Term Paper: Comparative Religion

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¶ … Religion

Sacred Music and Literature

Through-out time, mankind has sought words from God(s) and both found and recorded their answers with sacred words. These words have, since the advent of written language in each culture, made their way into sacred scriptures. Yet before there were scriptures, these words were recalled in sacred songs -- oral traditions of poets and musicians carried the words of God(s) to the people. So it is no surprise that today sacred music continues to play a significant role in all the world's religions. This role has often in the past been much higher than it is today, of course, and it seems possible that as history continues to drift into literacy and science that the role of music and liturgy (which are in many ways essentially primitive, in the best sense of that word) will continue to be effaced. Nonetheless, at this moment in history we can look at the history and modernity of the great religions of the world and very clearly still see the power of music at work. Music in religion is intertwined with sacred literature, sometimes serving (merely?) as a vehicle to allow this literature to truly reach the people, as when a Jewish cantor sings the scriptures, and sometimes as a vital sacred supplement or even a focus of worship, as with the Sikh Kirtan/Bhajans.

In most of the older religions it appears that music holds a central position. Music is tied into ritual and into the invocation of God(s) and spirits. Native cultures almost inevitably use music and drumming as part of any spiritual endeavor, and may attribute supernatural influences to the music not unlike the influences which later faiths attribute to prayers. Arthur Hall, of the Percussion Source Magazine, speaks of the existence of sacred music in native cultures as creating a rhythmaculture which uses drums and percussion as central elements of expressions. He lists Asians, Native Americans and Islanders, and Africans as people who have always had rhythmaculture. These "people[s] have evolved their cultures out of an intimate relationship with the earth they live on, and the animals they live with. A lot of their rhythms, songs and dances have been modeled from the movements of the animals, the songs of the birds, and the community's dance for survival, such as the movements of harvesting, planting, and hunting." (Hall) Whereas in later culture music will be used to heighten the impact of repetitions of ancient scriptures, in many rythmacultures music is used as a way to receive this divine revelation itself. While music certainly serves as part of an oral tradition and while traditional songs (sacred and otherwise) are passed between generations, there is also a very large degree to which music has its most profound sacred use in the direct invocation of the God(s) and spirits. Dr. Karen McCarthy Brown has spent decades researching Vodou and its African roots. She writes that in Africa and in many traditional cultures, "religious music and dance play the central role of invoking possession-trance. In possession, the person loses consciousness of himself as an individual and becomes the vehicle or mouthpiece of a 'deity,'...The actions and speech of the person possessed are regarded as those of the deity and are looked to for advice, healing, prophecy, and magical power." (Brown)

So one can see how, in traditional cultures, music played a deeply central role in daily and religious life. Music served to communicate, to resolve social tension and create cohesion; it served to call upon the spirits and the gods, and it kept humanity in touch with the greater world. It is worth mentioning that such a perception of music was not merely a Non-European phenomena. Ancient people sin Europe were also said to have used music in their rituals, and the role of music as a gateway to possession in the classical worship of Dionysus is well-known. Indeed, it would not be at all amiss to say that in the ancient world and in much of today's most ancient traditions, music served as the great scripture. The word of the divine was not merely put to accompaniment, but it was actually delivered and made comprehensible by music.

The primacy of music within traditional religions did not vanish with the arrival of monotheism and the conviction of the new mega-faiths that God had already given his divine revelations and no more would be immediately forthcoming. It is significant to notice that, once one steps away from animism/spiritism and into realms of strict theologies there is a shift away from the centrality of music. However, it is just as significant to notice that of the major religions and sects today, those which are most true to their roots in antiquity are the most likely to put a great deal of stock in the importance and power of music. Judaism and Roman Catholicism are good examples of this general rule. In both cases, more orthodox traditions appear to support a greater degree or musical liturgy. As these traditions have become more modernized (one might say more Westernized, were it not for the fact that the development of "the West" appears to have been largely determined by their forces), they have increasingly lost the focus on musical integrity. Protestant churches in departing from Catholicism seem to almost universally have moved away from inspired liturgies. Whereas in the Catholic church the (sung) Mass and most sacred music consists either of biblical passages or of words believed to have been given to the church by the intercession of God (which is to say that the music is, to a very real degree, still serving as a source of communication between human and divine powers, putting the words of God into human mouths), in Protestant churches music is merely raised as a "praise offering" or even as a form of preparing one's self to hear the sermon. Protestant music is generally not considered to be the word of God, and may be written by almost anyone, as the recent history of "Christian Music" has clearly shown. The Catholic Church has also had problems in this area, as the sung mass is increasingly abandoned along with most of the Church's musical history. Some members of the clergy have protested this, as they well should. Monsignor Richard Schuler writes: "Thus the hymn has replaced the settings of the Mass texts; the congregation has been substituted for the choir; the vernacular has superceded the Latin language; the guitar and piano have pushed aside the pipe organ and the orchestra.... Sadly, this is the present state of church music, its study and its performance, not only in the parishes, but in the schools, especially those for the training of future priests. "

Before pursuing the issue of this change any further, it becomes necessary to step back a moment an analyze the place and value of music in the Catholic Church and in Judaism as it was before the rather radical stripping of such things from worship. (it might be pointed out that music seems to have retained a more prominent place in Jewish than in Christian worship) in the Catholic Church, music historically had a very strong role. The majority of the common people through-out its history only came to understand the theology of their faith fully through the art of the church. Stainglass windows told stories about the Bible, but it was the mass --a musical ritual-- which explained to them the core ideas about salvation. The mass was performed in Latin for hundreds of years partly, one suspects, because the precise words were not absolutely necessary for understanding as long as the music and the ritual remained intact. Monsignor Schuler says of the tradition of Catholic sacred music: "The liturgy is the greatest teacher of the faith." No Mass was conducted in the Catholic church of old unaccompanied by music. However, it is important and significant to understand that music was always considered theologically to present some minor risk, for if the music were too powerful or too grand it might overshadow the message. Pope Pius XII wrote that "this [historical] progress in the art of music shows clearly how dear to the heart of the Church it was to make divine worship more resplendent and appealing to Christian peoples, so too it made clear why the Church also must, from time to time, impose a check lest its proper purposes be exceeded and lest, along with the true progress, an element profane and alien to divine worship creep into sacred music and corrupt it." (Schuler) Though music was vital to the church, Catholic Christianity is also known for being the scourge and bane of traditional music in Europe. Hull lays the blame for the lose of Europe's rhythmaculture on Christian tradition, albeit in a somewhat slanted fashion (in that he refers to the continent-wide Inquisition as being anglo-saxon). Hull describes the way "The people from European decent, started losing parts of their Rhythmaculture around… [END OF PREVIEW]

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