Style, man, style

“When you fornicate,” said Jesus apparently in some gospel or other, “do not fornicate as the pagans do. They seek out weak women whose yes may be no, and who do not know their own minds, and when they get what they want, they persist unto emotional distress. Truly I tell you, they will get their reward. But when you fornicate, do it in style, and enjoy a cigarette afterwards and keep things cool, and your Father in heaven, who in the beginning made all things cool, will reward you.”

A certain composer of Catholic music has been accused of aggressive flirting, throwing his professional weight around, and causing post-coital discomfort; in other words, of being a first-class jerk. His accusers are many and anonymous. They are many, because he seems to have surrendered to the dominatio libidinis, and they are anonymous, because they say they are afraid he or his friends will retaliate, and they will lose their positions in the church music industry.

In general, I do not take anonymous accusations lightly, because I do not take them at all. We are not talking about ratting on Al Capone. We do not need a Witness Protection Program for people who say, “Looking back on it, I see that the person I went to bed with was a jerk.” The composer denies the accusations, and no one, as far as I can determine, has accused him of doing anything illegal, unless it be a sudden and unexpected kiss such as Heathcliff gave to Catherine.

Be that as it may, the composer cannot defend himself, or look his accusers in the eye. Yet without even the semblance of a fair trial, the Carnegies of that church music industry have severed their ties with him. It appears unlikely that his work will appear in any future editions of Gather, Glory ’N’ Praise, and Hymns R Us.

Now, I find this all very strange. Another composer of similar musical tastes and accomplishments is not a first-class jerk, but a first-class sodomite. Yet because he is a nice enough sodomite, his work will continue to sprinkle its pixie-dust upon the pages of the aforesaid hymnals, for heaven and earth may pass away, but consensual niceness will endure forever.

I can find no other way to explain the difference in moral outrage. The first composer in question was divorced. No problem. He married again. No problem. He asked women to fornicate. No problem. He and they did it. No problem. No one has said, “This man is an unrepentant and habitual fornicator. We should have nothing to do with him,” just as no one says, “This other man is an unrepentant and defiant sodomite. We should have nothing to do with him.”

His accusers do not say, “He caused me to sin.” That would be to shine light upon their own moral deficiencies. It would be as if a young kid got himself entangled with a charismatic bank robber and then regretted it afterwards, but still had to own up to the facts: pulling the loaded revolver, driving the getaway car, stashing the loot. But that is the last thing the accusers, who were all grown women, want to do. They do not want to acknowledge that they did wrong.

“Of course,” one of the morally offended editors may say to me, “there are sins and there are sins. To have nothing to do with sinners, we would have to leave this world. But this sin is peculiarly wicked and scandalous.”


I am sorry, but I do not see it. Not boorishness and aggressiveness but fornication is le péché du jour, leaving millions of children in this nation without a married mother and father, and giving abortionists plenty of opportunity to do their bloody deeds. Yes, I know that for the last fifty years, fornication is considered a rite of passage, otherwise not to be taken seriously, while churchmen from deacons to cardinals smile at old-fashioned moralists:

straining at insects of the Law
while full grown camels go down raw.

Perhaps, then, we should combine the sacrament of Confirmation with First Copulation, and have the lads announce to all in attendance, “This day I am a soldier indeed.”

But of course, none of this has a thing to do with the composer’s music, which should be judged on its own merits. Those merits, to my taste, are few. I detest it. The melodies, lollygagging all over the place, are unfit for congregational singing, and the lyrics are treacly, unpoetic, sentimental, and banal.

An example:

Call us to hear the voices that challenge,
deep in the hearts of all people!
By serving your world as lovers and dreamers,
we become voices that challenge,
we are the voice of God!

“Doctor,” says the burly man, stifling a belch, “I’ve got this nasty voice in my heart that won’t go away.”

“I see,” says the doctor, narrowing his eyes. “By chance, is it a voice that challenges?”

“That’s it!” cries the man. “Especially with onions.”

“Well, we’ll have to see about it.”

“Is it bad?”

“Untreated, yes. You could end up becoming a voice.”

“My God!”


When William Butler Yeats died, W. H. Auden wrote an elegy in his memory, though he did not like the elder poet’s politics. Yet, he said, Yeats was redeemed by his poetry, just as

time will pardon Paul Claudel,
pardon him for writing well.

The composer will need no Auden to apologize for his politics, which are comfortably alla sinistra, and will get no Auden to praise his poetry, either. Though perhaps the bad lyrics, “we are the voice of God,” are a sign of something worse than fornication and post-coital discomfort.

Perhaps they are a sign that God has been replaced by Narcissus, gazing into the pool. And that we might say of the nicer composer too:

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the holiest of them all?”

You are, O Queen.”


*Image: The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy (formerly called ‘Hecate’) by William Blake, c. 1795 [Tate, London]

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.