When "Political Correctness" strikes
  • Our Christmas Midnight Mass will be preceded by a lessons and carols service, using readings from the Office of Readings for the day and featuring anthems and carols sung by the choir and congregation.

    Among the pieces the choir is singing is Peter Warlock's "Bethlehem Down" with poetry by Bruce Blunt. A member of the choir came up to me at the conclusion of a rather gruelling 2-hour rehearsal and confronted me with the proposition that I alter the third verse of the poem, because in its original form it reads, "He who now lies in the white arms of Mary. . ." Her objection is the use of the word "white," and she suggested that we remove it and just sing the word "arms" over the course of the several notes taken up by the word "white", so as not to offend certain members of the congregation.

    My response was that I was reluctant to violate the integrity of the poetry, to which she responded that we no longer sing, "Good Christian Men, Rejoice", that it's been changed to Friends. I pointed out that the change was the choice of the editors, but that the editors of the anthem hadn't chosen to change the text.

    She stormed off, and I fear that she's prepared to turn it into a controversy where none should exist.

    I sent her an apologetic e-mail, explaining as calmly as possible that it's my belief that Blunt wasn't referring to Mary's race, but rather was using the poetic expression "white arms" to refer to her youth and purity. I also went on to explain that often the changing of poetry, even for the best of intentions, runs the risk of distorting or diminishing the deeper meanings contained in these texts.

    I'll have to wait to see how she responds, if she chooses to make an issue of it, take it to the Pastor, drop out of the choir, or what. But, if she chooses to make it an issue, should I simply pull the anthem and shuffle the order of music or do I leave it in and let her stir the pot?
  • Dave
    Posts: 64
    Good grief--another language fascist. Let her take it to the pastor. If he supports your reasoning, let her drop out. We need fewer inclusivity militants.
  • What I find particularly distressing is that I have for years found the text of this poem to be profoundly moving. If you're not familiar with it, permit me to cite the full text here, which includes the imagery of the third verse which my one choir member finds so offensive. It reads:

    "When he is King we will give him the Kings’ gifts,
    Myrrh for its sweetness, and gold for a crown,
    Beautiful robes,” said the young girl to Joseph,
    Fair with her first-born on Bethlehem Down.

    Bethlehem Down is full of the starlight —
    Winds for the spices, and stars for the gold,
    Mary for sleep, and for lullaby music
    Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.

    When he is King they will clothe him in grave-sheets,
    Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown,
    He that lies now in the white arms of Mary,
    Sleeping so lightly on Bethlehem Down.

    Here he has peace and a short while for dreaming,
    Close-huddled oxen to keep him from cold,
    Mary for love, and for lullaby music
    Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.

    Every year when I first revisit this text, I'm driven quite literally to tears by the power of this imagery. I must read it, and listen to a recording of this carol several times to deaden the profound impact it has on me so that I can then teach it without turning into a blubbering mess in the process. (I've taught this to several choirs, and every time I find myself in tears the first few encounters, and this is true year after year.)

    Now, thanks to the tirade of this self-proclaimed thought police-person (the choir member in quo), it will be a while before I can once again enter into the deep profundity of this text when I revisit it.
  • My deepest sympathies, David, and encouragement to continue offering this lady the guidance away from the tyranny of her literalism, so that she herself may choose to let the scales fall from her eyes and mind. Her correctness was acquired by propagandist, didactic drilling. Help her to rediscover the gift of art if she wishes to remain a Christian in its fullness. This could be God's challenge to you to celebrate Creation anew.
    "A stable lamp is lighted...."
  • priorstf
    Posts: 460
    David - I might offer three ideas for your consideration.

    First, you might want to contact the pastor yourself (before she does) with your concerns about those who seek change for the sake of PC and determine his position. This might help prepare him in case she goes to him, and gives you some backing should she approach you again -- or a heads up that you are indeed in trouble.

    Secondly, write a letter addressing your concerns to the Peter Warlock Society. They might provide you with guidance as to their reception to her suggestion that the wording be changed. Then advise her that pending commentary by the copyright owners you are really not within your rights to change it even if you were so inclined.

    Third, if she is going to make as great an issue out of this as you suggest, you might gently suggest that you would prefer not to conduct PC warfare from the choir and that she might find better use of her time and talents elsewhere.
  • I share your feelings about this poem and hope greatly that you do not pull the anthem or alter it in any way. It is a fine piece, representative of authentic judgment on your part. My suggestion would be for you to consider pre-empting any complaint she may take to the pastor by going to him yourself to demonstrate the beauty and integrity of this poetry, and your concerns about this lady's poisonous effects upon the choir's work and ministry. You should in no way be bullied or dis-heartened by those who are looking for offense where there isn't any while being blind to the sublime which is before their very eyes. Stand your ground!
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    Easy: get rid of the anthem and in its place do the Christmas sequence. All of it, including the verse about "the synagogue".

    Actually I kind of see her point. Reading the text, I'd assume it means Mary is white. However, I don't see a problem with that. Yes, she probably resembled an Arabic person more than the blue-robed fair brunettes we always see. Just like "Jesus was black". But what does it matter how their race is presented? Christ has always been presented as the bearded white guy because that was a familiar image to our European forebears. The important part is that he became a man, not that he became a white man. Ok, TECHNICALLY it's inaccurate, but everyone knows who you're talking about when you say "Mary's white arms". If you instead talk about the shape of her teeth in an era without toothbrushes or her smell in a time before deoderant, no one will follow what you're talking about. Christ also probably wasn't born in the winter, but I bet your choir member would be even angrier if you ditched any and all carols that refer to winter.

    Keep doing what you're doing. The comfortable need to be bothered if we're going to make any progress in liturgy.

    EDIT: also when I've come across things like this in choir anthems or hymns, I would take a minute to discuss it with the choir, not in terms of "Let's see if we all think this is safe enough" but rather to explain that it's an old way of thinking/writing and why one might write in that way. As with the Christmas sequence, which actually led to some interesting discussions on OT prophecy and such. I was working in a rural church at the time, however, and I REALLY wouldn't want to have that discussion with Boomer Suburbanites. (shudder)
  • I thank you all for your valuable comments.

    I'd add that she is a lawyer (although she practices international business law, not civil litigation), and as a cantor/psalmist in the music ministry she is one who has repeatedly given me grief over this or that, mostly showing up on one of her assigned Sundays unprepared and unfamiliar with the psalm of the day, typically requiring extra drilling and teaching of the music just before Mass, which then makes it impossible for me to play my chosen prelude due to lack of time. All of this despite the fact that I publish the music lists two months in advance. I send out an e-mail alerting them that the list is posted to the website with the instruction that they review it right away and contact me if they have questions or need extra help learning anything. Ay associate schedules the cantor/psalmists several months ahead of time. I was also offering special training and rehearsal sessions monthly for all of the cantor/psalmists to afford them the proper amount of time to work on vocal technique as well as teach them any of the music that might be unfamiliar to them. She would always e-mail me to tell me she was unavailable to attend these, and yet would show up on Sundays unprepared as I've described above.

    In short she's a typical boomer suburbanite.

    I've gotten to know my pastor well enough to be pretty certain that he'll dismiss her as the PC whack-job she's proving to be, but I'll send him a copy of the e-mail I sent to her yesterday along with an explanation of what happened and see where the cards fall. Given conversations we've had in the recent past about the sad state of affairs with respect to hymn texts and especially the weak, theologically suspect lyrics of many of the songs that pass for "Eucharistic songs" in "Gather 2nd ed", I think I'm in safe territory here.
  • Pes
    Posts: 623
    Is this contentious person aware that the text is a poem? Let's just wipe out all instances of the word "white," just to be on the safe side. And while you're at it, let's get rid of metaphors altogether. They confuse the sheeple.
  • Dave
    Posts: 64
    David Andrew: I'm in much the same position as you are, as far as an unprepared cantor is concerned. I formerly published monthly musical planners, but they didn't seem to do much (meaning, the cantors rarely used them for preparing more than a week in advance, if that), so during Advent I've been handing out weekly planners because I've been having a hard time going the extra mile to plan further ahead. Lazy cantors have a funny way of shutting down my desire to help them out, and I am especially angered because they are regularly paid fair stipends. I am planning to go back to monthly planners in January, this time with stronger policies about preparation and consequences.

    I am distressed that at this time of year, awaiting the Prince of Peace, I have this struggle.

    In any event, it's good and a relief to hear that your pastor will likely be supportive of your decision. Perhaps this is an opportunity for catechesis (and to enforce personal preparation). If not, she may be better off in another ministry (or working for an inclusive-language hymnal--couldn't resist).
  • miacoyne
    Posts: 1,805
    It seems that they are everywhere (good intentions, but too busy to practice or learn for their ministry). Thank you for the patience of all the MDs who work so hard.
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    How is there no control over cantors? I've seen this mentioned a few times and I don't understand it. At my last job we had 5 cantors, including myself, responsible for 2 Masses per week. All of them knew what I expected, and knew I was available to help. If I were in a position where a cantor regularly showed up unprepared (I mean had no idea how the music went), I would tell them their preparations did not meet my expectations and that they needed to try harder, with my help available as necessary. If they still did not come prepared, I would require a run-through with me. If they neglected to show up for it or schedule one, they would not sing for the Sunday they did not prepare for. If this became a chronic problem, they would be given very limited use in the Cantor ministry, and as a final resort removed altogether. In short, I would not allow for more than 4 "bad" Masses in a row from them. This was my unstated cantor policy at my last church, although I never had a problem with a single one who didn't prepare as well as they could (although that was different quality levels for each!)

    So without telling those here who are smarter and better trained than I how to do their jobs, what's the problem? Why is there no control over these cantors? And if it's the priest, what's the point in being music director at a church where the pastor gives you responsibility without authority? You may as well be a British policeman if you like that idea (although they at least get to carry clubs).
  • "Easy: get rid of the anthem and in its place do the Christmas sequence. All of it, including the verse about "the synagogue". Actually I kind of see her point. Reading the text, I'd assume it means Mary is white."

    Gavin, please. Don't go there so fast.
    When we gaze at stained glass wndow art, cannot the progessive shift in light change our perceptions of the content through subtle nuances caused by those shifts? What was the point of Monet's series of Rouen Cathedral representations?
    I don't want to belabor this obvious point, save for saying this poem is clearly not "cheap art."
    Regarding the assumption of what the assignation of "White" may actually mean, particularly to an attorney well versed in contention, I'd suggest taking ten minutes to consider Benjamin Schwarz's article "Intolerant Chic" that deals with Christian Lander's (PhD) blog "Stuff White People Like." That might provide us all with some useful circumspection about this era's Groupthink/Kulture Kampf mentalities that leap and leach onto and into our consciousness faster than the rapacious crab creatures in the "ALIEN" films.
  • Dave
    Posts: 64
    Gavin asked, why is there no control over cantors?

    Gavin, many parishes today suffer from cliques where the pastor is in "good" with the lay music "ministers," including cantors and other instrumentalists. I've served at two parishes where the pastor talked and acted in a way to demonstrate that he was more inclined to take the side of the cantor, not me, the director. The music director, thus, is demonized to a degree.

    In a previous parish, I complained to the pastor about a choir member who never attended rehearsals and threw a hissy fit because she wasn't "familiar" with the music for Holy Thursday one year. She threw this fit on Palm Sunday morning in front of other choir members and parishioners after a liturgy. The pastor never took her to task for her behavior but instead spoke in pleasant tones about how he'd known her "for years" and that she's basically a good person. Another choir member who couldn't read music and who constantly crooned into the microphone, a la Mr. Caruso from Thomas Day's book, constantly nagged me to program songs that were "lively and uptempo" but which the congregation obviously didn't know, but, alas, the pastor said "she's a good person, and she'd never say anything to hurt you."

    Talk about having my case closed before I even rest my defense.

    I know much of this must seem anecdotal to you because you apparently think all music directors will possess the idealism to rise above these situations, but you apparently do not recognize the political struggles therein. Controlling cantors can be very difficult if the pastor is not categorically behind one's measures to correct the problem. Cantors can be very irresponsible and unprofessional, particularly if they're divas (in my case) who are opera students who assume that their music abilities can automatically translate into singing the liturgy.

    I'm sorry to David A. for this digression.
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    I will admit I'm not a patron of poetic arts. That's my girlfriend's domain, I prefer to stick to the music. I'm not making a point against the poem, I'm simply saying I understand where the woman is coming from. She's someone who has to apologize for every element of Euro-American culture. I can guess for whom she voted in the last national election. FWIW, anyone who knows me knows that PC arguments get nowhere with me and so I'd likely never have a chorister make such an objection to my face. The difference between myself and that woman is I know that poetry has higher meanings than I can grasp, and therefore I leave my worthless opinion out of things. I'm the last person you'll see neuter a text, and in fact at my last church I would regularly write up a handout for a hymn in our hymnal if I found it neutered beyond meaning.

    I recommend to David and everyone to just speak in a non-PC way. Use "he" instead of "he or she", "mankind" instead of "humankind", etc. It'll influence others and maybe we can keep the dumbing down of our language at bay for a while. Obviously don't be a bigot throwing around racial slurs, but I see no reason to apologize for what were 20 years ago standard idioms of the English language in America.
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    I'll move this to another thread, Dave, so we don't throw this off track.
  • Pes
    Posts: 623
    My guess is that she'll say, "the implication is that 'white' means 'pure' and that's racist!"

    Um, no. It doesn't.

    Sometimes it is used that way, by completely despicable people, but to imply that the Holy Church is using it that way is, frankly, wrong. And a calumny.

    It's the Virgin Mary, for crying out loud. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.


    And sometimes a mixed metaphor makes mud. Sorry!
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,951
    I have often said that political correctness is good intentions carried to a laughable extreme. However, dealing with some of these folks is anything but funny. You shouldn't change the words, since it is a beautiful poem. You have to respect the integrity of the work and not alter it. It's good to have policies and procedures in place for choirs. I have a policy that if you don't practice, you don't sing. In Tennessee, we have an old expression for trouble makers that goes along the lines of, "don't let the doorknob hit you in the rear on your way out."
  • francis
    Posts: 10,703
    Is anything sacred anymore?! This opens up the whole discussion of ALT!

  • My 2 cents. The poetry certainly is not referring to her skin color but making allusion to her purity. Her arms now serve the same protection as her pure womb. If she can't follow that argument, then just tell her you have it on good assurance that the poem is referring to her garment.

    Merry Christmas to everyone, even the white folks
  • priorstf
    Posts: 460
    Happy KwanzHanuMasStice even
  • miacoyne
    Posts: 1,805
    I wonder her wearing white wedding dress offended anyone.(assumng she is married and had a wedding dress)
  • OK, folks, punchline time:

    I spoke to the Pastor this morning, very briefly, and gave him the 3-sentence description of what happened. He screwed up his face in total scorn and disbelief and said, "What?!?! You know, she'll be offended."

    End of story. Yay! I seem to be scoring good points with this new Pastor at every turn.
  • Dave
    Posts: 64
    That's good news, D.A.