Friday, January 03, 2014

In Need of Analysis: What Makes a Good Hymn?

It’s a question about which I have lots of ideas and few definitive answers.

Instinctively I am drawn to lyrical authenticity, biblical content, three to four verses max (or my voice wears out) and a decent melody, not so quick or difficult that the average person can’t sing it. That’s important, I think. Take On Me, for instance, is a pretty pop song by the Norwegian band a-ha, with a soaring chorus. As the melody of a hymn it would be excruciating.

I dislike dirges and choruses that sound cheesy or dated to me. I dislike anything trite. If it sounds like a sales pitch, a pep rally, or frivolous, I’d rather not, thanks.

Full disclosure: I’ve always been fonder of secular music than of singing hymns. I find things that make me think of the truth of God all over the place. As an early 20-something, I heard Ian Curtis mumble “Guess your dreams always end; they don’t rise up, just descend,” and thought, “Exactly so, outside of the Christian experience”. I heard Mike Scott of the Waterboys sing “If you’ll be my enemy, I’ll be your enemy too,” and it reinforced my conviction that I needed to conquer self and indiscipline in my Christian life.

Yes, of course that wasn’t precisely what he was saying. But what I took from it, even inaccurately, was profitable to me. The driving guitar in Be My Enemy said to me, “This is intense. This is important. Don’t mess around!” in a way that the hymns we sang together in church did not. It got to the core of my being, whereas many hymns seemed to be about someone else’s experience. Worse, their experience was in another century or another mindset entirely from my own and I could not relate to their thinking at all.

That’s just me. I think.

On the other hand, I would not for a moment suggest that we should import secular tunes into the meetings of the church. I had some (thankfully limited) experience with this in my twenties, attending a Christian youth rally at which we unadvisedly sang U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For together. It was jarring and inappropriate. I didn’t mind the song; I’d even owned the album at one point. But it did not speak to the experience of a group of Christians who supposedly had found precisely what we were looking for. I had anyway, at that point in my life.

That left a bad taste in my mouth — and a desire not to inflict the things that mean something to me on others to whom they would mean nothing. Despite growing up with and still loving rock, pop and alternative music, I hate to see a drum kit in a church meeting.

Again, perhaps that’s just me. I know the Israelites sang together accompanied by percussion.

There are not a lot of instructions to Christians about exactly how we ought to sing together. The apostle Paul told the Ephesians, “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart”.

There are two components, then, to Christian singing:

One is inward and God-ward — I make melody to the Lord with my heart, my inner man. It is emotional, but not exclusively emotional. And fortunately, it does not require a good or trained set of vocal cords; it does require a heart that can appreciate Christ. I can do this with other Christians or I can do it alone at home. Worshipping in spirit through song may happen corporately or individually.

But the second component is outward, and concerned with the needs of other believers — we ‘address’ or ‘speak to’ one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. It is an act of communication, and as such must occur in a common language, musically and lyrically.

Musically, it’s pretty basic that if the instrumentation drowns out the lyrics or makes them less intelligible, a song doesn’t communicate in any useful way.

Lyrically, a good hymn must be biblical, contemporary enough that the language and metaphors can be understood by all, and must say something worth thinking about, or else why waste several minutes of time on it.

There’s certainly more to it than that, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten.

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