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August 26, 2006

Sacred Music, Part II

So our categories of things are "sacred," "profane (i.e. not sacred), but with a religious character," and "profane, and without an explicitly religious character."  For an explanation of what these mean, read the last one.  I've spent enough time defining terms (I hope).

For simplicity, I will hereafter refer to these three categories as "sacred," "religious," and "secular."  Profane is not always the best word because it sounds like a slam.  But it's important to be aware of how it can be used in a technical sense.

You already know that these categories exist, even if the exact boundaries may be subject to debate.  Let's do a thought experiment together.  Christmas songs are all familiar to us, so I will use them.  I will pick easy examples, far from the boundaries, so that it is easy.  At least, I hope.  There is confusion because to someone at an extreme, the middle looks like extreme the other way.  Our society is so extremely secular that people are liable to mistake plain old religious songs for sacred songs.

SACRED: Puer natus in Bethlehem

RELIGIOUS: I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day

SECULAR: Frosty the Snowman

No one is arguing, right?  How did you tell?  Well, you knew from the subject matter, the content, and the style, right?  Even if you don't know the first one, you can tell that the subject matter is the birth of Jesus.  It is in a sacred language, Christian Latin.  Even if you don't know the song (it is a Gregorian chant) you can presume that the style of the music is a style that is reserved for sacred use.

The second one talks about God.  It says "God is not dead, nor does He sleep, the wrong shall fail, the right prevail; peace on earth, goodwill to men."  It has a religious character.  It alludes to the Bible.  Yet it is not a sacred song.  It talks about God.  But the content is not quite like the first one.  And the musical style is like music we listen to for entertainment rather than like sacred music.

Jokes about Christological allegory notwithstanding, I hope there is no argument about the third.

Let's try another exercise, this time with patriotic songs.

SACRED: God Of Our Fathers (the National Hymn)

RELIGIOUS: America The Beautiful

SECULAR: You're A Grand Old Flag

So at least we know that these distinctions exist.

Not every category - in fact, most - won't have any examples of sacred music.  Sometimes people react to this statement as though this is an insult to or an attack on this music.  In fact, trying to put non-sacred music - even non-sacred religious music - in the place of sacred music does an injustice not only to the sacred music but also to that other music as well.  I will defend this in a later post.

Posted by Thomas A. on August 26, 2006 at 01:01 AM | Permalink


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