Last night was the middle child’s 5th Grade Winter Concert. Of course it was wonderful. One does not think about these things on an aesthetic scale. But if one were to think about a bunch of elementary students singing and playing instruments aesthetically, surprisingly it isn’t the technical aspects of wrong notes that would jump to the foreground of the critique. Instead it would be the material.
Let me preface this with ‘I get it’. I know what leads to this type of material, but that is getting ahead of things. Let me share what I think is the representative piece: A Festive Holiday by J. Estes. The accompaniment and melody were catchy and upbeat, an interesting blend of African tribal percussion (Kwanzaa?) and vaguely Jewish Hanukah. The lyrics are the black hole. Here they are.
Come and Sing a song of joy and celebration and have a festive holiday. Goodwill, bringing Goodwill to all. Repeat in a round.
A practicing Christian or Muslim might see the form of a Call to Prayer or Call to worship. The problem is that there is no there there. Again ‘I get it’, but let me expand on this. Verbs are important. In this case we are receiving a command. It is called the imperative mood. Come and Sing! This is a command I am likely to follow. Your heart is stone if you don’t like to sing together. So, what is this command gathering us to sing? A song of joy and celebration. Okay, that is great. But why? Why am I singing with joy and celebration? Have a festive holiday! That isn’t an answer. It is just a repeat of the command. It just compounds the question. What holiday? Why is it festive instead of meditative or even sorrowful like memorial day? Goodwill, bring goodwill to all. Yes, a worthy call, but again, a command. Just do it. Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy. Why? What are you some kind of Grinch? I didn’t think so, but when given a command I usually like to know some of the reasons. Reasons, shmeasons, Come and Sing a song of joy! Okay, but if we are celebrating Festivus, the festive holiday for the rest of us, don’t we start with the airing of grievances? Joy, Celebration, Festive, got it. Yes, I think I do.
Let me compare that to a relatively standard Call to Worship from this time of year, a versification of the Magnificat by Timothy Dudley-Smith. Tell out my soul! There is the command. Tell it. Shout, sing. Tell out my soul, the greatness of the Lord. Why am I doing this? The greatness of the Lord. Okay, what does that consist of? Glad you asked. Unnumbered blessings, give my spirit voice; tender to me the promise of His Word. In God my savior shall my heart rejoice. What is the greatness of the Lord that is causing me to cry out? Blessings given, His Word, my Savior. Of course the Magnificat, Mary’s Song, continues from there, but it does not shy away from answering the natural questions. It is up to you to respond, but you are given the claims.
Likewise let’s look for a second at the Islamic call to prayer. The real call to prayer leads with the greatest reason, but what is the command? Come to prayer, come to success! Okay, why would I come to prayer? I (the one singing) bear witness that none but Allah is worthy of worship. How do you know that and why? Mohammed is his prophet. Allah is most great. Okay, maybe a little circular, but it does answer my question. If I find Mohammed’s witness to Allah credible, the command makes absolute sense.
Which brings me back to my ‘I get it’. We live in a pluralistic society. There are Muslims, Jews, Christians, Atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans and many others in one school. Would I prefer my child sing aesthetically marginal songs of zero content that invoke a feeling of the season but refuse to say anything else, or would I prefer that my hopefully Christian son sing a Kwanzaa song, or a prayer for the oil of the Temple to last for the Maccabees alongside Lo, How a Rose ‘ere Blooming? It is not an easy answer.
The traditional Lutheran answer would be stop the syncretism. If you must sing, sing the nothing songs. The better solution would be to enroll your Christian son in a Christian school where this would not be a question. That is still a valid answer. But I also wonder how much that is an answer that comes out of Christendom. If the Roman Empire had had universal education, would 3rd century Christians have opted out of it because of the Saturnalia Season?
I guess my real point is do I find a greater danger to my children’s faith in: a) the suppression of all faiths or b) a real pluralism that would extend respect to the other and accept the burden of maintaining a vibrant personal faith? To me what pt. A teaches is more dangerous. I worry that it teaches my son that words are just a power game and not a means to truth. Just sing a song of joy, you don’t need any answers. I worry that it teaches under the guise of “being nice” an anti-religion superior to all these people we are humoring with Festivus. And I worry most of all that he will be as flat and superficial and the New York Times editorial staff impervious to the beauty of what most people in most places thought was the fabric of reality itself.