed toward Christians of all sort including (and perhaps especially) Catholics. On the chapter regarding the sanctioning of slavery that the Bible and adherents are accused of, the authors provide the following quote which I found prophetic:

Wilberforce foresaw a “fast approaching” time “when Christianity will be almost as openly disavowed in the language, as in fact it is already supposed to have disappeared from the conduct of men; when infidelity will be held to be the necessary appendage of a man of fashion , and to believe will be deemed the indication of a feeble mind.”

I think we are there.

P.S. If you don’t know who Wm. Wilberforce was, you are probably a modern man of fashion.


Thomas Jefferson, United States founding father and deist, took it upon himself to compose a private view of Christianity by crafting a book which extracted teachings from the New Testament, careful to exclude all miracles and the supernatural including Christ’s resurrection and the like. The full breathtaking title of Jefferson’s 1804 version was The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, being Extracted from the Account of His Life and Doctrines Given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; Being an Abridgement of the New Testament for the Use of the Indians, Unembarrassed with Matters of Fact or Faith beyond the Level of their Comprehensions.

Most Bible Christians would be appalled at Jefferson’s scissors and glue reconstruction of Holy Scripture, especially since Holy Scripture, in several places, warns of adding, subtracting or modifying it. And yet, one could argue that the fathers of the Reformation, starting with the views of Martin Luther, did exactly that when assembling the Protestant Bible. In addition to removing several books of the canonical Old Testament including the deuterocanonical books of Judith, Maccabees and Wisdom, Martin Luther also tried to exclude Hebrews, James (which he lampooned as the Epistle of Straw), Jude and Revelation, presumably since these books did not line up with the sola fides pillar of the Reformation he was in the process of erecting. Sola scriptura, the second pillar, apparently required some truncating to level nicely with the first.

More recently, there are Christian movements afoot that would discredit those parts of the Bible composed by Saint Paul—the so called Pauline epistles. It should be enough that the apostle’s name has been formed into its own adjective1 but these writings also constitute about two thirds of the New Testament. So why are denominations crafting this canonical extreme makeover? Recall that Paul’s letters to various churches around the Mediterranean are attempts to get Christians back in line where they deviated from orthopraxy. So when Paul exhorts wives to submit to their husbands, exhorts husbands to love their wives (Ephesians), condemns homosexuality (Romans), excommunicates the immoral brother or commands other directives that force us to conform to the truth, new denominations are compelled to “toss out” portions of scripture that don’t jive with their modern spirit of tolerance and political correctness. In the extreme, we might one day create a new Christian denomination that tosses out the baby of religion with the bathwater of sacred scripture altogether. And presto, atheism.

What might surprise the average reader of the New Testament is that Jesus had to deal with this same issue during his Earthly ministry. Remember that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead since they only recognized the Torah (or the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament) as authoritative, excluding histories, Psalms, and prophetic books. Nevertheless Jesus was able to clarify the doctrine anyhow using only the Torah as reference—brilliant! But it probably did not sway them anyway.

To be fair, the idea of making a unilateral decision as to what parts of the Bible belong in one’s orthodoxy is not just the problem of Jefferson, Luther, Calvin, Sadducees, deists, agnostics, atheists and reformers, it’s everyone’s problem—today—even if we leave the Bible physically intact. Even if we call ourselves Catholic.

1 If you knew that the adjectival form of my name, James, was “Jacobite” you may already have won a trip for two to the Cinncinnati Club Med, no expenses paid.

Archaeology of Sacred Music

I’ve heard it said that God sometimes speaks to us through music. For me it took several centuries to realize it.

Even as a teen I would abstract the vocal portions of classical pieces, regarding them as the tones from just another instrument—like the timbre of a flute or violin. It’s never been important that I understand the language to appreciate its musicality. Increasingly, though, I’ve come to recognize that many pieces from my collection are straight from the liturgy of the Mass and serve as an archaeological record of Christian worship and its preservation.

J.S. Bach’s (1685-1750) Mass in B minor was very familiar, having purchased the English Baroque Soloists recording (1990 Archiv Produktion) long ago. I was particularly in love with the Et in unum Dominum composed as a duet for soprano and alto voices. Of course I recognized some of the words but did not recognized that the entirety of the Credo – the Latin version of the Nicene Creed which was crafted at the first ecumenical council in 325 AD — had been broken up into a number of musical compositions. At the time I knew something of the Credo but not the entirety and certainly not the Latin form as I do now.

Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) Selva Morale e Spirituale is an anthology of liturgical pieces published in 1641 and one of my favorite works/recordings (1993 Capitol, Andrew Parrot, Taverner Consort). Punctuating every work is the Glory Be, which I only just realized after learning that prayer in its Latin form: “Sicut erat in principio…” As it was in the beginning…

Palestrina’s (1525-1594) Ad Coernum Agni Providi by the Brabant Ensemble (2013 Hyperion) has vocal portions one could mimic with poorly-tuned glossolalia. During a lengthy portion, after a pregnant rest, the bass soloist heralds the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” familiar to most Christmas carolers1 but immediately followed by a greater choir carrying the work forward in elaborate polyphony—quite astounding. Now, the Latin words that followed were not all that intelligible to me at first. But suddenly one day, during a listen in the car, it occurred to me what they were: “Et (et) in terra (terra) pax hominibus…” — the Greater Doxology sung every Sunday immediately after the Kyrie in the Latin Rite.

Missa in gallicantu by Thomas Tallis (1505 – 1585) one of England’s greatest composers, appears on Christmas with the Tallis Scholars (2003 Gimell Records). For fourteen tracks on that compact disc one can hear, verbatim, the same words sung by the congregation at the Solemn Latin Mass every week including this portion called the Sursum corda which dates back to the third century AD:

Vocalist (Priest): Dominus vobiscum.

Choir (People):   Et cum spiritu tuo.

Vocalist (Priest): Sursum corda.

Choir (People):   Habemus ad Dominum.

Vocalist (Priest): Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro.

Choir (People):   Dignum et iustum est.

Going back even more…

A recording by the all-female Norwegian Trio Mediaeval called Worcester Ladymass (2011 ECM Records GmbH) is a votive Mass to the Virgin Mary composed around 13th and 14th centuries and attributed in part to W. de Wycombe. Among the short and beautiful devotional motets are the expected liturgical components like the Kyrie and the Credo. The very interesting part is that this Mass was reassembled from the Worcester Fragments, once sheets of sacred music bundled together later to be torn asunder under King Henry VIII and his Dissolution of Monasteries in the first part of the 16th century. In this particular case of destruction, the Worcester Fragments survived as book binding material and were reclaimed in later centuries when things cooled down politically and theologically.

Unbeknownst to me for many years, my collection of sacred music spanning late medieval to early baroque has been serving as a record of what Christians had been doing at church for centuries and, at least for Catholics, hasn’t changed appreciably. As far back as Hildegard von Bingen, 12th century abbess composer, early sacred music acts as an archive of the liturgical and the theological. The same elements, particularly in Latin, can also be heard through the works of Busseron, Rosenmueller, Schutz, Rovetta, Demantius, Mazzocchi, Lassos, Mouton, Ockeghem and countless other composers spanning centuries.

At least for me, God had been speaking to me for decades using a language that was several centuries old: sacred music. But only recently have I really started to hear Him.

1 Angels We Have Heard on High