Thursday, February 04, 2021

Horrific Hymnology

A year or so ago I wrote three posts on music (you can find them here, here and here). My point — then and now — was that we all have a responsibility to be discerning and to choose our music based on biblical principles rather than personal preference. And so that I would not be taking that responsibility away from anyone, I talked about the key principles rather than particulars of which musical pieces might be indicted or approved by a discerning observer.

Moreover, if anyone did not agree with me about their selections for congregational singing, I did not want to pass any judgment on them. After all, we all stand or fall to our own Master. So if the hymns and songs somebody else’s congregation wants to sing don’t square with the sort of list I would choose, I say, “No hard feelings.” I am not the last word in musical orthodoxy.

The key principles I underlined were these:
  1. Music is a form of teaching, so Christian congregational music should be doctrinally sound.
  2. Music is a form of collectively celebrating that doctrine, so Christian congregational music should be of high musical quality and singability.

I would have thought that quite an uncontentious way to deal with a contentious subject: leave the discernment to the reader, and say no more that the Bible says about it. Nevertheless, one or two respondents afterward were adamant that I owed them to be more specific: to condemn or approve particular pieces. Barring that, they claimed, I would surely be bluffing when I said there was a problem requiring our rethinking.

Department of Missing-the-Point, really.

My concern in responding to them, as I said then, was that we all have sentimental choices: “This is the tune we sang at Aunt Flora’s funeral”, “Evangelist X has saved thousands through his altar calls to that hymn”, “That tune always bring tears to my eyes; how can you be so cruel as to criticize it”. Such objections may be sentimental nonsense, but we humans are often creatures of sentiment and nostalgia rather than good sense. I saw no reason to bring inflamed passions of that sort to bear on a subject that really needed to be thought over with good sense and sound discernment.

On the flip side, I found myself wondering if the objectors really thought the entire catalogue of Christian songs and hymns was perfect, or whether they were simply looking to pick a fight based on their own preferences, and then feel justified in dismissing the whole argument.

At the same time, the objectors were calling upon me to ante up. And that isn’t entirely unfair, even if it was unproductive at the time. I’m not one to shun controversy when necessary; so I responded that when enough time had elapsed to allow my initial postings to have had their effect, I might just do that.

Now, to keep faith with the objectors and to show that I actually remember what I say, here we go.

Here’s a short list of my choices for the ashcan.

Category 1: Bad Doctrine
  1. Songs preoccupied with self.  Often, you can detect these by the frequency of the first-person pronoun (“I” and “me”) rather than the third-person pronoun (“he”, “him”). I certainly wouldn’t reject every hymn or song that uses “I”, even exclusively. I’d keep some, for sure. But being absorbed with nothing but self and one’s own benefits and feelings, rather than with the greatness of God and the marvels of his mercy, is surely an indicator of spiritual shallowness.

    So let’s keep things like Oh, How I Love Jesus (“because he first loved me”) and dump more self-centered options like Heart of Worship. If “it’s all about you”, then make sure the “you” is not your own feelings instead of the Lord.

    Worse by far is the “Torch Song to Jesus” genre in which the lyrics are so vague as to be easily confused with a secular love song of questionable virtue. In these, how I feel takes over completely from the One who ought to be the focus of our love.

    Into the ashcan goes Marie Barnett’s abysmal Breathe. A Christian simply cannot sing “I’m lost … I’m desperate”.
  2. Songs that lie about the church.  A good example here is We Have Come Into His House. No, we have not. We ARE his house. The building is a hall, a storage space on the level of a community center. Its sole value is when it is occupied by Christ’s people, and other than that it is not in any way sacred. The focus is totally wrong, and the teaching is contrary to scripture.
  3. Other songs that teach false doctrine.  Here I would reject any song that implies that once saved, the believer can be lost again. Likewise, I’d sack any song that implies the Holy Spirit can depart the believer and then return again. Goodbye, Spirit of the Living God.

    I’d even sack a song that was otherwise scriptural but lacked the context to make its doctrine applicable to the congregation. Create In Me a Clean Heart has to go even though it’s quoting scripture, because God does not “cast” the believer “away from his presence” and “take [his] Holy Spirit” from him. (By the way, if you think scripture cannot be illegitimately used, read Matthew 4 before you pillory me for this one.)

    Another one that certainly must go, and it cannot be too soon, is Lord, Have Mercy, which not only agonizes about the potential of becoming a lost soul again, but musically speaking has all the rhythmic quality of the medieval monk’s lash.
  4. Songs with bizarre, untruthful or misleading imagery.  Here let me pick There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood. Really? There is such a fountain? And it squirts blood? And people go “plunge” themselves “beneath the flood”? The grotesque imagery exceeds the biblical teaching that we are redeemed “by the blood” (i.e. by merit of the offered life of Christ, not by a literal bloody fountain). There are good bits of this old hymn, but that’s not one of them. Rewrite or reject.

    Gone too has to be Days of Elijah. Does no one notice that these are, in fact, NOT the days of Elijah?
  5. Empty songs.  I’m told There’s Something About That Name. However, the song never says anything about “That Name” except to mouth it over and over fawningly, as if some magical effect is guaranteed to ensue. Sorry. Not buying it. If there’s “something”, then say what it is. If you’ve got nothing to say, then don’t say it so effusively. Worship time is precious. Don’t waste it.
Category 2: Bad Music
  1. Music that congregations sing poorly.  Let’s start with songs that plod and bellow. Now, in this example I’m going to lose all my Lutheran readers, for I will chose A Mighty Fortress. Never mind that it contains a whole verse rhapsodizing about Satan’s power (a thing noted but not emphasized in scripture), the thing is just musically clumsy. If you like the music, then wonderful for you. Count me out.
  2. Arrangements that contain bizarre bridges and off-kilter choruses that merely throw off congregational singing.  Songs with no rhythm. For example, take a look at most of the new bridges written to jazz up old hymns, and see if they have anywhere near the content of the originals. See also if the music associated with them has a smooth and natural pattern relative to the original. If not, cut the bridge out so people can sing properly.

    Into the ashcan goes Chris Tomlin’s inept, redundant bridge for Francis Havergal’s Take My Life.
  3. Performance Music.  This refers specifically to the sort of music that a soloist can sing well but a congregation cannot. I’m thinking here of pieces like My Tribute, a solo piece eminently suited to AndraĆ© Crouch’s formidable pipes, but utterly unsingable (painful, even) for most vocally-mixed congregations. Likewise, I would turf out any music that requires complex instrumentation, unless the instruments and musicians with adequate skill were on hand. These pieces are fine for personal listening purposes, but make congregational singing difficult and unwieldy. Some performance music can be salvaged by being rearranged for congregational use, and I have no objection to this being done. In fact, it might be a very good idea.
In Summary

Now, assuming that my former objectors are provided above enough examples to satisfy them that I was serious about our need to become more discerning about church music, let us move on from the negative to the positive. In a future post, I would like to suggest a few very good musical and lyrical achievements in Christian music as examples of how things can be done.

The point then as now will not be that everyone will agree with every selection I make. Perhaps I’m bound to insult someone’s taste, and find sympathy with others. The point is this: are there ANY songs above with which you would agree we should be more discerning, or will there be ANY of the songs which I will list in the upcoming post with reference to which you find yourself agreeing?

If so, then you know what I’ve been advocating all along is true: there are better and worse songs and hymns for congregational singing, and all Christians would benefit from being discerning about what they choose for their music.

And if that point wins the day, then it’s all good.

*  Picture courtesy Paul M. Walsh

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