Sunday, October 30, 2011

truth matters

"It's truth, but it's not worship."

This was a line written by a fellow blogger to whom I responded by my last couple of posts.  Not to beat a dead horse, but this line has stuck with me over the past several weeks.

He was speaking about the text of the standard hymn "There's a Wideness in God's Mercy," which he claimed spoke truth about God, but that it wasn't worship.

I think this statement outlines the mindset that leads us to a place of complete narcissism in our services.  When our eyes are taken off God's attributes, we end up not affirming anything specific about Christianity.  Instead, we become consumed with how we feel about God and how God meets our needs.  There is little in the way of informed response at this point.

But a thorough engagement on God's attributes gives us the proper impetus for worship.  When I sing this text, for instance...

For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind. heart is filled with a love and gratitude that leads me into the worship of God.  I'm pulled out of myself and into the presence of a transcendent God who has lowered himself and let me taste the kind heart of the Eternal. 

If there's no truth, I think it's safe to say there is no worship.  Singing songs about God, that draw on concrete knowledge given to us by revelation, are as worshipful as songs can be.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Hymns Aren't Better, part 2

The nice fellow (also named "Jonathan") to whom I responded in my last post has responded on his blog, and I would like to follow-up again.  Feel free to join in the discussion if you are so moved.

“Honestly, I have never been to a church that had a “vital traditional congregation.” My comment about the hymns was based on flipping through the thick book and realizing that there are songs that are no good lyrically in there. The point being that modern songs fall into that category. I’m pretty picky and would argue that some modern songs would fall into the once-done-but-now-thankfully-forgotten category, just as those unsung hymns.”

Again, my guess is that not being familiar with the standard repertoire is a real problem here. My guess is that some of the best hymns are those you’re not familiar with, such as those by Wesley or Watts. There are vapid hymns (though most of them are gospel songs by definition), though most of them have fallen out of use prior to the publication of any modern hymnals. “In the Garden” is the best example of one that has remained, and without apparent reason that I can see.

“Point one shows lack of knowledge when it comes to modern songs. There really is nothing wrong with that. If I was only familiar with poor modern songs, I’d stay away too.”

Point taken, and though I certainly don’t keep up constantly, I’m around the scene enough to here what’s happening. I am occasionally impressed by a text, that’s for sure.

“So, if they are music driven, it isn’t what drives me to those songs. To address the last sentence: the way a song is crafted is neither right nor wrong. It is.”

Well, I think we need to think more deeply about this, and I won’t go on and on here, other than to say that music matters theologically, as does everything else we do. There are theological connotations to musical setting. [What I mean is, music is not amoral, even if it is contextual.  It does have ethical, moral and theological connotations.]

“Point three I think is partially true. Because of the limitation by modern song form one cannot write as much theology into a song. But the same truth should resonate when singing the less verbose modern song. Songs like Hillsong’s “Desert Song” touches on good theology.”

You’re right in that not every song needs to be a deep theological treatise, but they should be a) correct, b) well-crafted, and c) solid.

“To address the last sentence I’m not arguing for CCM, I’m arguing for modern worship songs. Most CCM I can live without. I don’t even listen to it because after hearing a few songs there is nothing to draw me to it lyrically or theologically.”

I use the term to abbreviate. If it’s more inclusive, we can use “modern.”

“If you have looked at the songs I mentioned in this reply I hope you can come away encouraged that not all modern songs are bad, just as all hymns aren’t good, which was the main point I was trying to get across.”

You’re right. Not all the texts are bad. But there is more to consider. First, the best of hymnody is better than the best of “modern” and reflects a deeper theological concern. Second, never in the history of congregational song has it been the practice to only sing new songs and in a new style. New hymns were always being written and added to the ranks of the previous years. Now, the practice is to only sing new songs and to sing them in a vernacular style. There is, quite simply, no reason for this.

“If we search “new” and “song” in the Bible we will find we are commanded to sing a new song. Continually singing old songs is disobedience. If hymn style is important than more songs like Stewart Townend’s “In Christ Alone” and “How Deep The Father’s Love For Us” should be undertaken. It is our duty to obey Scripture and write new songs. Thankfully, God didn’t demand a style.”

When we are told to “sing a new song,” it most certainly doesn’t mean songs that are chronologically “new.” That is a complete “uninterpretation.” It means that we are to rejoice afresh in the love and grace of the Lord. And the traditional format, again, does not mean just simply “old.” There are new hymns being written all the time, as there always have been, in a classical or neutral style, instead of a vernacular, fleeting style.

:BTW just to give it a shot I found the article mentioned and looked at the list and read the lyrics to “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy.” It’s truth, but it’s not worship. It is us singing to us to remember truth. There is nothing wrong with that (as we are commanded to so by Paul), but I wouldn’t sing it call it a worship song. ”

Sorry, friend. This statement demonstrates the influence of contemporary understanding of “worship.” Worship is “reverential human acts of submission and homage before the divine Sovereign, in response to his gracious revelation of himself, and in accordance with his will” (Daniel I. Block). The contemporary definition is something like “speaking directly to God in a church service with simplicity and felling.” That is completely unbiblical and erroneous. Singing songs about God are concise reminders of God’s self-revelation can be very worshipful. Humbly listening to Scripture is worshipful. Reciting creeds is worshipful. These are all worshipful acts. Additionally, whatever we do in a service can only compose a tiny piece of worship, if that much. We are to encourage each other and listen to God’s self-revelation, so that we can spur one another on to actual, life-consuming worship.

In fact, there are some who would suggest what we do in a service is not worship, because it doesn’t demand anything out of us. I’m wouldn’t go that far, but words, even if we mean them honestly and authentically, cost us next to nothing. It’s the same thing if I were to tell me wife all the nice things I think of her, but I do nothing to actually show it, the words have no meaning.

It’s time we get this straight. You, me, and everyone. Singing songs about God, that draw on concrete knowledge given to us by revelation, are as worshipful as songs can get.

Here are some examples, if you'd like:
Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above
Built on the Rock the Church Doth Stand
O Worship the King
Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
There Is a Fountain
Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah
The God of Abraham Praise
The Church's One Foundation
Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation
Be Thou My Vision

Saturday, October 1, 2011

"Hymns Are Not Better Than New Worship Songs": Aigner's Response

During my regular stroll through the neighborhood of church music blogs, I came across this guy at Thoughts on Worship and his post on why hymns are not better than new worship songs.

Of course, this is just the opposite of the sort of statement that I'm looking for, but it's hard to pass this by.  This fellow is certainly well-meaning and likely authentic, and it's not my intention to jump all over him about this, but I think his post highlights a few of the problems with the typical CCM perspective on hymn texts.  Read it first, then join in my discussion.

First, he quotes the text of a popular gospel hymn, "How Great Thou Art."  Is there anything wrong with this text?  Not really, except that some of it (like the whole second stanza, which he leaves out) is more sentimental than anything else.  All in all, it's a decent hymn text, but not a good example of a strong hymn text.  This is the first problem.  When CCM people think of hymns, they think of some of the weakest hymn texts, usually made into gospel songs with the verse\refrain style.  "How Great Thou Art, "In the Garden," and "The Old Rugged Cross" are some of the ones I hear mentioned a lot.  But they're far from the most theologically rich texts, like those of Luther, Wesley, Cowper and the like. 

And this is not all their fault.  They have obviously never been to churches that have taught them the standard hymns instead of only the populist, revivalist style gospel hymns.  But if they truly consider themselves church musicians, they'll get on the ball.  Christianity Today's recent list of most enduring standard hymns is a good place to start.  There's not an overly sentimental one of the list.  Well, "Just As I Am" toes the line, but nothing so sentimental you have to go fetch the mop.

Second, he goes on to announce the following:
We go through less hymns than we do modern songs. When I think back to being a kid I still know more modern songs than old hymns...The good ones keep being sung, while the old ones fade away. Have you ever looked at a hymnal? Those things are huge and we usually only sing a few dozen at most, and a dozen of those are Christmas songs.

This clearly indicates his church wasn't really a hymn-singing church, or he just wasn't paying attention.  The church I serve has sung somewhere around 100 different hymns since last Advent, and there are a number of good ones we haven't gotten around to yet.  If this guy doesn't know "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" or "Sing Praise to God, Who Reigns Above," or "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" or "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," then he's clearly not in a position to comment on the validity or the endurance or the salience of the texts, nor of the hymnody genre, at large.

This is the point if someone ever argues that hymns are better: hymns we sing are good because they have stood the test of time. Truth endures.

It's funny, because I've been arguing that hymns are better for years, and I've heard many argue the point better than I can, and none of the good arguments have centered on the fact that they've simply hung around.  So clearly he's been listening to the wrong arguments or arguing with the wrong people.

For one thing, hymns are not necessarily old.  There are fantastic new hymns being written regularly, though not as well as they once were, since the art has been lost on many.  But there are a number of good, strong hymn texts that have been written in the past couple of decades and paired with good, singable melodies in a classical or folk style.  We have to remember that "traditional" does not mean "old."  It means, well in our case, something that is created in the vein as an established tradition.  Some of the traditions have been around for two thousand years or longer, but some of the content is as fresh as anything being done on the contemporary side.

What separates the best hymns from the weaker hymns and songs is that they are grounded and steeped in theology.  They are not songs about how God meets my needs and how much I like God and how much God likes me.  They are songs that proclaim Christian truth through the vividness of concrete example (i.e. "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."  Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing, were not the right man on our side, the man of God's own choosing...).  The best songs humbly cite God's self-revelation as the basis for our worship.  The worst songs say nothing or nearly nothing distinctive about Christianity and the Christian God.  Many of them could, with a couple minor changes, be about girlfriends or mexican food or a trip to Paris.

Am I talking about all CCM texts here?  Of course not.  There are some fabulous texts out there.  But we would do well to look at the very best hymnody has to offer when we are composing or selecting texts for Christian corporate worship so that we avoid what is happening far too often today in churches.   Regent (the good one, not the Pat Robertson one) professor John Stackhouse, who is an amateur musician who has played in more progressive church settings gives this blunt account.  It might seem insensitive, but I think the truth is too important to pass up: "We are the most educated Christians in history, and yet our lyrics are considerably stupider than our much less educated Christian forebears–the people who sang lyrics by Fanny Crosby or Charles Wesley or Isaac Watts."

This individual's post highlights the huge need for all church musicians to be adequately trained in theology, music theory, and church history, especially the history of church music.  I don't necessarily mean everyone has to be seminary trained or have music degrees (though that certainly is a huge advantage), but more that those disciplines need to be a huge, ongoing part of our professional development.  Whatever "style" or genre or music you select, we're all measured by the same theological yardstick.