This Forum features responses to Plough’s Spring 2022 issue, “Why We Make Music.” Send contributions to email@example.com, with your name and town or city. Contributions may be edited for length and clarity and may be published in any medium.
Drenched in Grace
It was the worth the cost of subscription simply to find out, in Stephen Michael Newby’s “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” that Duke Ellington once held a concert of sacred music, capped off by a tremendous tap performance by Bunny Briggs as the orchestra played “David Danced before the Lord with All His Might.” That has to be seen to be believed. To quote from another of the edition’s many fine pieces, some things “exceed our ability to praise them” (“Dolly Parton Is Magnificent,” by Mary Townsend). To read this magazine, and to be pointed to the things its words give glimpses of, is to be drenched in grace. Our world is starved for grace, and for gratitude; in response to all of the former that flows from your contributors’ work to your readers, please receive the deepest of mine of the latter.
On Maureen Swinger’s “Doing Bach Badly”: Swinger begins her piece with the comment: “When our amateur choir sings Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, the music’s power overwhelms our mistakes.” Having listened to – and even joined – Bruderhof choirs singing hymns after supper, or the Messiah in Advent, countless times over the past twenty-seven years, I was momentarily startled by the word “amateur.” I have always found the multi-part harmonies of Bruderhof singers a peak experience of musical transport, directly to my most receptive soul. But of course, this music is amateur, proceeding from love and not from profession.
A Southern Lady
On Mary Townsend’s “Dolly Parton Is Magnificent”: Kalon is one foreign word that seems to summarize Dolly Parton’s career. I’ve often thought of Arabic nabil, which used to be inadequately translated as “largesse” and “honor.” (Yes, this is what some Southerners mean by talking of a Southern lady’s “honor.”)
The idea is that the purpose of having money is to share it, use it to reward good and punish evil – the “greater” your wealth and fame, the more you give and share. The concept seems to have been widespread in the ancient world; without Christian (or even Islamic) values as a guide the idea could deteriorate into ridiculous extravagance, as in the Roman feasts. Even with Christian values it could be misguided – rich Victorians scraping all the leftovers off all the plates into a bucket and having it sent to “the poor” rather than fed to the pig. Still, it’s an idea we could do with a little more of.
I grew up with so many memories of Dolly Parton and her music. Dad was an instant fan after hearing “Coat of Many Colors” and pushed me to sing “Love Is Like a Butterfly.” Mother thought Dolly looked too trashy but admitted some of her songs are great. Everybody here goes to Dollywood for day trips, with dates or with children. But I think what I’ll remember best will be the way she set up a flash fund for survivors of the 2016 forest fire on the Tennessee–North Carolina border. While many disaster survivors were sitting back and whining for government bailouts, Dolly Parton just called a few friends and started funding. That is what Real Southern Ladies do.
On Adora Wong’s “How to Make Music Accessible”: As to what makes music “inclusive,” I am reminded of the “think system” in The Music Man: one does not have to hear the right notes in precisely the right order to appreciate another’s attempt to make joyful noise; the beauty is as much in the ear of the listener. I am also reminded of my daughter with special needs, playing on the keyboard, singing along to a CD she is playing and later transcribing it to a sheet full of joined half notes. She is entirely convinced that she has done something worthwhile, although only a very few could appreciate it. Her mother and I do.
On Norann Voll’s “How to Lullaby”: My wife and I have been developing a repertoire of lullabies for our newborn son that we began singing when he was in the womb. We don’t only sing religious songs, but the songs that resonate most with me are those adapted from scripture that I learned from my own parents when I was a child:
Give ear to my words, O Lord
Consider my meditation
Hearken unto the voice of my cry …
As Brittany Petruzzi points out, people throughout history have found spiritual strength from singing the psalms. Even Jonah, in the fish’s belly, reorients his life to God by singing psalms.
Although the joy that our little one brings us makes the struggle in raising him worth it – and more – there are moments, such as on a long day after a sleepless night of trying to settle him down, when I feel like I am in a sea storm or even drifting in the belly of a fish. Thanks to singing such spiritual lullabies, like Jonah, I too can pray amid the waves and breakers sweeping over me.
Can Anabaptism be Catholic?
On the November 2021 commemoration in Vienna “Let Brotherly Love Remain” with Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Heinrich Arnold, and others: I was delighted to read the report on the commemoration of the early Anabaptists in Vienna. It is a powerful fruit, in my view, of the Second Vatican Council in which so many of the theological formulations of the Radical Reformers (the universal call to holiness, the priesthood of all believers, the importance of returning to the scriptures to develop doctrine, to name a few) were definitively embraced by the Catholic Church. It is my constant prayer to see that healing continue.
It is common to see these ecumenical efforts as dialogues of “separated brethren” with an assumption that the separation is permanent, that the best we can expect is to get along decently going forward. Jacob sent his gifts to Esau, but they never again became one nation. But I feel an urgency when I read the Lord’s parting words, “that they may be one.” Titled after these very words, Ut unum sint, an encyclical of Saint Pope John Paul II on ecumenism, suggests that “from this basic but partial unity it is now necessary to advance toward the visible unity which is required and sufficient and which is manifested in a real and concrete way, so that the churches may truly become a sign of that full communion in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church which will be expressed in the common celebration of the Eucharist.” Rather than once-fighting but forgiven brothers, is it possible to imagine a future where we are at last one body, the Bride of the Lord Jesus?
The possibilities for this kind of corporate reunion seem more abundant now than ever. Since the sixteenth century, more than a dozen Eastern churches have united with Rome, but nonetheless maintain their independent jurisdiction and particular traditions. As a Roman Catholic, I have been deeply enriched by their liturgies, prayers, and witness to the gospel, especially through my spiritual mentor, a Byzantine Catholic nun. In 2009, the Traditional Anglican Communion’s request to unite with the Catholic Church was granted, resulting in the growing “Anglican Ordinariate.” In these cases, what has occurred is not a matter of conversion to Catholicism, but a genuine reunion.
If I may make so bold, I pray that there one will be one day be an “Anabaptist Ordinariate.” Living in Lancaster, my faith has been constantly nourished by your tradition. It was the testimony of a Bruderhof couple at an intentional community retreat that inspired my wife and me to begin our marriage in such a community. Soon after, our Catholic Worker House was co-founded by a “Mennonite Catholic,” received into the latter church but continuing to draw from his roots in the former. Now, I talk often with my Amish coworkers about our concordances, from the sacred chant in our liturgies to the Luddite critique in our traditions. While the sacraments and social teaching keep me rooted in the Catholic Church, I frequently suggest to my fellow parishioners that we need to be living more like Anabaptists if we want to take the gospel seriously (as I slide a copy of Plough into their hands). Again, I pray that my fellow Catholics among the laity will avail themselves of your community’s spiritual wisdom, and that our leaders might be eager to offer self-jurisdiction and the integration of your heritage, if ever the opportunity of the “visible unity” of “full communion” arrives.
In this age of upheaval, who knows what new things Christ will call us to: “where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.” No matter what happens, or what we live to see, I find peace in the assurance that we will continue to pray for one another and the flourishing of our Christian communities.
Singing in Church
On Ben Crosby’s “Is Congregational Singing Dead?”: Thank you for this article! I am one who misses traditional music in the church. I am a faith and cultural Mennonite whose family has been in Canada since 1876. I miss the beautiful four-part harmony, either a capella or accompanied; I miss the hymnbooks and the discipline in singing they provide. I struggle with the “new music.” It doesn’t encourage harmony and sometimes the performance goes on and on (and on and on …) I want the comfort of tradition, but I also need community.
Congregational singing has diminished because the modern worship songs, played by a rock band with a solo female singer, are entirely unsuitable for congregational singing, not least because they are pitched too high for men’s voices and don’t have four-part harmony settings which men would be able to sing. There’s something badly wrong with a choice which has the consequence of making Christian men unable to sing worship in church.