Can we separate the art from the artist? This is one of the questions raised by the removal of seven songs by Catholic composer David Haas from the forthcoming Voices Together hymnal. Haas is credibly accused of sexual misconduct, which he denies.
The question brings to mind a similar one that some Mennonites have thought carefully about: Can we separate the theology from the theologian? This question is asked about John Howard Yoder, whose sexual abuse of women contradicted his identity as the leading Mennonite ethicist of the 20th century.
These questions have two answers: 1) Yes, some people can separate them; and 2) Those who decide about publishing the works should not separate them.
The first answer recognizes every person’s freedom to decide whether an artist’s or writer’s personal life matters. The words and music themselves contain whatever value anyone finds in them. Most worshipers don’t know or care about the source of a song. The reader of a theology book knows the author’s name but might not be interested in the author’s life.
Even so, MennoMedia and the Mennonite Worship and Song Committee have done the right thing by deciding the creators’ behavior is relevant to the works’ use and then taking appropriate action.
In 2013, MennoMedia announced it would place a statement in the front of Yoder’s books noting “the complex tensions involved in presenting work by someone who called Christians to reconciliation and yet used his position of power to abuse others.” The statement expresses hope that readers will “wrestle with, evaluate and learn from Yoder’s work in the full context of his personal, scholarly and churchly legacy.”
Disclosure of Yoder’s actions is essential due to the wide impact of his theological ideas among Anabaptists and other Christian scholars. There is no question Yoder is influential. But, if measured by the mass popularity of his work, Haas is even more important. Far more Mennonites have sung “My Soul Is Filled with Joy” than have read Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus. The song made the top 10 in a best-loved songs survey conducted by the Mennonite Worship and Song Committee in 2016. Two more Haas compositions, “Peace Before Us” and “I Will Come to You in the Silence,” placed in the top 30.
Dropping these songs and four others is a significant loss for Voices Together but a commendable decision. It takes a stand of solidarity with survivors of abuse.
The songs are not being erased or banned; four of the seven remain in two Mennonite songbooks, Sing the Story and Sing the Journey. Rather, the committee is withholding an endorsement of Haas that would bolster his status and potentially contribute to a pattern of abuse.
Unlike theology books, which can either be read or ignored — and are studied critically in academic settings — worship songs are imposed on general audiences in church services. The best songs make an emotional impact. More often than we might care to admit, survivors of abuse are present.
As awareness of sexual abuse has increased, Christians understand that the church must no longer look away. Bradley Kauffman, general editor of Voices Together, told MWR: “If there’s something we can do to stop perpetuating this cycle, we want to take action decisively.” He encourages congregations to talk about how to have trauma-informed worship. That can include discerning which songs are appropriate for them.
For the hymnal committee, which faced a looming deadline for a book that might have a lifespan of 30 years, leaving out a handful of songs was the right decision.