The National Catholic Review

As many America readers know, in the Catholic tradition, the "Litany of the Saints" is a sung prayer of appeal to God and the saints. I am most familiar with it as a chant, with the cantor intoning the saint and the assembled responding "hear our prayer," as you can see in this video of such a litany when Benedict XVI held a youth rally as part of his visit to New York City a few years ago:

In my experience, those litanies are a beautiful way to call forward a host of persons from the tradition into the present, somehow making more real and meaningful the act of addressing them not only from across the centuries but as one chanting ensemble. Such a hive of yearning rarely fails to reach me deeply and to authenticate some mystical truth about the desire to ask the dead to intercede for "us" on behalf of reality, to care about our lives as we do theirs. This despite the fact that the exploits or even existence of some, or even many, of the saints whose names are recited are more fiction than fact. Actually, that knowledge heightens the experience for me, because it pitches the whole exercise into a sublime realm of literary beauty and literary mysticism, wherein wanting to indulge in the depiction of an artfully rendered life is enough, spiritually, to already claim some small purchase on such a life for oneself.

It is with this in mind that I recently thought about the band Rage Against the Machine.

Their video for the song "Renegades of Funk" features a compelling display of adored figures from politics and music, focusing especially on "renegades" of color with a bent toward Black Power. The lyrics name-check a few heroes (Sitting Bull, Dr. Martin Luther King, Tom Paine, Malcolm X) and thereby kick off the litany, but the real litany is in the visuals.

Every few seconds, a visual with the name and image of a person or group from U.S. political or musical history is featured, and those visuals are intercut with shots from everyday life of struggling and creative people in the USA, especially in African-American culture (Bronx blight, Bronx pride, early breakdancing).

The cumulative effect is something like a visual litany of the saints renegades.

The connection that the Christian litanies of the saints makes somewhat faintly between the saints and the rest of us ("all holy men and women / pray for us") is made much stronger in this song ("renegades are the people with their own philosophy / they change the course of history / everyday people like you and me"). I cannot embed the video on this site, but you can see it here.

Rage is covering a 1983 tune by Afrika Bambaataa and The Soulsonic Force. Check out the original version, a memorable video of its own -- and an early, influential entry in the roster of politically-engaged rap -- here.

I am drawn to this exercise of constructing litanies, because they can powerfully affirm and construct a history (and for that reason are always potentially dangerous even as they can be liberating). Here, I think we have another potential point of connection between theology and music.

TB

 

Comments

Adam Rasmussen | 7/31/2011 - 12:49pm
Except for the Holy Innocents, I'm not aware of any saints in the Litany whose historical existence is doubted. I do know a couple such saints (Sts. Barlaam and Josaphat, based on a story about Buddha, and St. Christopher), but their names are not in the litany. To which saints are you referring?
John Donaghy | 7/31/2011 - 10:15am
Regarding anger:

St. Augustine, I believe, once wrote: 
“Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage: anger at the way things are and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”