One of the places where Christian writers are most exposed to the world is in hymns–songs used in worship that (at least in the past) had poems as their texts.  Can you imagine an age in which “worship songs” were thought worth reading apart from their music?  Should Christian writers be contributing to the church’s worship music today?  How?  Are there principles that apply to art in general–whether music or writing–that ought to be brought to bear in this area?

How should we approach the “Worship Wars” as writers who are also pastors, ministers of music, and lay persons?  We must first realize that the question is not whether music is old or new but whether it is good.  We cannot discern the best contemporary worship music without knowing those marks of excellence that made the best of the past stand out.  Biblical truth, theological profundity, poetic richness, musical beauty, and the fitting of music to text in ways that enhance rather than distort meaning, are the marks of excellence in any age.  They are not arbitrary, but derived from biblical teaching about the nature of worship and an understanding of the nature of music.

Protestant hymnody has always insisted on Biblical Truth.  The earliest congregational songs for Reformation churches were paraphrased Scripture texts.  The metrical Psalms of Sternhold and Hopkins (1549) was the most popular book in Elizabethan England.  By the Eighteenth Century, writers like Watts, Cowper, Newton, and the Wesleys felt free to compose words of praise that were not strict paraphrases of Scripture.  But they still felt obligated to ensure that their words were Scriptural.  Often hymns were printed with the biblical references that justified their content appended to every verse.

Theological Profundity also marks the best of past hymnody.  Even simple folk praised a majestically transcendent God with a graciously incarnated Son who saved them by grace through faith.  The best texts not only lifted them up in worship but also helped them interpret their own religious experiences in biblically sound ways.  So we sing to One who is “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, / In light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”  We give our “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation.”  Has anyone ever applied the specifics of the atonement to the experience of conversion better than Charles Wesley in “And Can it Be?”

Poetic Richness is a virtue that must be pursued carefully, because a text that is too allusive can be confusing for average people and thus hinder rather than enrich worship.  Nevertheless, appropriate kinds of literary excellence have a role.  Examples include gems like the use of the questions in “What Child is this?” to capture the wonder of the incarnation, the appropriate military metaphors in that great meditation on spiritual warfare, “A Mighty Fortress,” or the choice of a simple, evocative word like “wretch” in “Amazing Grace.”  Little touches that make a text more intellectually suggestive or emotionally powerful without making it unnecessarily difficult will show up in hymns that survive the test of time, while texts that are just rhymed prose with tunes attached are more forgettable.

Musical Beauty might be thought to be in the ear of the hearer.  To a certain extent, it is.  Nevertheless, there are contours, structures, and cadences that make for a sing-able melody and harmonic felicities that can make that melody more memorable or even haunting.  Think of how Slane (“Be Thou my Vision”) rises and falls like an ocean wave, the gently rolling ABA structure of Ebenezer (“Oh the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus”), the men’s voices in Diadem (the “complicated” version of “All Hail the Power”) punctuating the flowing women’s line in the chorus, or the inner parts moving against the still melody in the third measure of Nicaea (“Holy, Holy, Holy”).

A good Fit between the Words and their Musical Setting is essential to great worship music even when text and tune are both excellent in themselves.  The most egregious violation of this principle may be A. B. Simpson’s “A Missionary Cry”: “A hundred thousand souls a day / Are marching one by one away. / They’re passing to their doom.”  If ever there was content demanding a minor key and a dirge-like tempo . . . but this song is set to a completely inappropriate snappy march tune! Examples of good fit are the meditative, plainsong-derived melodies of Picardy in the contemplative “Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” and Divinum Mysterium in “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” or the sprightly, joyous rhythms of Ariel in “Oh Could I Speak the Matchless Worth.”

CONCLUSION:  Biblical truth, theological profundity, poetic richness, musical beauty, and appropriate fitness are not matters of style.  They are the marks of excellence for worship music in any age, but only knowledge of musical history can tell us this.  Only musicians who are classically and historically (as well as biblically and theologically) trained are poised to guide the church in judicious appropriation of the best new music as a supplement to her rich musical heritage.  And only writers who are so trained are poised to provide the texts to that music.

Every hymn in the hymnbook was contemporary when it was written.  Some of their authors crop up more often than others because their work manifested truth, profundity, richness, beauty, and fitness more powerfully and reliably.  The church should still cling to their work, both for its intrinsic merit and because only an informed familiarity with that merit can help us discern and propagate the best “new songs” being written today.

Donald T. Williams, PhD, teaches at Toccoa Falls College and sings Baritone with the Toccoa Falls Singing Men.

Check out Dr. Williams’ books at Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), Reflections on Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012), and Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed. (Lantern Hollow, 2012).  Each is $15.00 + shipping. 



About gandalf30598

Theologian, philosopher, poet, and critic; minister of the Gospel who makes his living by teaching medieval and renaissance literature; dual citizen of Narnia and Middle Earth.

Posted on October 15, 2012, in Christianity, Donald Williams, Poetry, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. An excellent post, and an excellent topic. Modern music has not failed to reach the heights that past music has, but the rarity of anything even close to those heights has increased substantially. Few and far between are the christian musicians today who invest in even a portion of the training and learning necessary to match the hymns of old.

    First and foremost of this, I believe, is true mastery of the art of music. In the past, the composers of Christian hymns were no less than Bach and Mozart and the like. Today, few of them know more than how to strum a guitar. If you really insist on playing a guitar, at least learn to play it RIGHT. But more than that, learn keys, learn stanzas, learn verse, learn music, and if you plan to do ANYTHING that involves ANY instrument you DON’T know how to play, learn what that instrument’s limits are.

    Secondly, learn literature. Learn how to say what you want so that it stirs the soul even without notes.

    I would say that most important is to learn God, but I have heard many pieces today that showed the authors knew God reasonably well. These pieces leave me no doubt they were inspired, but sadly the person who was so inspired didn’t know enough of their craft to do the inspiration justice. As such, these songs barely touch the glory of God. I weep for every such song that could have been SO much more.

  2. Thanks, Colin. For a fuller treatment of these matters, see my article “Durable Hymns: Five Marks of Excellence that could End the Worship Wars,” TOUCHSTONE: A JOURNAL OF MERE CHRISTIANITY 22:6 (July-August 2009): 19-21.

  3. I have deeper and stronger connections to old hymns than to any other music. However, I do get frustrated when a church refuses to even consider any song that has been written within the last century. There have been great modern hymns written, though few and far between.

    What I would love to see is a strong movement toward hymn writing today and for churches to continue to incorporate the new ones in with the old.

  4. Amen, Melissa. I completely agree. As I said in the longer article: “Preserve the best of the old; support the best of the new.” And these are the criteria by which we can recognize both. Unfortunately, few churches today are doing either.

  5. T.P. Johnston, Jr., Ph.D.

    Excellent article. Our church is seeking to use both the excellent music of the past as well as that which is currently excellent. Unfortunately, there is a virtual dearth od the latter available. As a senior pastor I am seeking to challenge those with musical gifts to cultivate excellence and perhaps give us some fresh music worthy of the God of Glory!

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