“Please join in the opening hymn, Word and Song 294, Word and Song page 294, We are Walking by Faith…”
We are walking by faith,
we are walking by faith,
we are walking by faith to the kingdom.
In prayer we will listen in your wisdom we will grow,
we will walk by faith till we come to the promise land…
some praying and reading from the Bible, a homily by the praise, the Apostles’ Creed, general intention, some more praying, turning bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, more praying…
“Please join in the closing hymn, Word and Song 301, Word and Song page 301, Canticle of the Sun…”
The heavens are telling the glory of God,
And all creation is shouting for joy!
Come, dance in the forest, come, play in the field,
And sing, sing to the glory of the Lord!
And this is how every mass I have ever been to at my alma mater St. John of the Cross goes. Of course the songs are different every mass, but the general format does not deviate. The question is why? Why does mass both begin and end with singing? My music teacher at St. John of the Cross, Mrs. Bolten, once said, “Singing is like praying twice.” Okay Mrs. Bolten, as a third grader, I blindly accepted that fact. But, after my years of higher education, I now wish to pose the question: why? What power lies within the singing of our humble church that elevates it to the same level as prayer?
Often times the quality of a song is determined by the voice. Barthes devotes an entire essay to the concept of the “grain of the voice,” a property intrinsic in some voices, but lacking in others. According to Barthes, “something is there, manifest and stubborn beyond the meaning of the words” (181). He asserts that this quality, this “something,” is derived from the voice; however, in terms of religious music, the “grain” so to speak comes not from the voice, but from the singing of the song by the parish. This singing in turn is what solidifies the institution of the church.
There is something paradoxical about church songs. It does not always sound pretty, but there is something beautiful and powerful about it. Singing is an integral part of mass in the Catholic Church. It is the main way in which people can participate, even those who were not baptized in the Catholic Church. But, the thing is the singing is by no means good. In my opinion it is quite the contrary. It is no choir of angles by any stretch of the imagination. It is dull, boring, lacks harmony, or any type of personality. Yet, my church continues to sing every Sunday. No matter how bad, no matter how off key, the song lives on. If anything, the singing in church can be classified as eclectic. Anyone who has ever been to church knows what I am talking about. There is that person behind you that is trying way too hard, and you really want to turn around to figure out who it is, but you do not because that would be rude. There is the old man beside you singing way off key. There are the little kids in front of you just pretending to sing, but are really just moving their lips because they are too embarrassed to actually sing. However, in time those kids will learn to forget to be embarrassed by their singing because they will come to realize that everyone else sounds just as bad (or they can be forced to take music class at the parish for eight years and learn to live with embarrassment). Clearly, the beauty and power of religious songs cannot be justified nor gain any power by the voice which sings them. There is not even a grain of “grain” in Barthes sense of the concept. What then is the driving force, that special something, the “grain” as Barthes would call it, behind these songs? Does it lie with the words?
In deriving meaning form a song, or anything spoken, the voice carries no weight nor does it contribute in any way towards meaning. At least this is Dolar’s argument. He defines the voice as that which “does not contribute to making sense,” (15). The voice is “mediator to the true Word,” and it is from the word that meaning is derived. He parallels his concept of the voice with John the Baptist, who is described as “the voice crying out in the desert,” as the one preparing the way of the Lord (16). It makes sense that the power of song in this context would be derived from the word. After all, the mission of the church is to spread the Word of God. However, the word is spread through other means and does not need song to do so.
The Bible is the Word of God and it became known to man through Christ and through the Prophets. In church, both passages from the Bible and songs can be found in Word and Song. Thus, the two are separate and distinct. Each has its own place and time during mass. The word is read and heard during the first and second readings and the Gospel. Words already have their time in mass; therefore, singing is in place for some other reason. During the time the word occupies, the rest of the church listens. In contrast, song is one of the few times during mass where everyone collectively participates as a whole. Singing not only opens and closes the mass, it takes place in between the readings (responsorial song), before the Gospel (Alleluia), during collection (collection hymn), and during communion (communion hymn). Singing is the uniting force in mass. It is what brings the parish together as one “body” in Christ.
This concept of one body in Christ does not pertain to a physical body, but rather a spiritual one, for Christ came to save not the body, but the soul. The spiritual body of the church is a consequence of singing. While Barthes assumes song derives its power from the voice, Dolar discredits the voice in favor of the song. Thus far, it has been proven that they are both mistaken in determining where the song gets its power. However, from their theories a new possibility can be taken under consideration, the relation of song to the body. “Grain”, according to Barthes, is described as “the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue,” (182). Since Barthes’ theory has already been discarded, one can assume that the merit of a song lies not with the body. Dolar touches on this idea; he speaks of a “fleshless and boneless entity […] beyond the voice,” (17). “Grain” lies beyond the voice, embedded within the song, not through the words, but through the collective singing of a group of believers.
Songs of faith are what unite and give strength to lost or sorrowful souls. In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois speaks of the struggle of black folk, of their “spiritual striving, and of their “Sorrow Songs.” It is through these sorrow songs that black folk kept their faith while enslaved. It was their only outlet and the only thing of beauty they had to cling on to during dark times. Through singing they communicated, kept an identity, and built a community. “Through all the sorrow of the “Sorrow Songs” there breathes a […] faith” and a beauty that is derived from the collective identity they have created (213). One such song is Wade in the Water, which is sung today in church, right now in fact, when the church renews its baptismal vows and the priest re-baptizes everyone. The uniting force of the “Sorrow Songs” is so strong that it has been adopted by the church and is still used today.
The parish is united not only through singing together, but through the emotions evoked by the song. The “Sorrow Songs” gave a voice to the souls of black folk. The songs were inspired by pain and passion, two emotions felt by all mankind. Within the church, the epitome of the driving force behind the sorrow song is heard on Good Friday with the singing of the Passion of the Lord Jesus Christ. The cornerstone of Catholic faith, the death of our savior Jesus Christ, told in song. There is no greater song, so full of emotion as this. It is a song of pain and suffering, of death, but also of love. The singing of the Passion is a song of mourning , but on a deeper level it is a song of love. Although the Passion is not sung collectively by the parish, it is still uniting as a cornerstone of Catholic faith, Christ’s unwavering love for us and our unwavering love for Christ.
Is the “grain” of church hymns powerful enough to transcend from the realm of the church? Literally, the Passion had made Jesus Christ a Superstar. The 1970’s Broadway musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, pushed the boundaries of religious music and brought the story of Jesus Christ to the masses. There are a number of musicals that have done the same such as Godspell and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. Although music from religious musicals cannot evoke the same emotions as singing in church, they do retain a sort of religious power. They have their own “grain”, but it comes from a different source. Their “grain” is in the message, not the emotion. It that sense, religious musicals function more like words than songs, which is fitting since their stories and lyrics are derived from the Bible. These musicals try to unit religious church music with modern music, but they ultimately fail because they lack that emotion. The musical that comes the closest to uniting these two realms of music is Sister Act, starring Whoopi Goldberg. While this movie, now also on Broadway, is a comedy, what it does aesthetically with the music is a serious matter to consider. Essentially, Whoopi Goldberg, a singer in a casino in Reno, rewrites and remixes old church song into modern day songs, while in hiding as a nun. Both modern songs are writing into religious songs; the song “My Guy” is transformed into “nothing in the world can keep me away from my God,” and religious songs are given a modern twist; “Oh Maria” gets a total up beat remix. What is key in Sister Act, that the other musicals lack, is the institution of the church. The songs are song in a church, not on a stage, thus there is not the sense that songs are performed for an audience, rather there is the feeling of a choir singing for the church. The church is where beleivers gather every week to celebrate their faith together. It provides a space for the unity creating by singing to exist. In addition, the message of the movie is the same as religious songs that of community building and growing in faith, which is another reason why it is so successful. By updating the church songs, the church becomes more popular. More people begin to come to church to hear the music and the church starts to reach out more to improve the community around it.
If the church is so key in creating the sense of community, is it possible for the “grain” of religious songs to exist without the church? It depends on one defines church. If the church is defined as a structural entity, then yes it is possible for the “grain” to persist without it. However, this is a very ignorant definition of a church. The church, as defined in the Bible, is synonymous with the body of Christ. The church is made up of faithful believers. Thus it exists wherever there are people with faith. Thus, the church is created by the community, not the other way around, and the community is solidified by the singing.
Barthes, Ronald. Image Music Text. “The Grain of the Voice.” Hill and Wang. New York
Dolar, Maden. Of the Voice and Nothing More. “Linguistics of the Voice.” The MIT Press. Cambridge Massachusetts.
W.E.B Du Bois. The Souls of Black Folk. Penguin Books. New York, 1996.
Alexander Krzyston | Alexander J Krzyston | Alex James Krzyston
Alex Krzyston | Alex J Krzyston | Alexander James Krzyston
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY | EVANSTON | BURR RIDGE