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It's Not About the Jellybeans

Recently in the Way of Beauty blog Deacon Lawrence Klimicki shares a catechetical lesson given by a pastor.

“There is a pastor who always begins his confirmation classes by showing his students a jar full of jellybeans. He then asks them to guess the number of beans in the jar and write it down on a piece of paper. Then he asks them to think of their favorite song and write it down next to the number.

The number of jellybeans in the jar is revealed and the student who correctly guessed the number is duly recognized as being “right.” The pastor then asks who had the “right” song.

The students protest that there is no right answer, it is up to individual preference.

So the pastor then asks, when it comes to choosing your faith, is it more like determining the number of jellybeans in a jar or choosing a favorite song? The students invariably say that choosing your faith is like choosing your favorite song, it is different for everybody.

When asked if he still confirmed the students, he said, “yes, but I try to talk them out of their position.”

The reason the pastor has difficulty reaching his students is that he is mostly wrong. His answer is technically correct, but his way of working the solution is very un-Catholic. Meanwhile the students have the wrong final answer, but at least they are on the right track to working the solution by using the Catholic method. I suspect that the pastor would have more success if he understood his error, which is that our faith is far more like having a favorite song than it is about guessing the number of jelly beans. This does not mean that there is no objective right and wrong; there most certainly is. Rather it is that objective right and wrong has as much to do with choosing a favorite song as guessing the right number of jellybeans, because a person’s choice of favorite song could most certainly be wrong. But a song also has a subjective layer that can match the uniqueness of the person, and music reveals the truth and beauty of God that a simple fact like the number of jellybeans can never do.

The Objective Nature of Music

Some songs are good through and through, some songs have some bad in them, and some songs are mostly bad (no song is completely bad, for sound must have some little amount of good to be music and not mere noise.) For example, Save the Last Dance for Me by the Drifters (and covered magnificently by Michael Bublé) is a very nice song. The melody, the harmony and the lyrics are all good. Is as good as Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major? I would say not. But it is still a good song all around, and there is nothing bad about it. In fact, I often imagine that the singer is actually Christ telling me to enjoy the wonders of this world that he made, but to save the last, most important dance, Heaven, for him. But as just noted, some songs have bad in them. A few years back, a song by Sam Smith titled I’m Not the Only One became very popular in my community of social dancers. It had a great musical arrangement with powerful, emotional vocals and it just felt so passionate that we loved dancing to it. That is, until we listened carefully to the lyrics, and then we discovered that the song was actually about a man telling his wife that he knew she was cheating on him. Once we knew this, we no longer liked dancing to the song- the lyrics disgusted us too much to build a relationship on the dance floor to it. Then there is club music, which sometimes doesn’t even have lyrics, but the music is so banal and overly repetitive that it’s incredibly boring to listen for anyone with even a slightly trained ear. Finally, some sing are about bad relationships, filled with vulgar lyrics, and with annoying musical arrangements. Such songs are simply bad in all areas.

A song is good because it happens to meet multiple objective criteria; the melody, the harmony, the dynamics, the chord progression and the lyrics must all meet some objective standards to be good. It does not matter if the song is classical or folk or country or rock, it can still be good, but only if it meets all the necessary objective criteria. Of course, it is quite possible a person could choose a bad song as their favorite song. So although there might be a different right answer for everyone, there are also many wrong answers for everyone as well. Indeed, there are probably more wrong answers than right answers to “what is my favorite song.” But if the song has met all the objective criteria for goodness, then it is the subjective element that makes it a favorite of a person. A person is more than an object, she is a subject. Not only that, but the dynamic is not merely one of the person finding a song that meets only who she is now. Rather, in hearing a song, the person is often changed by the song. There is a dialogue between the one who made the song and the one who hears it.

The Subjective Nature of Music

Assuming it is a good song, that does not mean it is as equally excellent as other songs, but that is part of God’s vision. St. Therese of Lisieux speaks of how God loves both the lily and the rose equally, and though the rose might be the more beautiful flower, both are completely beautiful. In the Paradiso, Dante tells us that the saints worship God from their respective spheres, the holier ones being closer to God. Despite the fact that some saints had more holiness than others, Dante notes that there is no jealousy, because everyone is completely happy and completely holy and free of blemish. God loves all the saints, those whose holiness is more like the rose and those who holiness is more like the lily. Or we might say, those who holiness in more like Canon in D, and those whose holiness is more like Save the Last Dance for Me.

Apply the Analogy to Our Faith Life

The gospel for October 3rd which Klimicki referenced included Jesus’s admonition for the pharisees to “return to the beginning” by removing their hardness of heart. But it also includes the story of Jesus admonishing his disciples to let the little children come to him.

"Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it."

Mark 10:13-16

The students in the confirmation class were young enough to still have this mindset; they had an openness in their hearts. In fact, the lacked the same hardness of heart which Jesus accused the Pharisees of having earlier when questioned on divorce. Though they could not articulate it, they “felt” the truth that our faith was like music, and that just as everyone could have a different favorite song and not be wrong, they could have a different faith journey and not be wrong about it. And this makes sense to me, because the Holy Spirit is far better imaged by music than he is by a jar of jellybeans. The Holy Spirit is the Divine Music, and the Divine Music provides a song that fits everyone’s vocation, whether they are priest, religious, married or some other way of life.

While at first blush it might seem that a favorite song for everyone is an argument in favor of different religions, on deeper inspection it is one of the strongest arguments in favor of the truth of the Catholic faith. It’s true that one could find a religion that they find comfortable outside the Catholic Church, but just as easily- perhaps even more easily- one could find a spirituality that fits inside the Catholic faith. Because in Catholicism there is another layer of subjectivity which offers a spirituality for every person on the face of the earth. One religion, many ways to live it out. Whether you want to enter a monastic community and take vows of stability and silence or travel the country playing contemporary Christian music, you can be Catholic and still do it. Just as music has many genres and genres have many songs, the Divine Music has many spiritualities and the spiritualities have many vocations. In my ministry I liken our faith to a dance in which we follow Christ in the music of the Holy Spirit. Our religion is not so much a favorite song as it is the study of how to recognize and appreciate the art of song and dance. The rules of music and dance are not arbitrary, and neither are the rules of listing to the Holy Spirit and following Jesus Christ.

This is also a strong argument for the Catholic view of marriage as the only view that is beautiful and viably human. It is both objective and subjective, the subjective not in opposition to the objective but building upon the objective and in conformance with it. Waltz can only be waltz if it is in ¾ time and is neither too fast nor too slow. There are many different waltz songs, and even more ways to dance to them. Marriage can only be marriage if it meets certain objective standards. But having met those standards there is room for subjective reality so each unique couple can express the vocation of marriage in a way unique to them while still being completely faithful to God’s vision. The husband leads his wife in a dance in which the music is the Holy Spirit. Just as the music calls the couple into the dance floor and informs their dancing, so too the song of the Holy Spirit calls the couple into the marriage. The song of the Spirit is the vocation- the call- to marriage. It must be a Catholic song, and it must follow the Catholic rules for good relationship. The fact that the song for each couple is different is not a sign of a lack of objective truth; rather it’s a sign that each marriage offers a different window onto God the source of all truth. The fact that the perspective is a little different in each case does not mean the subject of the view, God, is different for each, only that each reveals a different facet of the subject. In the faithful adherence to many objective truths the couple paints a more accurate view of the Divine Truth, Beauty and Goodness.

Also, the Catholic faith rejects the idea of a soul mate- the idea that there is one and only one person in the world that a person could marry and still be happy with. For a given man there are many women in this world whom he could marry and still have a happy and fruitful marriage. He can only choose one though. Discerning one’s spouse is much closer to picking a favorite song than picking the right number of jellybeans. Still, there are many wrong choices he could make. Hence the need for the skill of discernment in one’s vocation, a mastery of an objective science which allows one to paint their unique, subjective vision of a deeper reality that is still in complete conformance to the truth. And when I teach couples for their first wedding dance, I help them pick their song. There is an objective and subjective criteria for their choice. They want a song they both like and captures the essence of their relationship, including the fact that it is rooted in God. Along with that they need to pick a song that they can dance too- one not too fast, and one that fits their skill.

When the Spirit is Wrong

I know a fair number of gay and lesbian people who are in what today is considered a same sex marriage. And I can see that the relationship is almost entirely good. In caring for each other and supporting each other, in sharing recreational activities or running a business they are doing a good thing. However, not a single one of these things is gay. The only part that is gay is their decision to act on the same sex attraction, to use their bodies in a way that does not go together. Indeed, if their relationship were a song, they would only need to change a line or so to make the song a good song. Of course, our critics, whether queer or straight, don’t want to hear this, because the line that we want to change is what they consider to be the most important line in the song, the line that makes the song what it is. In changing the line the meaning of the whole song is radically changed.

The Catholic faith rejects same sex acts on what could be considered aesthetic grounds- it’s bad art. Not that you guessed the wrong number of jellybeans, but something more like the melody does not match the harmony or that the subject of the painting is drawn incorrectly. Our critique is not grounded in subjective like, but in objective reality. We want to teach the science that will allow us to paint like Michelangelo or compose like Mozart or dance like Fred Astaire.

The same sex marriage advocate meanwhile claims that all marriages are equal as an objective, stand-alone truth, like the number of jellybeans in the jar, and since he has chosen the internal attractions of the persons as his only objective reality, he believes he is correct. And it is objective fact that the feelings we have are seldom chosen and difficult if not impossible to change. But he ignores the objective reality that the union of man and woman is the natural source of new human beings, which is necessary for the society’s existence. Homosexual interactions cannot be as equally necessary for society’s existence, as they are in fact totally unnecessary for its existence. To celebrate same sex marriage and to believe in marriage equality is not scientific fact but religious belief. Religion can be seen as the art of depicting divine realities through our actions. To say something which is reason says it not necessary is indeed necessary is the have faith. We do this when we say the mass is necessary for humanity- we say this by faith. The only way homosexual actions can be considered equal to the union of man and woman is as art, and what he fails to see is that the dislike of homosexual acts on aesthetic grounds is actually the more rational position. If a person celebrates same sex marriage and insists it’s as good or better then the view of marriage taught by the Catholic Church then we should say they have something analogous to a misunderstanding of music theory and a corresponding bad taste in music. The fact that our critics want to advocate their position as science and not art and religion is evidence to me that both their art and religion as well as their science is bad.

Perhaps worse though is our critic’s attack on free will, which is so necessary for creating art. The same sex advocate acts as if the person has no choice to decide what their feelings mean or how to act on them. For them there is but one choice, a choice provided not by science but by their religion. They are fundamentally anti-choice in this regard, as there are a significant number of queer people who choose to be Catholic and faithfully adhere to its teaching on human sexuality.


Ultimately, most people do not go around trying to guess the number of objects in a jar. This only reason students made the effort to guess the number of jellybeans was because picking the correct number was arbitrarily given value by giving a prize to the winner. But people do go around discovering their favorite music. This is because a favorite song is something that goes to the heart of the person. I can pay someone to guess the number of jellybeans I choose to put in the jar, but not to have a favorite song of my choosing. They may take the money and say the song is their favorite, but it will not be truthful. Heaven is not a prize given by correctly picking the right religion; such an idea is not Catholic. And it’s such a boring and mundane idea. But if picking the right religion – Catholicism- was like learning to appreciate good music and finding a song that really resonated with you, I suspect he would have had far more success with his students and we would be better evangelists.


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