Book review: “Brightest and Best” by Fr. George Rutler

While shopping for a baptism gift for my godson, I wound up at a Catholic bookstore three towns over. The saleslady, upon figuring out I was an organist, recommended “Brightest and Best,” a book telling the backgrounds behind some of the best-loved hymns. So I went for it, thinking hey, good to know this stuff.

How disappointed I was. Father Rutler has done his research, and it appears solid and informative. But the attitude he brings to it is frustrating and sinks the whole enterprise.

What attitude? That of the liturgical grouch. Now, he wrote this in 1998, before the reforms of Benedict XVI, so maybe it can be forgiven, but it infuses too much of his writing. The preface declares virtually all post-Vatican II music bad. The hymn descriptions take potshots at the “Church of What’s Happening Now” and grouse about other perceived issues. It’s the thing that frustrates me most about music traditionalists: not that they prefer traditional music (generally, I do too), but the attitude they bring to it. They are their own worst enemies. But they don’t see it. Here, the grousing undermines the case Father Rutler wants to make.

Incidentally, there are some weird choices here. “Hail Thee Festival Day?” “All Things Bright and Beautiful?” Something called “As Pants the Hart for Cooling Streams?” (Anything with “Pants” in the title or lyrics should be immediately tossed.) But a list like this is designed for debate. That’s not a big deal.

But the attitude is a big deal, and ultimately that’s why the book fails. Imagine you are someone who likes post- Vatican II hymns. Chances are, you will feel insulted by this book. Imagine, though, if Father Rutler were more positive. “Hey, these hymns are great! Imagine if we did them more often!” He didn’t do that. It’s a shame.

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