Monks Serving God and Mammon?

Famously, Jesus is quoted as saying that human beings cannot serve both God and mammon, or wealth. We are not to favor our bank accounts at the expense of God. Jesus’ instructions are generally understood to imply that wealth and faithful living stand in opposition to one another. Either material gain is the ultimate determiner of our actions, or worship of God. One cannot serve both masters.

The New York Times this morning has an interesting article that might suggest otherwise. Universal Music has contracted with Catholic monks in Austria to sell recordings of their chant, and it’s making big money for both the record company and for the monks. These devotional chants have formed the essence of daily worship in the monastic community for perhaps the last seven hundred years. Now they have been recorded and are selling in the top ten albums in Europe, set to debut here in the States next week. According to the article, the success of the chants is part of a massive fascination in secular society with the “otherworldly” monastic lifestyle. The monks see it as a chance for the peace of God to be shared most broadly through music, and the millions that they make on the scene will help with the bills and attract new members to the community.

On the face of it, it appears as though the monks have sold out, compromised their pristine and isolated worship of God in order to make quick cash. If we take what Jesus says at face value, their prayers can only be harmed by the “filthy lucre” that’s now a reality and a force in the community. Money does have power, and some members of the Catholic Church hierarchy in America have seen fit in the priest sex scandal to overlook evil for the sake of protecting their stash. Examples of the corrupting influence of money abound in other churches as well–they are available wherever one might choose to look.

At the same time, God does not only work through those who are poor. The majestic cathedrals that were funded at least in part through generous donations from the wealthy stand even today as permanent testimonies to the glory of God. Many a secular heart has been stirred into contemplation of the holy by stepping into such a sanctuary. No doubt the same will be true of this chant music as well. Furthermore, it is a false expectation that the church always be unsullied by the claims of the world. There is always corruption and impurity within the church, just as there is beauty and divine perfection outside of the church. God’s Spirit will still be able to move hearts and souls by this new arrangement.

All the same, I wish it were not so. By agreeing to share their talents for material gain, the monks missed an opportunity to stand in opposition to an overly material culture. In agreeing to this proposal, the monks perpetuate the idea that Universal Music is the arbiter of true musical talent, and not God. The people who seek the glory of God must now pass through the gateway of Universal’s toll booth. This gives the corporation more authority than it in fact has. Beauty is freely showered on all the world from a most bountiful God, but our systems of wealth instead suggest that beauty comes to those who have the money to download it online. By contrast, the church exists to make divine beauty available to all free of charge. More people may now be able to hear the chants of divine prayer, but they pay for the privilege. How much better if at their local congregation they were to find free devotional music in its proper context: worship to a loving, forgiving, creative and empowering God.

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