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.


gbroughto said...

Some other pet hates:
1. the entirely predictable key change

2. Scripture to (not in) Song... how anyone ever thought that Rms 8:1 could fit into the first line of a song, I'll never know

3. Reworking the traditional hymns, but retaining the awful, original music and mutating the words (at least at Streetwize Church with the homeless in Kings Cross we had the decency to do it the other way around, e.g. sing "Amazing Grace" to the tune of "House of the Rising Son" or "What A Friend we have in Jesus" to the tune "The Rose" etc., etc.,

4. the entirely predictable chord progression (okay, Dylan is also guilty of this, but gee he does it well!)

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with much of what is said here and in the referenced post by Stackhouse. I think, however, that there is one key piece that has been left out: context. Take, for instance, African-American spirituals. When fairly affluent white folks sing them, it often seems like escapist sentimentalism; when those who are genuinely oppressed (like the slaves who originally wrote them) or those who stand in true solidarity with the oppressed sing, the same song can become a powerful testimony. Now, that does nothing to help hymns like "In the Garden." But I think it does add a dimension that may keep us from lumping, say, the entire 19th c. together as "crap." Maybe it's the case that the really good hymns weren't preserved in our hymnals because they were genuine threats to the predominant church mentality of the status quo at the time?


Anonymous said...

Another great hymn writer, I think, is Isaac Watts:

No more, my God, I boast no more
Of all the duties I have done;
I quit the hopes I held before,
To trust the merits of thy Son.

Now, for the love I bear his name,
What was my gain I count my loss;
My former pride I call my shame,
And nail my glory to his cross.

Yes, and I must and will esteem
All things but loss for Jesus' sake:
O may my soul be found in him,
And of his righteousness partake!

The best obedience of my hands
Dares not appear before thy throne;
But faith can answer thy demands
By pleading what my Lord has done.

Alex said...


Your line about ending on a banality cracked me up as soon as I looked up the definition of the word. I started imagining all the words on which we crescendo and you make a great point about how silly. It's one thing to burst a blood vessel as you sing "Glory!" or "Lord!" at the top of your lungs. But crowning him with many "Crowns!" is just not something my soul really feels the need to cry out or scream about.

So thanks for the post.

Brian D. said...

Equally as bad is the poorly thought-out liturgical context that these bad hymns and songs often find themselves within. In other words, five back-to-back bad contemporary songs, an un-annouced prayer (which you only know is a prayer because those around you are bowing heads), then a quick entery into the sermon, and bam! you're done. Repeat weekly.

joel hunter said...

Well, I enjoyed reading Dr. Stackhouse's post, if for nothing else than the predictable "How dare you!" responses.

I agree in the main with both yours and Stackhouse's analyses. But what do we hear when we listen to and sing a hymn? Not just words, but also a tune. One reason I dislike most hymns is that the tune is often an afterthought, a necessary vehicle that, with a choice note here or there, aims to "enhance" the text. ISTM this indicates a deep historical amnesia about music.

Great hymnody requires discipline in tunecraft. The tune "speaks" (the tune is textual) and the failure of much hymnody (esp. since the ascendancy of Reformation pietism) is to allow non-textual forces (sentiment, ideology, and, Zeus forbid, style) to shape and ultimately dominate the tune. You then have competing and clashing "texts" in many hymns. Reworked hymns are some of the worst: the text may have once been paired to an insipid tune, but the "modernized" tune often blares (or whispers) an anti-thesis to the text. I'll gladly endure the insipid tune to the contradictory one. But I daresay that we're all but deaf to this (technics privileges the visual).

A good or great hymn is not just one with a profound, rich text. That may work for propositionally inflected Westernized mental "worship" (intellect + feeling). I would argue that a good or great hymn must be a real harmony of text and tune. Hymns rarely achieve such a balanced whole. This may be because, as you and Stackhouse note, the text is stupid (for technical and/or semantic reasons). But it also because (and I would guess is usually because) the tune is stupid, i.e., doesn't fit (even a mediocre text). Consider a visual analogy. Imagine one's "worship leader" singing the hymn with all earnestness (or whatever "mood" is thought to fit the text) but is wearing a diaper outside their pants.

Encouraging our best poets and wordsmiths is part of the solution. Training historically grounded and musically gifted tune craftsmen and women is another. Both require hard work, apprenticeship and spiritual discipline.

LoieJ said...

Are you overlooking hymns from traditions other than your own?

Some of the old hymns in our hymnals are not great because they are a bad translation from some other language fit into English and made to rhyme.

I would agree, however, that really bad old hymns have been winnowed out through the years and so will the bad "praise music" which emphasized the praiser, rather than the "praisee." I'm personally not into trance inducing music, even if the message might be valid.

LoieJ said...

OH yeah, how come In The Garden is still around? Some churches refuse to use it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the historical perspective is important. We are the benefactors of generations of filtering hymns. We have people like Ralph Vaughan Williams to thank. When editing the famous The English Hymnal (1906), Williams noted that he had to throw-out or re-work a lot of rubbish.

Anonymous said...

My dad used to play Keith Green on the way to church when I was a kid.

Unfortunately, I find myself really cynical towards most modern praise songs. I just can't get behind the sentiments being sung about, most times, so on many Sundays at the PUSA church I go to, I find myself silent during worship.

If you are as cynical as me, here is a funny take on it:

jstamps said...

I sing bass in the choir at the Eastern Orthodox church I attend (in San Jose CA). More than once I've had to stop singing because I was choked up by the amazingly beautiful arrangements and lyrics. Eastern Orthodox hymnography is perhaps the exception to the hymn rule. Our lyrics are written by St John of Damascus or St Romanos the Melodist and our music is written by amazingly gifted Russian composers. Plus there's some pretty amazing music written by contemporaries. My little parish uses a combination of Russian, Byzantine, and contemporary American music. I have many complaints about Eastern Orthodoxy. None of them are about our music!

Anonymous said...

I understand that within conservative Free Church circles in Scotland, the question of whether it is legitimate to sing anything but the psalms in worship is still a live one. It's a question that has some merit, at least in so far as it reminds us of the role that the psalms have traditionally played in the worship of the Church. And perhaps, given the sentimentality of both nineteenth-century bourgeois and twenty-first century late-capitalist styles of worship, it would be worth entertaining the idea (proposed only half in jest) of a 10 year period in which, during worship, the Church sings/chants only the psalms. This seems to me an excellent pastoral strategy, and would have important spin-offs in terms of the spiritual and intellectual formation of members of the Church. And all we have to lose is more Hillsong. Which makes it, in Stephen Covey’s words, a “win-win” situation.

Unknown said...

My own 'most hated' category is "hymns with unecessary, anachronistic and ungrammatical archaisms". One fave includes the line:

"but you reigneth over all" AAAAAARGHHH!

Anonymous said...

My old hated category was keeping the hymn words and changing them to new "funky" music. Just write your own damn words. Plus new music doesn't like Common Metre as much as you think it does.

My new hated category contains one song at the moment - the new Amazing Grace with lyrics and words in tact - but a new "chorus" sun every two verses! It's like saying "the words are good, the music is good, but it needs that extra jazz to be acceptable to the new generation..."

My vote for best hymn of the 20th C is Shine Jesus Shine.

Anonymous said...

I don't presume to be able to tell a good hymn from a poor one, but I've always found this line from 'It is well with my soul' incongruously funny: 'My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought!' Our congregation sings that line with such sincere mournfulness, I always struggle to keep a straight face.

Weekend Fisher said...

Here's a pet peeve of mine: words which call for solemnity set to music with nearly a show-tune beat, or a serious topic treated flippantly in the lyrics. We were singing a really wretched one last Sunday where we had a zippy upbeat tune with Jesus' "precious bleeding side" thrown in. When we as a congregation go to Golgotha, please get the happy-clappy tunes the blazes out of there.

KnotOnABlog said...

Thank you, for adding a bit of balance to Mr. Stackhouse's unnecessarily negative and nit-picky post.

While I agree that people are far too willing to accept mediocrity, when it comes to the hymns they sing. Should anyone be surprised, given the widespread tolerance of mediocrity in the theology they're fed?

The whole discussion of hymn quality brought to mind a C .S. Lewis quote about church attendance:

"I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren't fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit." --God in the Dock

Mr. Stackhouse may be a nice man. But he comes across as someone who's conceit could use a little "peeling off".

Thanks again for such a well-balanced post.

Anonymous said...

Leadryl said:
My vote for best hymn of the 20th C is Shine Jesus Shine.

This is one of the mindless hymns. Lutheran at least have hymns in their their hymnal that teach.

Anonymous said...

I'm suprised no one has mentioned John Mason Neale. Admittedly, his hymns are mostly translations from early church sources, but the theology is certainly solid.

Unknown said...

"My vote for best hymn of the 20th C is Shine Jesus Shine."

If you change "best" to "most representative of badness," then I completely agree. Another substitute is "most amenable to crystallewisization."

Oh, and for those who for some reason think that a proper response to this post is to mention individual songs or songwriters who may or may not be good, note that Ben's argument doesn't imply that these songs don't exist, but that they are few and far between in any era. (And that certainly includes medieval-era Byzantine music as well.) A single good example doesn't do anything to affect the overall argument.

Anonymous said...

There is no difference anymore between the dominant culture and the culture of the (evangelical and envious mainline imitator) Church except the Church is decorated with superficial (as in surface, not trite...ok well, sometimes trite) biblical and mythic language. You might as well sing that junk at a rock area, an all-night skate, or, on the other end of the spectrum, at an Al Gore rally.
The Mystery of the Risen Christ, transmitted to future generations in the way Jesus and his closest friends asked us to, is an afterthought anymore.

Fat said...

Sometimes the giggles can get you in the best of hymns through no fault of their own.

Jesus, thou Joy of loving hearts

Jesus, thou Joy of loving hearts,
Thou Fount of life, thou Light of men,
From the best bliss that earth imparts
We turn unfilled to thee again.

Trouble was our minister was Rev. Bliss.

I am sure we sang that hymn more when he was placed with us than at any other time - perhaps he felt inadequate or perhaps he felt it was his job to point us to Jesus.

a. steward said...

By the hymnification of leftist causes, am I right in assuming you're referring to Brian McLaren's recent musical undertaking, "Songs for a Revolution of Hope"? Consider the lyrics of his supremely edifying "Atheist":


I am an atheist when it comes to the god of violent jihad.

I am an atheist when it comes to the lord who converts by the sword

I am an atheist when it comes to the mission of politicians using religion as ammunition.

I believe in you - the artist of trees and galaxies

I believe in you - the poet of oceans and rivers and streams

I believe in you - the god of compassion who calls us to action

I believe in you

I can’t believe what they believe but I believe in you (4X)
I can’t believe what they believe but I believe in you (4X)

Unknown said...

All the years of bad Christian music at least gives fuel to the Christian's favorite pass time: judging others.

Anonymous said...

i agree with Stackhouse's complain about contemporary Christian hymns. today's hymns are stupider and it cheapens the act of worship we render to our Holy God considering that we are the most educated Christians in history. i think it is because Christians nowadays write songs to impress, lacking sincerity and a truly worshiping soul.

Anonymous said...

First of all, we should all get one thing straight: the DAVID CROWDER BAND writes the best church music.! :D

Second, why so judgemental? We are commanded to sing to the Lord a new song. I don't think it wise to judge the hearts of God's children who are obeying this command. YES, we should make sure songs are scriptural, so yes we should be selective. BUT, remember that different styles and lyrics minister to different people at different places, at different times.
Hundreds of thousands of songs have been written over the years and will continue to be written. Not every song is the greatest song ever written and will stand the test of time. I find a few dozen traditional hymns still very powerful today and play them regularly at church mixed along with many modern songs that are also very powerful. (Among my favorites are In Chris Alone and How Deep the Father's Love as named above). Is the next generation going to find some of our modern songs as powerful as this generation finds them? Certain ones they will, others may be replaced by new songs... So what? Praise God for all of them! May His Name be glorified through it all. I am glad He looks at the heart and doesn't sit there and say "This song doesn't have perfect rhythm or rhyme" or "ugh.... They are such sucky poets that this is killing me. Why don't they stop singing to me?", or "I hate this melody!" Fortunately, by His grace, he inhabits the praises of his children. It is us sinful children whose sinful hearts often focus on the outside, while failing to be where we should on the inside. Thus, we miss the whole purpose of worship!

Anonymous said...

I personally would love to see hymns culled of their archaisms. We don't talk like that anymore, so why sing like that?

KnotOnABlog said...

Anonymous said: I personally would love to see hymns culled of their archaisms. We don't talk like that anymore, so why sing like that?

Maybe as a way of acknowledging our history. The Christian faith is nearly 2,000 years old. Singing old hymns reminds us of that heritage. Singing them as they were written celebrates and gives voice to the lives and faith of those who came before us. It can also be humbling, in that it reminds us of what a long, rich, and vibrant story we are participanting in.

Biner said...

I believe that the stupidification of Christian songs are in direct parallel with the stupidification of secular music in general, and when it comes to attracting new people to Christ (which is our duties as Christians), at a glance, this actually makes sense.
However, I believe that as Christians we should be leading by example, and not following a downward trend.

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