Saturday, January 24, 2009

Whoopi Goldberg's "Sister Act" - A Spiritually Uplifting Movie

Some of the family watched "Sister Act" (Whoopie Goldberg, Maggie Smith, 1992) last night, and watched parts of it again today, for the music. I liked the movie when it came out, and I still do.

Particularly the movie's deeply spiritual music.

"Whoopi Goldberg - Sister Act - Oh Maria"

petconsoe, YouTube (October 24, 2007)
video (3:33)

Spiritual Music?!

'Everybody knows' what church music is like: if you're not suffering from clinical depression when you go in, you will be by the time you leave.

I'm exaggerating, a bit, but I've run into that attitude from time to time: and sympathize. I'm a convert to Catholicism, and spent my early years in the Methodist Church1. Methodist churches, the ones I knew, don't have the reputation that Southern Baptists have for non-boring music, but they did pretty well. Although one or two organists seemed to be playing 'stump the congregation.' On the other hand, I did get exposed to a little dreadfully 'spiritual' music: dull, slow, listless, with all the energy and joy of a brick.

Being Spiritual Doesn't Mean Being Dull

The word, "spiritual," has quite a few meanings, including these, from Princeton's WordNet:
  • Religious
    • "concerned with sacred matters or religion or the church"
  • Unearthly
    • "concerned with or affecting the spirit or soul"
Some of what I do, that's "spiritual" in both of those ways is pretty close to the conventional notion of what 'being religious' is.

I spend time, most weekdays, in that room, 'doing nothing' except sitting and moving my fingers every few seconds. I wouldn't have to be that active, but I like to go through a prayer while I'm there, and I don't carry a rosary with me. I started 'counting the beads' by systematically extending and curling my fingers when I couldn't feel much of anything in six of my ten digits, and kept the habit.

Exciting? No. It's not supposed to be.

Dull? Hardly, but spending time in a chapel like that is something that's to be done, not watched.

Back to Music

Whoopi Goldberg's character in "Sister Act," Deloris Van Cartier / Sister Mary Clarence, was a Las Vegas lounge singer, pretending to be a nun in a convent and a church. She had good reasons: but I suggest that you watch the movie, or look it up on IMDB.

The convent had a choir, which sang with the verve of a wet mop. Deloris Van Cartier couldn't stand it, and taught them to sing "Oh Maria" with pizzazz, oomph, and zing.

Mother Superior (Maggie Smith) didn't approve. Maggie Smith's character had the more, ah, traditional view that church music should be solemn and somber, and certainly not up-tempo.

Whoopi Goldberg's character had the choir singing "Oh Maria" both ways, almost. In case you haven't viewed that video yet, "Oh Maria" is the song where you start with "Hail holy Queen enthroned above, Oh Maria...." sing "Salve, salve-salve, salve Regina!" a few times.

Even the more conventional version of "Oh Maria" in "Sister Act" was rather faster and brighter than I've heard it elsewhere.

The second time through, it was the same song: but with a distinctly dynamic and contemporary arrangement.

I liked it.

The Catholic Church Has Rules About Music

"I like it" isn't enough to make music acceptable for use in a Catholic Mass. The Church has standards.
Music: An Important Part of Worship
"Song and music fulfill their function as signs in a manner all the more significant when they are 'more closely connected . . . with the liturgical action,' according to three principal criteria: beauty expressive of prayer, the unanimous participation of the assembly at the designated moments, and the solemn character of the celebration. In this way they participate in the purpose of the liturgical words and actions: the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful:..." (1157)
Rules of the Catholic Church and Cultural Diversity
In "Sister Act," Mother Superior did not approve of up-beat, dynamic music. Not in church, anyway. It probably wasn't what she had been used to, growing up.

The lively version of "Oh, Maria" would probably be quite acceptable for a real church in a setting like the one in "Sister Act." That's because this is the Catholic Church: universal. Not limited to one place or culture. Or, for that matter, one time. In roughly two decades, the Catholic Church will have been around for 2,000 years. (551, 552, 553) Things have changed a bit, since Nero was doing his thing.

"Song and music are closely connected with the liturgical action. The criteria for their proper use are the beauty expressive of prayer, the unanimous participation of the assembly, and the sacred character of the celebration." (1191)

In the movie, people started walking in from the street when they heard the choir practicing. Given the local culture, I'd say that the jazzed-up "Oh Maria" had about as close to "the unanimous participation of the assembly" as you're likely to get. Except for Mother Superior, of course.

I feel a little sorry for her.

The point is that the Catholic Church insists that the words sung should be "in conformity with Catholic doctrine." Apart from that, we're encouraged to take what we're given, and express it in a way that works in our culture.

"The harmony of signs (song, music, words, and actions) is all the more expressive and fruitful when expressed in the cultural richness of the People of God who celebrate. Hence religious singing by the faithful is to be intelligently fostered so that in devotions and sacred exercises as well as in liturgical services, in conformity with the Church's norms, the voices of the faithful may be heard. But the texts intended to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine. Indeed they should be drawn chiefly from the Sacred Scripture and from liturgical sources." (1158)

Following these rules means doing some work: "religious singing by the faithful is to be intelligently fostered so that ... the voices of the faithful may be heard." (colored text, above) It might be easier to make a rule that all religious music had to be in 4/4 time, at a particular tempo, following a particular style: but the Catholic Church isn't about doing things easy. It's about doing things right.

"Oh Maria" as Sung in "Sister Act" - Spiritual?

I'd say, 'yes.' It got people in the church, listening to the music - and the words. I know: it's a Marian song, but Mary has a reputation for pointing people toward Jesus, like when she said: "Do whatever he tells you."

So, I'd say that, if music gets people to the point where they're willing to listen to the Word of God, I'd say it's "spiritual" music - no matter what it sounds like.

1 I cherish memories of the church where I grew up, the people, the music: everything. I didn't leave the Methodist church and become Catholic to get away from something, but to join the organization that my Lord founded. Which is a topic for another post or two.

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From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.