Thursday, April 14, 2005

Catholic Sights v. Protestant Sounds

As I mentioned a while back, I discovered some remarkable things while listening to the book-on-tape version of Will Durant's multi-volume treatise, The Reformation. Here's another of the work's revelations: Early Protestant services differed from their Catholic counterparts by encouraging what we would today call musical "audience participation." Especially among the Germans, in whose culture singing played a very important role, that innovation gave the Protestants a decided advantage in the market for followers. Luther not only condoned the practice; he wrote some allegedly pretty good hymns, too—good enough to remain in use today.

The Protestant Reformation thus represented, among other things, a change in the prevailing media used in religious services. The Catholics emphasized the visual arts—statutes of saints, luridly bloody crucifixes, portraits of the Madonna and Child, and so forth. The Protestants focused on music—collective singing, in particular. Or, to frame the change in different terms, the Catholics followed a broadcast model of religious arts: Skilled artisans created approved images for worshipers to look at ("to worship," the Protestants complained). In contrast, the Protestants followed a network model of the religious arts, one in which a religious authority merely guided the creative joint efforts of worshippers.

Granted, I'm overgeneralizing a bit. But I'm also saying less than I might. Consider how far you could get by extending the contrast between the top-down Catholics and the bottom-up Protestants to communion services. That, however, would lead to theological thickets I'd rather avoid.


Mike Linksvayer said...

A recurring theme, doubtless in many other fields as well.

Anonymous said...

You make a good point about how new religions or variations on a religion like christianity arise. You have to appeal to peoples tastes. Some prefer music and some prefer animal (human?) sacrafices. There is a Latin American folk song which includes the lyrics: There are more religions than happy children. Why don't we make sure that all kids are well taken care of and happy? Is that really too much to ask?

-Hymnless in Seattle

Mitch said...

Glen, I know you weren't particularly discussing what the early Protestants intended, as opposed to what "evolved." But I think there was a conscious move to be *different* from the existing (Catholic) practice, and I've been told that in casting around for a different model of worship the early Protestants borrowed significantly from Jewish practice. Which, for instance, relies largey on collective chanting of prayers to (traditional) melodies.