Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Book Review: Why Catholics Can't Sing

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Why Catholics Can’t Sing
Author: Thomas Day
Date: 1990, 1992
Publisher: Crossroad Publishing Company
ISBN: 0-8245-1153-0

New edition I've not read: available
Length: 172 pages with endnotes and index
Quote: “A large number of Roman Catholics in the United States who go to church...rarely or barely sing any of the music.”
Being acquainted with some Catholics who can sing, and knowing that the title of this book is not a fact, I thought it must be a joke, and therefore thought the book was intended to be funny. A blurb on the jacket perpetuates this misperception. Day is a witty writer, but this book is a serious complaint about his dissatisfaction with the church to which he belongs. If you're looking for jokes, try another book.
Day can think of several reasons why his brethren in the church don’t sing. They think singing in church is either a foreign thing or a Protestant thing. Centuries ago England outlawed Catholicism, and British and Irish dissenters dared not call attention to their meetings by singing. Too many of the hymns in the Catholic hymnal sound like the kind of nineteenth-century Irish-American pop songs normally sung in pubs on St Patrick’s Day. A backlash against “rituals” is still going on.
It’s witty in the sense that Day prefers a satirical tone to a self-pitying tone, but “Some recall the lovely voices of the girls in the sixth grade who sweetly chirped their way through the Missa de Angelis every Sunday—but how much sweet chirping can one take?” is hardly to be compred with St. Fidgeta and Other Parodies, or Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, or Stop the World, Our Gerbils Are Loose, or The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, all of which manage to be sincerely Catholic and also LOL hilarious. Some Catholics, like Paul Inwood, gave Why Catholics Can't Sing a fair reading and dislike it. This book was meant to be a corrective; it may have succeeded in being merely an irritant for its intended audience. 
So how useful is it for non-Catholics, who may be better able to gain positive insights by reading negative comments about other people's mistakes? Insights for Protestants begin when Day turns his attention to liturgical quirks he calls “ego renewal.” Father Hank tries to re-enact the Bible story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, inviting twelve members of the congregation to have their feet washed while the choir and the congregation sing. “The music ends; you can almost sense that the congregation wants to weep for joy.” Then Father Hank breaks the mood, in case anybody had gotten into it, with “Let’s give these twelve parishioners a hand,” and continues, “Now, you take Mrs. Smith...she has four young kids at home, but she managed to find the time to come here tonight,” and so on with a lame introduction of each participant, and finally he, “visibly pleased with himself, resumes the liturgy, while the congregation, visibly annoyed, contemplates various methods of strangulation.”  Day’s first insight into why this kind of thing is so irksome is that it’s “the use of liturgy as an opportunity to display, for all the world to see, the greatness of ‘me.’...Father Hank’s primary reason” for the interruptions was “not to thank the twelve parishioners, not to inject a little warmth into the ceremony, but to show everybody what a grateful, warm person he was.”
Day says, “From Ego Renewal flows everything that is annoying about liturgy in the Catholic church today.” Could Ego Renewal lie among the roots of the annoying things about the Christian Church generally?

One of the most embarrassing failures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century’s various “art movements,”  many of which attempted to embody Socialist ideals, was their lack of appeal to “the people.” The average person was not thrilled, as might have been expected, by the emergence of new schools of art that did not require painters to learn to draw. The people who had to live in “modern, uncluttered” subsidized housing passionately loathed those “stark uncluttered futuristic lines,” and immediately brought in as much clutter and individuality as the building codes would allow. Intellectuals in Washington, D.C., were thrilled by Mies van der Rohe’s starkly functional central library building; children find it “scary,” someone’s always urinating on a slick black cement wall, and remarkably few people sit down to read there. Day identifies the liturgical innovations of the 1960s with this kind of art and architecture. “The true criterion for “non-boutique liturgy,” the says, will be to “Follow the bums on Sunday morning...They will feel unwelcome at the trendy parish where Father Chuck gathers the faithful around his commanding personality; they will walk past the university chapel where white suburbanites celebrate themselves. But they will enter the church...with the good choral music and the ceremonies which just ‘take place,’ without the over-eager-puppy­dog hospitality...There is much to be learned from the bums.”
Day also complains, albeit feebly, about “music that women are supposed to like.” Namely, “the beautiful song, a close cousin of the sweet song. The liturgy which features gentle, loving, sweet,and beau­tiful ‘contemporary’ songs effectively send the message that women matter.” One of the most demeaning features of the minority experience, which women tend to share even when (as in churches) they are actually the majority, is the phenomenon in which the majority (or the men) decide to placate the minority by handing out something unimportant that the minority “are supposed to like.” Often no individual in the minority has been consulted about this and, whether or not the minority have all agreed to want anything, whatever they wanted wasn’t this. (Consider politicians who don't want to broach the subject of women’s equal rights with men to own their own businesses, unstrangled by irrelevant regulations and money-grubbing demands for micromanagement by government officials, so they toss women the bone of subsidized abortion, which fewer than one woman in a thousand needs and about half of all women will vehemently reject—but the politicians have made some sort of gesture toward us women and we’re all supposed to act grateful.)
Day might be surprised that there are women who enjoy medieval and baroque music as much as he seems to. In fact, most women find masculinity attractive. In fact, some women love the straight, foursquare, marchlike quality of “Now Thank We All Our God” or “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” which start out close enough to their highest pitch to ensure that people start them on a note everyone present can reach, and give contraltos a chance to sing the melody; I hope Catholics have some hymns that share these wonderful qualities. And when congregations are asked to wail wearily through a modern song essentially designed for solo performance, with lots of soulful warbles and long-held notes and long pensive rests, music directors may be assured that energetic young girls are bounding away, mentally, as fast as their brothers have already bounded out, physically. If the intention is to make a church service more inclusive of women, the church should give up trying to identify “feminine music” and focus on things some woman, somewhere, really wants. 
The blurb on the jacket is correct in stating that you don’t have to be Catholic to learn something from Why Catholics Can’t Sing; the features of contemporary music of which Day complains are found in many churches, and there’s much to be said for the idea that church music should always point people toward God and away from the minister, the musician, or worst of all the worshippers themselves. You do, however, need to be involved in some way with church music. This is a serious book that musicians can read seriously, but it’s not the sort of book anyone can read for a chuckle.

So...I bought this book. I offered it for sale. I wrote a review of it. By the time I uploaded that review to this site, I'd sold the copy of Why Catholics Can't Sing that I'd bought, and Day had written a revised and enlarged edition. He doesn't seem to have a web site (though it's hard to be sure, online, because quite a few web pages discuss the nineteenth-century author Thomas Day). I'm guessing that he'd prefer that you buy the new edition as a new book rather than buying the older one as a Fair Trade Book. However, why waste this review? If anyone out there wants to compare the two versions and also encourage Day, they can buy Why Catholics Can't Sing as a Fair Trade Book on this web site's usual terms. Send salolianigodagewi @ yahoo $5 for the book, $5 for shipping (shipping prices are per package so you pay only one shipping charge if we can fit in another book along with this one), and we send $1 to Day or a charity of his choice.