Solemn Joy and Hot Gospel

Aaron D. Wolf’Twas the middle of that sacred time of year when all Americans pause to remember what is most important—Christmas Shopping Season. I had just walked through the automatic doorway of MediaPlay, out in what was then the edge of Rockford’s wasteland (the East State Street shopping corridor, which has since sprawled itself all the way to the interstate and cornfields beyond).

I was there to obtain a copy of Ars Nova’s recording of Josquin Des­prez’s Missa de Beata Virgine. Josquin was Martin Luther’s favorite composer—the “master of notes,” as he called him. Born in 1440 in Belgium, Josquin’s innovations on plainsong melodies, using up to six voices to weave together beautiful chords that melt into polyphonous word-painting, conveying the sacred text perfectly, were an achievement in Western music. Without Josquin, there would have been no J.S. Bach.

Yet Bach’s most famous Ave Maria pales in comparison with Jos­quin’s. Adapted from Gregorian chant, Jos­quin’s Ave unfolds through polyphonous imitation, layer upon layer, beginning with the highest voices, as they chant the ancient words: “Ave Maria, gratia plena, dominus tecum, Virgo serena.” The imitation continues with the line, “Ave, cuius Conceptio,” but suddenly, all voices join together in four-part harmony,

solemni plena gaudio,
coelestia, terrestria,
nova replet laetitia

“Hail, Thou whose Conception, full of solemn joy, fills the sky, the earth, with new gladness!”

Compositionally, this is the same technique used by Bach in his St. John’s Passion, in the memorable opening chorus, “Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm in allen Landen herrlich ist!” (“Lord, Our Ruler, Whose glory is magnificent in all lands!”) And, just as all voices join as one to proclaim that glory in “Herr, unser Herrscher,” so, in Josquin’s Ave, they converge climactically in “solemn joy.”

Before I could make my way back to the section marked CLASSICAL, that category that includes everything from Gregorian chant to Renaissance motets to Mozart’s Requiem to Schönberg’s Tortured Night, I was knocked down by a sign hovering over an endcap featuring a brand-new release from A&M Records for this, the Year of Our Lord 1992. It was Amy Grant’s Home For Christmas, the cover of which features the Christian-pop singer gently embracing a birch tree, her carmine lips painted to match her velvet Santa suit.

What struck me was not the alluring jacket—not only the alluring jacket—but the placard above, designed by MediaPlay to capture the attention of passersby: It read HOT GOSPEL.

Hot GospelI thought “hot” is what happens to you apart from the Gospel. But seriously, “Hot Gospel”—the thermon euaggelion? The zeston euaggelion? Of course, zesty doesn’t really do it, because hot, in this usage, means something closer to sexy. Could we imagine Saint Paul, standing in the Agora, peddling the pornikon euaggelion?

The central feature of Home For Christmas (track 6 of 12), which still gets air time during CSS on lite-rock stations, is “Grown-up Christmas List.” Written by 80’s power-ballad guru David Foster (N.B.: He once played his “Love Theme From St. Elmo’s Fire” at the Crystal Cathedral) and his now-ex-wife Linda Thompson (she of Elvis Presley’s latter days, Bruce Jenner, and Cornfield Co.), the song is a letter from a wide-eyed adult to the bishop of Myra, in which she expresses that “I’m all grown up now, but still need help, somehow / I’m not a child, but my heart still can dream.”

And what does this impressionable 30-something want from Santa? That the Gospel be preached to the ends of the earth? That the Virgin’s Son be adored by all mankind?

No more lives torn apart
Then wars would never start
And time would heal the heart
And everyone would have a friend
And right would always win
And love would never end.
This is my grown-up Christmas list.

Now that is some Hot Gospel.

“Contemporary Christian Music” has been around for 30 years now, and each of the little companies that started out peddling Hot Gospel has been bought up by large record companies (A&M, Time-Warner). The executive producers of these labels answer to the CEOs and shareholders of giant secular corporations who, of course, answer to Mammon. The effect of this on America’s churches has not been insignificant. In addition to the fact that many Christians tune their radio dials to the stations that play CCM and shell out over half a billion dollars per year to purchase it, churches adorn their services with this Mammon Music, both for congregational singing and for “special numbers.” The idea of David Geffen serving as liturgist for thousands of American churches is more than a little disturbing.

Larry NormanWhen Larry Norman left the hippie/Scientologist band People! in 1968 for the Jesus Movement, he tried to make the Gospel sound more appealing to those who are turned off by churchy music. On his 1972 LP Just Visiting This Planet, the Corpus Christi native gave Hot Gospel its anthem, “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” Generations of CCM devotees following him attributed that memorable phrase to Martin Luther. Over the years, Hot Gospel advocates have added that, in composing his hymns, Luther used bawdy-house tunes to convey the Gospel—so why shouldn’t we? This reasoning stems, in part, from a gross misunderstanding of the nature of the German “Bar form” (A-A-B), which Luther did indeed use. As for “the Devil,” the Reformer often used that word in reference to Leo X, and “all the good music,” more often than not, would have meant the Masses and motets of Josquin Desprez, who knew nothing of Hot Gospel. For he belonged to a different age, one in which Christians—and their music—were still inspired by the Serene Virgin’s great Conception and filled with solemn joy.

NativityAaron D. Wolf is Chronicles‘ associate editor.

This article first appeared in the December 2006 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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