Thursday, 12 March 2009

Are our hymns becoming stupider?

In a spirited polemic, John Stackhouse complains about the stupidity of contemporary Christian hymns: “We are the most educated Christians in history, and yet our lyrics are considerably stupider than our much less educated Christian forebears.”

I sympathise with Stackhouse’s complaints. But in all fairness, I think the majority of hymns have always been pretty stupid. If we think the 19th century (for example) was full of great hymn-writers, it’s just because our hymnbooks today include only the highlights from that entire century. And let’s face it, even the highlights are usually pretty atrocious. Hymns typically suffer either from painfully bad lyrics or from a trivial, no-less-painful sentimentality.

The great hymns – and there are so few great hymns: if you subtract the Christmas carols and Charles Wesley, there’s hardly anything left – are always the exception. For strange and mysterious reasons, these hymns awaken our feelings of reverence and love and thanksgiving and joy. In spite of the fact that they are hymns, they somehow manage to communicate truth and to evoke deep feeling. 

Of course, there’s no single recipe for writing a great hymn. And similarly, bad hymns can be bad in several different ways. They can deploy metaphor ineptly, or they can mix metaphors in ridiculous ways (my favourite examples are hymns that get hopelessly muddled over the two different words “Son” and “sun”). They can use rhythm badly, so that the wrong kinds of words and syllables are stressed (this is most noticeable when the end-of-line stress falls on a banality). They can use horrible words with no poetic capacity (for example, I once heard a contemporary praise song with the line “this is my priority in life” – any hymn that uses the word “priority” will immediately be very very bad). And as Stackhouse observes, they can also fail to rhyme properly – although in my opinion, this is actually the least problematic feature of a bad hymn, since rhyme is far less important than the function of rhythm or metaphor or word-choice.

Furthermore, it’s worth noting that our more progressive contemporary churches have actually invented a brand new way of writing bad hymns: these are the hymns that sound not so much like worship as the recitation of an official policy document. All the fashionable leftist causes are celebrated and affirmed with solemn sincerity; everything is carefully included, so that the entire song unfolds with all the humourless deliberation of a meeting of the committee of management. As I said, there are several kinds of bad hymns; but these ones are probably the worst of all (even though it is a genuine achievement to have invented an entirely new way of writing badly).

In any case, I don’t share John Stackhouse’s pessimism about contemporary hymn writing. Hymns have always been bad; the good hymn (to say nothing of great hymns like “Amazing Grace” or “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”) will always be the exception to the rule. The historical narrative of decay and decline really has more to do with churchly nostalgia than with the actual state of present (or past) songwriting.

Take, for example, Stuart Townend’s songs such as “In Christ Alone” and “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”. These songs are infinitely richer than most of the sentimental bourgeois crap produced by 19th-century hymn writers; and I’d say the same about a Keith Green song like “There Is a Redeemer”.

Bad hymns will always abound. But if we get a few good hymns each decade – and a couple of great ones in a century – then we should rejoice and clap our hands and sing and be glad.

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