Monday was the feast of Saint Efrem, often known as “the Syrian,” and sometimes as “the Hymn-writer.” He was a fourth-century deacon famous for his ability to compose poetic texts about Christian truth that could be sung to familiar tunes. In his day, just as the Faith and the Church were coming “above ground” without fear of official persecution, there was the threat of false teachers and their false doctrine leading souls away from the truth.
One of the biggest threats then was gnosticism, an approach to religion that is based on knowledge, often secret knowledge. Gnosticism survives to our day and is an attractive misrepresentation of Christianity, but also shows up in a Jewish context, or a seemingly secular-but-spiritual guise. It is particularly popular with folks who make movies, and want the aura of Catholicism or Judaism, whether to advocate or malign it, but do not know or do not desire to know the true content of God’s self-revelation. From what I understand of it, the recent film Noah was a textbook example of this theatrical form of error.
Anyway, Saint Efrem was gifted at producing songs that rejected errors and misconceptions, and laid out the liberating truth of salvation in Christ Jesus in a way that left little room for misinterpretation or manipulation. The people who learned and sang his hymns were thus freed from the threat of deception, which is the true freedom of the sons and daughters of God. Singing these songs not in church during the liturgy, but in their homes and as they went about their daily tasks, fortified people’s faith, and helped them internalize the more complex terms and concepts that are essential to right belief.
I preached about Efrem briefly on his feast, pointing out the genius at work in him. You must sing what you believe, I said, or you will wind up believing whatever you sing. After Mass, a parishioner with teenage kids approached me in the sacristy to reinforce the importance of what I had said.
So many of us, not only our kids, sing along with all sorts of music that is anything but liberating from sin and fortifying in faith. Myself included, we convince ourselves that by some act of intellect and will we can prevent the horrid texts we sing from affecting our belief and our behavior. Sex and violence are but two symptoms of the bad theology and even worse anthropology that is conveyed by much popular music. Tell, me, is a twelve-year old singing along with every word of a song, capable of preventing those words from influencing his thoughts and actions? I doubt it. I wonder what makes us adults think we are.
Now, I get all warm and happy inside when I hear on the radio a song from my earliest days of listening, back when I got my first clock radio (analog clock, AM only). I was only seven, but many of the words come back to me immediately; they are still in my mind. So… what all do these popular songs of the early 1970’s keep with them in my mind?
The other night as I was preparing dinner (I have a seminarian to feed!), my inner Alabaman was coming out: I had the online radio tuned to a bluegrass station. It so happened that all the songs were Gospel songs about sin and salvation, prayer, life, death, and even the saving blood of Jesus. Now these were not hymns for church singing, but heartrending ballads or toe-tapping hootenanny songs. What would be the inner and outer disposition of someone who grew up singing that when they were at parties and barn dances, and listening to (doubtless AM) radio in the truck or the kitchen?
Saint Efrem challenges us even now. You must sing what you believe, or you will wind up believing whatever you sing.