Feel free to dance like you’ve been bitten by a spider!
Over the last year, I’ve dusted off my trumpet. (Actually, I bought a new one. Thanks, Pastor Roger Daniel, for letting me try yours and, Scott Berry, for letting me buy one of yours.) And I’ve dusted off my composition and arranging skills, or at least I’m trying to. This arrangement of “Crown Him With Many Crowns” and “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” is a product of that. For the time being, this computer generated version will have to suffice until I can get a “real” recording made. (Pat Bowden and Cheryl Crauswell, thanks for the feedback on the piano accompaniment.)
I love hymns! I love to sing them and to play them. Unfortunately, the church tradition I grew up in used what is traditionally called gospel or convention or camp meeting songs but precious few traditional hymns. I was introduced to the vast corpus of traditional hymns of the Church in high school by two people. One was my high school choir director Marla Wilson. (I was introduced to the quadratic equation and pressure on the trapezius muscles by her husband Jerald, which is a story for another day.) The other was my band director and now long-time friend Allen Bailey.
My senior year in high school, I was in Teen Talent, a talent competition hosted by the Church of God (Cleveland) to foster participation in the arts as a means of worship and ministry. Allen arranged “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us” and “The Church’s One Foundation” for trumpet and piano and accompanied me. I fared well in the various levels of competition, but the real win was in getting to know these hymns that remain two of my favorites.
Not to make this a music class, but hymns for the last few centuries tend to be strophic, syllabic, and homophonic. This is a generalization. Different church traditions adhere to or diverge from it. Of course, the primary purpose of hymns is praise and worship of God. I recall Dr. David Horton’s (Lee University) discussion of traditional hymns, how they extoll or proclaim the attributes of God or make affirmations of faith. Generally speaking, they tend toward a more corporate than individual expression of worship. Also, they are chock full of theology, much more so and much more sound than gospel songs or contemporary worship choruses. In fact, Dr. Timothy George of Samford’s Divinity School recalls his days of seminary and how various professors would parse the lines of the hymns and joined in or refrained from singing certain verses because of their theological content. I fear today we too often glibly sing along to contemporary church music because of the catchy rhyme or repetitive hook but give no thought to the Biblical validity – or lack thereof – of the lyrics. But hymns provide the depth of Biblical truth set to tune.
Finally, some of those tunes and verses stretch back hundreds and hundreds of years. The melody of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” dates back to the early Baroque. (Today, most are probably familiar with Bach’s chorale setting of the melody, but Hans Leo Hassler is actually responsible for the melody that is used for German and English settings of the hymn.) The lyrics date back to a Latin hymn Salve mundi salutare from the Middle Ages that speaks of the physical sufferings of Christ during the crucifixion. Therefore, when we sing this hymn we are singing a melody from 500 years ago during the heart of the Protestant Reformation with lyrics from the Middle Ages during a time of suffering and uncertainty when some fifty percent of Europe died from the Black Plague. Yet, this is more than an exercise in history. It is a recognition that the same pepituary death of Jesus 2000 years ago unites us as His Body, across time, geography, language, and culture.
I still respond to the camp meeting songs I grew up with and see validity in worship choruses, both of which are a more personal expression of praise. But if these are the appetizer and dessert, the hymns are the main course, musically and theologically. If you participate in a worship tradition that uses hymns, don’t sing them dispassionately but do so with fervor and listen to the lessons of the faith contained in their lines. If you do not use hymns in your worship, may I invite you to consider adding them and join with your brothers and sisters in Christ who have sung hymns for hundreds of years to declare His majesty and love.
During the initial stay-at-home orders associated with the COVID outbreak, there were a number of things that went around social media “to keep us busy.” Now that my college is fully virtual for the foreseeable future, believe me, I’m busy! Teaching online takes lots more time. But I digress. One of the activities keeping me busy at the time was the twenty-day music challenge. The idea was to post one album cover per day for twenty days. Each album cover was from an album that was significant to me. So the twenty-day music challenge had me digging into some music deep in my memory and record bin. I even pulled my vinyl out of storage. But replaying some of the albums, I returned not just with nostalgia but a more seasoned musical ear. It was interesting and enlightening.
Since much of my musical life was in church music, I returned, hopefully, with a more mature theology also. My son, who is interested in church music, and I often discuss current songs, their musicality or lack thereof, and their theology. I had those same conversations internally also as I returned to the music of my youth. (Stop laughing, yes, I was young once.)
I hear now the nuance and ever so slight deviation from Biblical truth in well-framed and well-intended songs that I grew up listening to. Now to be fair, song lyrics are often analogy or glosses of scripture. So it isn’t fair to overly criticize them. (And I split the infinitive on purpose – This is English, not Latin). Gross error cannot be ignored, but near misses may be the nature of encapsulating a message in a pop song genre or even a hymn, though hymns generally do a better job.
On the other hand, error, even slight, for the sake of art would not have passed muster with our American (OK, English transplant) Puritan forebears in their Bay Psalm Book. In its introduction, they for the sake of truth over artistry boldly proclaimed that “God’s altar needs not our polishing.” While a caricature of the Puritans is that of backward and ill-educated, in fact, many were well-educated, enough so to take on a translation of scriptures from Greek and Hebrew to create songs for their new home in America. But they refused to sacrifice doctrinal purity for the sake of meter or rhyme.
So what’s my point?
Lots of things, including we old timers need to get the musical log out of our own eye before we criticize the youngsters… although our music was clearly better.
But more importantly for believers, if you’re getting your theology exclusively from your songs, you’re courting disaster. Instead, be a Berean Christian. Read the Word, search it, study it, know it, and “hide it your heart.” Why hide it in your heart?
That’s an allusion to a passage of scripture. Look it up! Then go back to singing, but not before.
My son Nick is graduating high school and looking toward college and career. While he is not likely to go into music as a vocation, he is considering taking music classes and using his musical talent in church music. He’s already active in our local church’s music ministry and is musically gifted…. plus he practices, which is vital. But, that’s a conversation for another day. Anyway, we have been having discussions about appropriateness of music, lyrics, etc., for different worship settings. Those conversations with my son have me reflecting on an event in a church service from a few years back.
When working on my master’s degree in music at Samford University, I took a course in its Beeson Divinity School. I was required to take two courses outside of the school of music. I chose an education course, a mistake, and a religion class with the head of the school and a fantastic instructor, Dr. Timothy George. In one of the classes, he recounted how in seminary as a student he noted that in chapel professors would not sing on certain verses of hymns because they disagreed theologically with the content of the verse. As an aside, this says something about hymns. Hymns, true hymns, are traditionally storehouses chocked full of theological “stuff,” which is one reason among many that I bemoan that my church tradition actually sang few historic hymns of the church and why I fret that even those churches that once included them have begun to drop their hymns by the wayside. But this is not about my regret at the dearth of hymns. It is, however, about bad theology set to catchy tunes.
A few years back I found myself in a church service where Dr. George’s anecdote came home to me in a visceral way. As I was participating in the congregational singing, the worship leader led a song that troubled me. Two things stood out. For one, it used the first person pronoun I ten times in the chorus. (Now, to be fair, it was a contemporary praise chorus, so it’s not like it had that many different words in it anyway). Still, as the song progressed I found myself unable to join in singing, not unlike those seminary professors who found themselves faced with a theological impasse. I could not go forward. I would not sing the lyrics.
Two things about the lyrics troubled me. First, the emphasis on I seemed at odds with the idea that we were engaged in corporate worship. Of course, I understand that individually we must have a relationship with Christ. But the emphasis was not about an individual relationship with Christ but sounded more about me… my… mine. This was reinforced, not only by the profusion of first person pronouns, but by the remainder of the lyrics.
My son, fifteen years old at the time, was in the same service. After church, he said something about how the song bothered him because of the emphasis on being so blessed and blessed every day and everyway sounded to him too much like Joel Osteen (his words, not mine). It was very much a sentiment that “I’m a winner. No worries. It’s all going to be rainbows and sunshine.” I cannot help but wonder why no one has set Romans 8:36 to music for a contemporary praise chorus: “For your sake we are killed every day, and we are accounted as sheep for slaughter.” (For the record, Romans 8:36 quotes Psalm 44:22, so it has been set to music at least once by our ancient Jewish forebears.)
I have to wonder, where is our sense of sacrifice for the sake of Christ and the gospel? How would our brothers and sisters facing persecution and martyrdom at the hands of Islamic extremists in the Middle East or at the hands of a communist government in China respond to the I-I-I-am-blessed-and-blessed-the-best songs that we glibly sing? Or what of Hus, Polycarp, or the Apostle Paul? What would they who willingly laid down their lives say about our we-are-all-winners-everyday theology?
I wonder if they would sing along or remain mute.