Stealing Spock’s Brain, or Why I Despise the Music of Marty Haugen

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the second Vatican Council, and it seems more than time to assess–as honestly and objectively as possible–the teachings and results of this earth-shattering moment in church history and in the history of western civilization.

Clearly as Catholics, we believe this council and all of its teachings to be legitimate.  In the words produced in the documents of the council, there are stunning revelations of and into the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty.  Indeed, the documents need a constant, thoughtful, and prayerful study, over and over again.

But, as anyone under the age of 55 knows and understands, the implementation of the ideas of VII have been nothing short of hideous at times.  This is especially true in the American Catholic churches.

As chance would have it, my parish is currently debating what our next hymnal should be.  Whether or not Catholics should even have hymnals is a question in and of itself, of course, and I’m not attempting to enter into that debate here.  I’ll merely accept for the sake of this post that we’re going to have a new hymnal soon.

The one we’ve been using for over a decade–Ritual Song: A Hymnal and Service Book for Roman Catholics–is unlike anything I’ve experienced in my forty-four years on this earth.  Two songs in this book reveal much about it and its bizarreness.

I promised earlier in this post that I would be as “objective” as possible.  “Honest” might be a better word for it.  So, the big reveal: I’ve never once heard a song by either Marty Haugen or Dan Schutte that I think is anything less than purely tacky.  Several are downright evil.

Here’s a sample of lyrics from a Haugen tune that I’ve had to suffer through too many times to count in the last fourth of my life.  I can only hope every listen is worth a decade or so out of purgatory, but then I think that by allowing my kids to be exposed to such trash, I might actually be damning my own soul.  Yes, I jest to a certain extent, but only to a certain extent.  My wife and I have had many a conversation about damnation for allowing our children to be introduced to such muck.

Not in the dark of buildings confining/

Not in some heaven light years away,

But here in this place. . .

Now is the Kingdom.

Ok, let’s start with the tackiness factor.  Who would ever insert “light years” into a hymn?  Really, come on.  What happened the day your wrote this, Marty?  Did some women steal Spock’s brain?

Tackiness is bad, but heresy is worse.  We encounter the “Kingdom” now, here, in this place?  Really, Marty?  What, have we become convinced of our own good works?  Does Jesus’ opening of the Gates of Heaven no longer matter?  We can just skip that part and have a good ol’ time here?  Didn’t we Catholics used to think of earth and this existence as a Vale of Sorrows, one that we escaped only the by Grace of the sacrifice of our Lord and Savior on the Cross?

And, here’s one by Dan called “Here I am, Lord.”

I, the Lord of sea and sky,

I have heard My people cry.

Oh boy, did Dan just have the parish assume the voice of God, the One who told Moses to call Him only “I am that I am”?  That God, creator of heaven and earth, and of us?  But, now, we get to be God or gods?  How interesting, Dan.  Not just tacky and not just heretical, but really, really tacky, and horribly heretical.

If you’ve made it this far in this post, I’ll apologize somewhat for the rant.  But, frankly, I just don’t get it.  Our Church is glorious, and it shall prevail against the Gates of Hell.  But, here we are–inheritors of the longest lived institution in the history of the world, 2,500 years of western philosophy, and at least 2,000 years of music, art, and liturgy, –and the culmination of all of this is Dan Schutte and Marty Haugen?

Please don’t think me some kind of purist when it comes to music.  I’ve taught my children all about the greats of rock and jazz.  Without hesitation, my kids can name the greatest guitarists of the last fifty years (Alex Lifeson and Dave Gregory) and the greatest drummers of the last fifty years (Neil Peart and Nick D’Virgilio).  Indeed, they can name the members of Rush, Yes, Big Big Train, and others.  They know Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck.

But, church is church.  I don’t want progressive rock, jazz, or folk music in mass.  I don’t want sap in mass.  I don’t want tackiness in mass.  I don’t want heresy in mass.  I just want mass–in all of its glory, pursuing and witnessing the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

I want something that calls forth reverence, not embarrassment and shame.

Next up, VII culture and architecture.

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89 thoughts on “Stealing Spock’s Brain, or Why I Despise the Music of Marty Haugen

  1. John says:

    Professor Birzer,

    I take umbrage with your piece. Any ‘greatest drummers’ list that does not include Phil Rudd is biased and constitutes musical malpractice.

    In all seriousness, thank you for your piece. Having long tired of the cotton candy/fluff/popcorn/whatever that folks call Catholic music, I’ll gladly take and do take an EF Mass anyday (and once on Sunday). At least that way I can be 100% certain I won’t have to hear Old Lady Margaret belting out ‘Eagles Wings’ or ‘One Bread, One Body,’ which are bad enough if sung in tune, let alone out of it.

    What would Christopher Dawson say about it?

  2. VeritasinCali says:

    C’mon…you all know he just put into writing what we all are thinking at Mass when these songs are used…like we don’t have reams of glorious music from which to choose. No excuse for crappy liturgical music…we need gorgeous music. I’m not just talking Gregorian chant or Palestrina…I’m just saying that so much of what is offered is banal, bad music, and downright heretical. This coming from someone who promotes rock music as part of her life’s work…just sayin’…..you rock Brad. Thanks for putting into words what so many of us believe…

  3. Mira8 says:

    “Didn’t we Catholics used to think of earth and this existence as a Vale of Sorrows, one that we escaped only the by Grace of the sacrifice of our Lord and Savior on the Cross?”

    If you did, then you’re calling pretty much all of creation a huge mistake. Now who’s the heretic?

  4. Brian Stoffregen says:

    I have “performed” with Marty Haugen and attended a few workshops he has done.

    First of all, he is not Roman Catholic. He grew up Lutheran and is presently a member of a United Church of Christ. Neither is he a theologian; so his lyrics might lack some of the theological or biblical or historical correctness that experts might expect. He lamented after writing a liturgy for Pacific Lutheran University (“Now the Feast and Celebration”) that it would have been better if he had worked with a theologian.

    Secondly, he has stated that after Vatican II, like after the Reformation, there were suddenly thousands of people writing new worship songs and resources. The bad ones of the Reformation period have disappeared. There has not been enough history for the bad hymns of the 20th-21st centuries to fade out of existence. He fully expects that many, if not most of his hymns, will not be around 200 years from now.

    In regards to the kingdom: I think Haugen captures the sense of Jesus’ words in Luke 17:21b “God’s kingdom is already among you” (CEB)

    Consider also how many of the phrases in Schutte’s hymn are found in scriptures: e.g. God hears his people’s cries (Exodus 3:7); God calling Samuel in the night who responds with “Here I am” (1 Samuel 3); God asking, “Whom shall I send?” and Isaiah responding, “Here I am.” (Isaiah 6).

  5. Dixibehr says:

    \\ We encounter the “Kingdom” now, here, in this place? Really, Marty? What, have we become convinced of our own good works? Does Jesus’ opening of the Gates of Heaven no longer matter\\

    What do you think Jesus does in the Eucharistic Sacrifice?

    He open the Gates of Heaven and the Eternal Kingdom breaks in onto earth. Now. Here.

    If you don’t believe this, then you’ve not been well instructed in the basics of Eucharistic theology.

    I’m saying nothing in favor of the song itself, however.

  6. Gary says:

    The FOUR-HYMN sandwich at Mass (a staple of the decades at the end of the 20th century) is slowly losing its “normative” standing. Parishes are discovering the Propers — those texts, given by the Church herself, for processional moments in the liturgy [Entrance, Offertory, Communion]. For years these preferred texts had been replaced by hymns – and we even added a hymn at the end of Mass, where no specific action of the congregation was even called for in the Roman Rite. Musicians are now introducing Propers at Mass, particularly as Entrance and Communion pieces. These are sung either by cantor/choir and congregation, or by choir alone (in English or in Latin). A glance at the revised GIRM (instructions for the Roman Missal) will show that it is perfectly appropriate for choirs to sing and congregations to listen at times. Surprise!

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