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.


  1. Love it Jon! Especially that Stackhouse quote at the end!

    And yes, there's drivel in my hymnal too...a large part of it composed in the latter decade of the 19th century and the first two of the 20th. This was not one of the better periods in hymnody IMO.

    But I actually like "How Great Thou Art" a great deal...not sure why they're knocking that one. It's not up with some of the great Easter hymns (Christ the Lord is Risen Today, for example), but it's still good. And it sure beats anything by David Crowder...

  2. Dan,

    Thanks again for your comment.

    I'm with you on "How Great Thou Art." It's a fine song, and if you take out stanza 2, I think it's worlds better. Musically speaking, however, it's very difficult to sing in a congregation. I like it more as a solo or choral arrangement.

    It will always be special to me, as well, because I sang it at the funeral of my sweet grandfather in September.

    But it's usually one of the first cited as a hymn example by a contemporary person, which is strange, because it's relatively new, at least in popularity, is a gospel song instead of a straight strophic hymn, and has a text that, while pretty good, isn't as theologically deep or wide or broad as any of the best. The one you named, "Christ the Lord" is a good example; so are most of Wesley's actually, along with Luther and Cowper and many others.

    All that to say: it's not a standard traditional hymn.

    And you're also right that it's worlds better than anything Crowder ever came up with.

    Did I ever tell you my DC story? I was a poor hungry college student in Waco in 2004, and I took a job at Ryan's Steakhouse. It wasn't a great job, but because Waco was the 17th poorest city in the country per capita, there weren't many jobs to go around. So I was glad to have it.

    So, on Valentine's Day, 2005, guess who I find in my section. It was DC in the flesh with his wife. I joked to the manager that I'd give him 100 bucks to go up to him and tell him he would have to wear a hair net over his face to go up to the buffet.

    Anyway, I guess his wife forgave him for taking her to Ryan's on V-Day.

  3. Maybe people who prefer non-hymns (CCM?) don't want deep theology in their songs, but simply want to ride the wave of intense emotion that often occurs while singing these songs in worship.