On Reliquarium: Part Three | Making the Beautiful Strange
by Kemper Crabb
My father asked me to make an album of hymns. He wanted me to do this as a benefit for his missionary ministry, Servants of the King. While I was thrilled to do an album to benefit SOTK, I was reluctant to do an album of hymns.
“Dad,” I told him, ”the world needs another hymns record like it needs a hole in the head. There are tons of great hymns albums available out there.” (Not least of which in this category is the finest hymns album of all, Hymns,
by Craig Smith, produced and arranged by my friend Paul Mills, which can be procured at http://www.craigsmithmusic.co/hymns. No funds were given for this endorsement, by the bye; it’s just a great recording…). My father, unimpressed by my patently true argument, still wanted me to make an hymn project.
After some thought (I love my father, and hate to disappoint him), I told him that I would do so, if I could arrange the hymns any way I wanted to, though I assured him that I wouldn’t alter the lyrics or melodies, which I recognize as having stood the test of time, recognized across the centuries and decades as excellent, memorable, and orthodox in doctrine (at least, the ones still regularly used in the churches today), and therefore, in terms of lyrics and melody, sacrosanct. He replied that he didn’t care how I arranged them, he just wanted me to do it. So I did.
What partially motivated me in this endeavor was the fact that the transmission of ideas which give rise to cultures across time is a formative bridge, moving from the past through the present to the future, carrying forward the most central and magnificent concepts and artifacts embodying those cultures. This concept should be welcome and familiar to Christians, whose faith is based upon the historical actions of God Himself, enscripturated in the Bible by the Spirit’s inspiration, the testimony to which has been believed and taught by the church from centuries past (2 Tim. 3: 16-17; 2 Peter 1: 21).
Yet even the greatest of ideas loses its urgency eventually. The most influential and beautiful art gradually passes into obscurity through sheer familiarity. The passage of time assures that even the most vital things are finally taken for granted, even though the influences which shape a culture over time, whether idea or artifact, are based upon those which preceded them in a society’s formation. Every generation must learn its past anew.
This is why Christians have attempted across the ages to heed the admonition of St. Paul to Timothy: “ Stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (2 Tim. 2: 15). In an attempt to faithfully obey that principle, my mission is the retrieval of the most vital music of our past, a revisitation and re-rendering of musical pieces from the formative core of Western culture, the songs which helped form us as a people, and yet have disappeared from conscious memory, though they have influenced the music and history which have produced our place in time.
Since most of these songs were dominated by the language, belief, and worship-patterns of Christianity, such a recovery can only help our increasingly post-Christian society to remember (or realize for the first time) that Christianity was the dominant force which produced, in its interaction with, and reorientation of Europe’s inherited Classical heritage and Germanic cultures, the laws, institutions, societal concepts, and art of the Western world.
However, a brute retrieval of these songs is not enough. As Geoffrey of Vinsauf wrote in Poetria Nova, his 13th Century book on the art of rhetoric:
“Permit an old word to regain its youth by giving it a home
in another situation where it can be a novel guest, giving
pleasure by its strangeness.”
Those vital things of the faith which have been allowed to sink into obscurity must be resurrected, though in a fashion which renders them accessible and attractive to an age which has forgotten them and the concepts they embody.
This is why the ancient music must be presented as a fusion of its original form with the musical styles of the present, especially since the original form helped give birth to the music we enjoy today. Such a fusion compels attention by an amalgamation of the musical approaches which please modern sensibilities while simultaneously revealing the beauty of the ancient source with all its essential quiddity preserved. Such a juxtaposition renders the original beauty of the piece “strange,” a combination which refocuses contemporary attention (by virtue of interest in its unusual or “strange” rendering), but which still communicates the power and force of the original music.
This technique (normally called “defamiliarization” by literary theorists) has been successfully utilized by writers such as C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton, architects such as Antonio Gaudi, and painters such as Hieronymous Bosch and Vincent Van Gogh. Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, and Gaudi were all utilizing this technique specifically to refamiliarize and re-present Christian concepts and forms to modern society.
Such a presentation can be greatly enhanced by accompanying commentary concerning the inherently Christian cultural and historical background which gave rise to the original songs and infused them with lasting, even eternal importance.
What is to be gained from such an endeavor? Aside from the nascent beauty of the ancient music, it must be remembered that the beliefs embedded in these songs helped shape the culture we inhabit, with our values and concepts, both musical and otherwise, especially since many of these songs continue to be utilized in churches across America and Europe to this day. A conscious retrieval of all that this music represents and has to offer can enable us to more intelligently discern how our culture has come to the point at which it has arrived, and to inform us as to where it is (and should) be going. As the maxim so wisely states, “A tree is only as strong as its roots.” We cannot know where we’re going unless we know where we’ve been as a people, and, in a culture which has become estranged from and forgotten the Faith which gave birth to it, the recovery of Christianity is imperative.
The reintroduction of these songs, surrounded by commentary on their historical origins and cultural meaning, can go a long way toward arousing interest in Christianity by way of enlightened self-interest, as there is presently a great curiosity in America as to what formed us as a people and culture. The beauty of the songs, coupled with teaching explaining how they helped form the development of our values and beliefs, should function as an apologetic refuting current post-Christian doubts that Christianity is effective in the production of works of lasting beauty, as well as demonstrating that the Christian ideas transmitted in the ancient music were not only central in the formation of the Western culture of the past, but that those ideas remain relevant and vital to future cultural development.
My goal is thus to give “pleasure by strangeness,” to arrest the attention of our culture by the mixed beauty of this music, and thereby help us see where we’ve been, and aid us in calculating where we are going.
This is even more important as current technology rapidly advances a truly global culture, and the West, in its cultural melding and exchange with the global South and East, seeks to offer and receive the most helpful elements inherent in each of the participant societies, to the betterment of all the Earth’s peoples. This continues apace as an historical fulfillment of the Scriptures’ prophecies that God will redeem “out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9), “a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues” (Rev. 7:9), who will contribute their languages, cultures, and art to Christ’s Kingdom.
In celebration of this ongoing exchange, I have sought to utilize the instruments and modes of the cultures of both East and West, signifying the growing influence of all the Earth’s cultures upon each other, and in anticipation of Christ’s impact upon all the earth’s cultures. My latest project, Reliquarium, is a prime example of my efforts along these lines.