What’s wrong with hymns without quotation marks?

Last year, popular sacred music composer David Haas was accused of sexually and spiritually abusing and assaulting 44 women. A recent conversation about his music took an interesting turn, and I thought I’d share some of it here.

First of all, it’s a shame that it even has to be said, but the guy’s music should never be played in church again. He shouldn’t be making royalties off songs he wrote and used explicitly to groom and manipulate women, and nobody should have to hear the words of a predator sung inside the walls of their church.

I have my own thoughts about separating the artist from the art, but this is different: The guy explicitly and recently used his celebrity as a religious artist to prey on women. He should be out for good, period. Yes, even if that one song of his was very meaningful and moving to you at some point in your life. You can always play it in your own home if you like it that much. Music is expendable, but people are not. Even if it were the most sublime music in the history of the church, it doesn’t belong in the church because of what he did.

Everyone agreed on that point, and we moved to the second point, which was more contentious, and which was this: Perhaps Haas’ music wasn’t sublime. Far from it: It was pretty terrible, so there’s a second (less urgent) reason it shouldn’t be played in church. Yes, I firmly believe that some music is objectively inferior to other music. Music that’s trite, coy, and formless is inferior. You don’t have to be a trained musician to develop a sensitive ear, which makes hearing bad music at church the equivalent of sitting on sticky, splintery pews or breathing air that smells like rotten eggs. Christ is still present, but gosh, it’s distracting.

Then came the third objection to Haas’ songs: The lyrics…Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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8 thoughts on “What’s wrong with hymns without quotation marks?”

  1. Simcha, I really like the example you use to demonstrate why quoting God without quotation marks in hymns at Mass is both weird and — well, if not wrong, then very misleading. We’re there to worship Him, not to sing about, or to, ourselves.

  2. This was a great explanation of one small aspect of how the whole approach to worship in the new Mass is distorted. The modern hymns are just the symptom of the larger problem. Try the Latin Mass for the anti-dote.

  3. Sorry, but I don’t see the issue with hymns that are written from God’s perspective. I know many hymns that are entirely written with Jesus’s words and there is no confusion.
    When we sing “My new commandment”, “I am the bread of life” or “I am the vine” in our parish, we know whose words we are singing and that those lyrics are meant to help us memorize Our Lord’s words.

    1. I think it’s different with songs that are settings of actual Scripture. “You are Mine” is just Haas putting words in God’s mouth.

    2. Well, but that’s the problem: you’re not at Mass to memorize Scripture; you’re at Mass to give praise and worship to God. Any lyrics which do not do that don’t really belong in Mass, do they?

  4. Thomas Day makes a somewhat similar critique in “Why Catholics Can’t Sing.” He calls such hymns “Voice of God” hymns, and particularly takes issue with the way the lyrics tend to switch back and forth between God’s perspective and ours (without guideposts like quotation marks), which he sees as a kind of intentional self-deification. His paraphrase went something like this: “We are the aware, gathered Community, and we have loved ourselves with a deep and abiding love.”

  5. Now that you tied that “you are mine” song directly to Haas’s spiritual abuse (and sexual abuse) of various women, it makes me disgusted. Now that I’m in our church’s choir, I wonder if I can have a gentle discussion with our music minister about this…

    On another point, I never liked his music from a music theory standpoint- it just wanders without any coherent drive behind the lyrics, phrasing and melody. There’s no core sense of rhythm and message from it. Musically, I always felt it to be banal drivel. That’s my personal opinion, take it as you will.

    On another level, I can’t remember which saint said this, but, “when you sing, you pray twice.” To me, that really resonates as I love to sing and love to use my voice to give glory to God. He gave it to me, I get to give it back to Him when I sing. This is why what music is chosen at Mass is a subject so dear to my heart.

    Thanks for writing this, you’ve articulated something for me that I’ve been trying to put words to for years.

  6. Wow. I am familiar with that song, and had no idea about the situation with the musician who wrote it. And I never even noticed the issue of omitting quotes when lyrics are speaking in God’s voice. You have definitely given me something to think about.

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