The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus—a group in the “sacred music” category—released an album in 2015 to widespread critical acclaim. Entitled Beauty Will Save the World, the album features, among other things, monastic chants, snatches of hymns, and surging choral arrangements. Most significantly, it concludes with St. Ambrose’s prayer, “Before the Ending of the Day.”
When asked about the inclusion of all these conspicuously Christian elements, the group replied, “We have always been concerned with the sacred or — perhaps more accurately — the loss of the sacred. We are searching for its echoes and traces which are scattered and hidden in surprising and forgotten places.”(1)
In many ways, this is an apt description of those canvassing the cultural landscape for signs of life. In the case of this particular track, the church is the “hidden and forgotten” place. Like many of today’s musicians, this group is drawing on sacred traditions to reach contemporary audiences. What distinguishes The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus is that they are doing so by honoring the original intent of those traditions, preserving their deep spiritual roots. In their own words, “Sometimes it feels as though our work is less about creation and more about investigation and excavation. We borrow, gather and unearth material from different sources — not all of them obviously sacred or spiritual — but we are looking for the connecting thread and evidence of what Thomas Merton called ‘the hidden wholeness.’ Beauty is there. It is not created, it is discovered and restored.”
Demurring from a pervasive assumption about the arts, the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff says, “A hymn is a good hymn if it serves its purpose effectively and then in addition proves good and satisfying to use for this purpose, that purpose being to enable a congregation to offer praise to God—not, be it noted, to give delight upon aesthetic contemplation.”(2) Wolterstorff approvingly notes the famed hymnist Isaac Watts’s scrupulous commitment “to sink every line to the level of a whole congregation and yet to keep it above contempt.”(3) In a very real sense, these sacred traditions cannot be understood apart from sincere participation. A hymn is fully realized only when you add your voice to the worshipping congregation. St. Ambrose’s prayer becomes a real prayer only when it is uttered with honest conviction. These practices are not made for patrons in a museum; they are made for pilgrims in search of paradise.
There is a growing recognition that the current cultural malaise cannot be undone until people learn to see past the present moment, to remember where they came from, and thus attempt to chart a more holistic course. Perhaps the way forward involves listening for the “echoes and traces” of the sacred in order to discover what they actually say, rather than what we can say with them.
The way is not always clear. The group puts it well: “It’s probably more accurate to describe our music as the pursuit of meaning rather than having a meaning. Truth is always elusive and we are still searching.” Though truth ought to be the proper destination, there is a world of difference between searching and scavenging. The scavenger wants loot. The seeker is looking for an answer.
Cameron McAllister is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) http://www.npr.org/2015/12/07/458485196/songs-we-love-the-revolutionary-army-of-the-infant-jesus”>http://www.npr.org/2015/12/07/458485196/songs-we-love-the-revolutionary-army-of-the-infant-jesus (Accessed April 9, 2016)
(2) Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic (Grand Rapids, MI: WM.B.Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), 169.
(3) Ibid., 190.