By Patrick Malone
The music of Harrison Lemke provides an excellent example of Christian music that is designed to engage with the world, to the exclusion of having any value for liturgical worship whatsoever. In particular, his album Fertile Crescent Blues is steeped in Scripture, as it reimagines the stories of various Patriarchs. “Garden Incident” depicts the moment of the Fall, in which everything Adam and Eve know is instantly transformed and lost. “Postdiluvian Homesick Blues” presents Noah in his vineyard after the flood, uncovering skeletons and remembering the world of pagan ritual that has passed away. “Sodom Valley” imagines the family of Lot wandering through an uncanny landscape after the catastrophe befalling Sodom and Gomorrah, remembering the terrifying visitors who searched the cities, and contemplating how the way of all the world has been destroyed. “Sister Song” depicts the laments of Rachel, unable to bear a son but praying for a miracle in the midst of her suffering, hoping that God’s promise will be fulfilled. “Brother Song” involves pleas for forgiveness between Jacob and Esau. On other albums, Lemke takes on the saints, as in “Song for St. Valentine” and “Song for St. Lucy.”
Lemke’s are not songs whose allusions to Scripture can be gleaned best if one squints and cocks one head when reading the lyrics. Indeed, they are effectively folk music, in which simple music adorns the stories of the people of God, namely the saints and the Jewish patriarchs. Pope Benedict XVI, as Joseph Ratzinger, in his comments “Sing Artistically for God,” published in Volume XI of his collected works, on the liturgy, describes folk music as “the musical expression of a clearly defined community held together by its language, history, and way of life, which assimilates and shapes its experiences in song – the experience with God, the experiences of love and sorrow, of birth and death, as well as the experience of communion with nature.” Lemke is expressing anew those shared experiences of the community.
However, it is hard to imagine his reedy voice and lo-fi acoustics really fitting at Sunday Mass, even if the First Reading is from Genesis, and his songs depict that same reading. Partly that is because of the wonderful subjectivity he creates in his songs, bestowing on his depictions of the Patriarchs great psychological depth, in a way that sits awkwardly with the requirements of liturgical ritual, but there is a deeper reason.
There can be a temptation to say that everything which can be fit into the pigeonhole labeled “Christian” is appropriate for liturgical worship, and that most music expressing pious sentiments can be accommodated in liturgy. However, this is not to draw all things into the Church, but instead to not recognize that some engagement with the secular world properly remains in the secular world. As folk music, Lemke is ultimately creating secular music, not insofar as it does not address themes of faith, but insofar as it seeks to Christify the world and its artistic and musical expression, while respecting and maintaining the Church’s liturgical traditions, such as the Gregorian chant which retains pride of place in the Latin Rite’s worship. This is not music that seeks to supplant our Catholic tradition, but to be informed by that tradition in its encounter with the secular sphere. Indeed, this is the true music of Vatican II, in that a lay musician goes out into the world of secular music – by which I mean nonliturgical music, or music whose proper sphere is that of everyday life in the world where the laity are called to operate – and points it towards Christ, instead of withdrawing into the Church and jettisoning the traditional liturgical expressions of our Catholic community. He addresses the existential darkness and uncertainty of suffering, the brutal glory of martyrdom, the painful hope of waiting and waiting for sin to be no more, the faith that despite one’s sins God is still waiting for the sinner with open arms, and the despair of loneliness, in ways that allow him to bring the Church’s tradition to the world in a way accessible to it instead of replacing that tradition with the worlds.
Patrick Malone has a Bachelor of Arts Honours in English from Campion College at the University of Regina, and a Juris Doctor from the University of Saskatchewan. He has written on literature, film, and culture for Catholic Stand and has also been published in Millennial Journal.
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