Thursday, February 11, 2021

Time to Face the Music

Did you know that some famous pop songs are about to go bottoms-up?

Yep, it’s true. Our culture has changed so rapidly in the last couple of decades that some tunes simply don’t make sense anymore.

Back in the ’70s we had Jim Croce’s “Operator”. We don’t even know what one of those is today. A little later, we had Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” and the Boomtown Rats’ lyrical reference to a telex machine. (Now, there’s an obscure one!) More recently, we stepped up to Maroon 5’s “Payphone”, or Brand New’s “Mixtape” (apparently not so brand new after all). Or what about all the references to pagers and beepers in ’90s rap songs? Gone and forgotten.

The Beatles used to sing “Back in the USSR”. The where? Elvis Presley lamented his paramour’s “Return to Sender”. The what to whom? Soon the ubiquitous icon of Joe Jackson’s “Sunday Papers” will also refer to nothing anybody can possibly recognize. Maybe they can all catch a ride out of town on C.W. McCall’s “Convoy”.

Only a few years ago (2004), Morrissey released his satirical ballad “America Is Not the World”, complaining about a place where “the President is never black”. Oops.

It happens to all music … and indeed, to all art and all technology. For a time it works; then, at some later point, it just doesn’t. And when that happens, it’s a choice: renew or die.

That’s just how it always is.

Musical Musings

Some time ago, I wrote a piece on the need for us to discern and select good music for the life of the church. At that time I pointed to two primary qualities of good spiritual music, encapsulated in the phrase “rejoicing in the truth”. The two qualities were a) scriptural truthfulness, and b) the musical quality that encourages believers to sing without hesitancy, so as to rejoice in that truth. And I said that neither a) nor b) was a disposable quality.

At that time, my comments about the less-than-ideal state of some of our hymns and songs provoked some respondents to challenge me to name particular songs and hymns, and to give reasons for my criticisms. One even suggested I would be unable to find anything seriously wrong.

At first I put off this task, for two reasons. Firstly, it seemed best to me that in looking to reform something that we did not meditate long over our failures, but rather moved on to something helpful. Secondly, I knew that the minute I named a specific hymn or song, I was going to get responses like, “How can you say that? I’ve loved that chorus since I was a child,” or “Are you kidding me? My eight-year-old daughter loves that song,” or “Aww ... we sang that hymn at our wedding.”

Since such responses had absolutely nothing to do with the two criteria upon which I wanted us to focus — doctrinal truthfulness and musical quality — I felt it best to keep my comments focused. However, in response to the criticisms of my view, I offered to do a follow-up post a little later, doing as the objectors had asked. And this you can see I did, in “Horrific Hymnology”, recently reposted.

But until Tom recently reminded me, I forgot to make good on my follow-up promise to all that. In H.H., I had promised to do a similar post on the positives of what we are doing with Christian music today. So now, here is that promise kept.

The Old Ones

Let’s start with the older stuff. Admittedly, a lot of this is dated. People don’t say “thee” and “thou” today, and some couldn’t even safely say what makes someone a “wretch” or what “meet” might mean when used as an adjective. It’s even true today that a lot of the key terms, like “glory”, “holy”, “intercessor”, “atone”, and even “sin” have lamentably been reduced to buzzwords: people understand little from such words, though they are still indispensible in Christian theology.

All this acknowledged, there are a great many hymns from the Christian tradition that were written in a time when the authors had access to a much deeper, richer theology than we do. To lose our grasp on the theology they packaged for us would be a very bad thing for the Church as a whole. And if many such songs cannot now be sung and well understood, then to save something of their wisdom for future generations of congregations and singers would be a great service to the Lord’s people.

Among these, let me pick first “O God Our Father, We Would Come to Thee”, a song that is lyrically and theologically rich beyond many. Someone needs to save that hymn. Then there is something like “Thou Art the Everlasting Word”, which needs a bit of modernizing, but hits all the right theological notes. “We Are God’s People” offers a wonderful corrective to the raw individualism of our age and restores a vision of community to God’s people as they sing — just what we now need most.

Some older songs have been successfully rescued recently. “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us” still plays well, as does “By Faith”; and I doubt that even some antiquated words will cause us to relinquish “It Is Well With My Soul” or “How Great Thou Art”. Still, sooner or later, all of these will need updating — not an easy prospect in an age which the culture is semi-literate at best. But so long as there is a single talented musician or poet of faith left alive in the world, there’s hope for that.

The New Ones

Now, everybody has his own taste in music. And here I don’t want to make mine the deciding factor: as I said in my previous post, I may not be crazy about dance beats, on the one hand, or funereal dirges, on the other; but I’ll happily sit still for these, so long as the lyrics are right and my brother or sister on the left or right is happy to sing along. That being said, I’ve noticed that rock and solo arrangements for songs are hard for any congregation to sing well. (I think even we who sometimes choose those styles for private listening have to admit that.)

Some country, folk and Celtic tunes seem to be easier for people to learn congregationally. That’s understandable, since the latter are often written for groups of singers, and are not overwhelmingly instrumental or vocally tricky. Here I have to commend some of the work done by Michael Card, Stuart Townend, The Gettys or Robin Marks. Even if they’re not your style, I think you’ll admit they produce generally singable material, and they all show real respect and careful theology in their lyrics. If not perfect, they certainly give us hope for a better hymnological future.

Now, I know I have to say this again: in mentioning these names and examples, I am not plugging for the style I personally prefer. (Those who know me know my own tastes in music are quite off the beaten ecclesiastical paths.) My sole consideration in making this case is the opportunity for all Christians to sing successfully, harmoniously, truthfully and passionately together. And if what it takes is not quite the style I listen to in my personal time, I’m quite content with that, so long as others benefit.

Pick your song, and pick your style; I don’t care, so long as it has a form that works for congregational singing, has truthful and theologically valuable lyrics, and makes people want to rejoice in the thoughts it conveys.

Just don’t ask us to sing to arrangements that are congregationally confusing, or above all, to sing things that are, from a truth perspective, shallow, careless, deficient or wrong. And I’ll be with you.

The End

This, then, puts the cap on all I have to say about modern hymnology. If all it does is raise the discussion, that’s a good reason for having written it. My conclusion is that we don’t have to have bad hymns and songs — we have a rich tradition of hymnology upon which to draw, modern talents capable of renewing our stock and, I trust, future musicians capable of adding in a principled way to our stock.

We’ve just got to realize that music matters.

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