We who preach the gospel must not think of ourselves as public relations agents sent to establish good will between Christ and the world. We must not imagine ourselves commissioned to make Christ acceptable to big business, the press, the world of sports or modern education. We are not diplomats but prophets, and our message is not a compromise but an ultimatum. A.W. Tozer

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Some Thoughts on Hymns

Of the hymns we sang in church this morning, two stood out for a couple reasons.

Grace Like Rain. This song takes a wonderful old hymn, Amazing Grace, puts it to a dirge-like tune, and then a chorus typical of contemporary Christian music. My big question is, WHY? Why take a well-known, traditional hymn and re-do it for modern tastes? And to top it off, the new version leaves out important verses! What is really disappointing is that this version has virtually replaced the original in the church.

I’m a firm believer that music should be congruent with the lyrics. For example, one certainly wouldn’t write lyrics for a love song and then put it to a Sousa march, nor would a military fighting song be put to a slow waltz. The traditional music for Amazing Grace reflects the testimony and praise behind the words. Grace Like Rain has music which is dirge-like, without any real melody, as if the singer isn’t very thrilled with the testimony - until the chorus of course. Can you imaging anyone asking for this version to be played at a funeral or other memorial ceremony? My bagpipes will only ever play the traditional version!

The other hymn we sang, which I want to mention, is one I also play on the bagpipes - The Love of God. The tune is really very congruent with the lyrics, and the lyrics are meaty. For that reason, I will close this commentary with the lyrics to this wonderful hymn.

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell;
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled,
And pardoned from his sin.

Refrain:
Oh, love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure—
The saints’ and angels’ song.

When hoary time shall pass away,
And earthly thrones and kingdoms fall,
When men who here refuse to pray,
On rocks and hills and mountains call,
God’s love so sure, shall still endure,
All measureless and strong;
Redeeming grace to Adam’s race—
The saints’ and angels’ song.

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

8 comments:

Ron Livesay said...

I had some friends sing a duet of "The Love of God" as part of my first wife's memorial service. Very appropriate and very meaningful.

drewjustice said...

I think pretty much any time you hear the word "rain" in a modern song, it implies Charismatic theology. The "rain" is supposed to be the Holy Spirit, and the "falling down" of the rain is supposed to be a Pentacost-type experience. I guess it's possible that I'm wrong, though.

Of course, it isn't the Holy Spirit that washes our sins away. It's the atonement. The Holy Spirit just enables us to believe. Hence, in the Bible the Holy Spirit is described as living water that you *drink* or that waters vegetation, not as rain that washes your sins away. (John 4:10-15; John 7:38-39; Revelation 22:1-2) And equating the Holy Spirit with "grace" just seems like bad theology, even though the Holy Spirit comes as a result of grace.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments, but one must remember that what we know as the "traditional" tune for "Amazing Grace" was not the original tune attached to the lyrics by Watts. Not every song sung in church is meant to be played on the bagpipes.

I have actually heard "Grace Like Rain" done well, and I have also heard "The Love of God" done badly. Try not to judge a song on one experience. It sounds like you experienced a bad interpretation of the song. Too bad.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

I realize the modern tune for Amazing Grace is not the original, however it has indeed been the traditional one for a century.

Grace Like Rain, bothers me because of the charismatic subtlety (as noted by drewjustice), but I have heard it many times, the first being at a church I attended in St. Louis years ago. I didn't like it then either. I've listened to it on various internet cuts, and it is still the same dirge-like, no-melody boredom. As I asked, WHY? WHY change it just to add a charismatic chorus?

OF course not every tune was meant for the pipes! I doubt if any were. I was just making the point of the different effect you get with a different tune.

Oh, and it was John Newton, not Isaac Watts.

Steve Bricker said...

I know of hymn remakes that turned out well, so while I prefer the traditional melody (or melodies as the case may be), the newer tunes are appreciated.

On the other hand, as you have stated, many do not work at all being transformed from majestic pieces to little more than ditties or jingles.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

I don't mind new tunes for old hymns, as long as the tune is congruent with the lyrics.

One of my favorite hymns is "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," which I think is wonderful doctrinally. I like it best to the tune "Hamburg," but I tend to hear more often at our church to the tune of "Wally Wally." Both tunes are congruent with the lyrics.

A major problem with most Contemporary "hymns" is that they are doctrinally vacuous and trite. And so many of them are all about "me" and how "I" feel.

Marie said...

It's funny that you posted this, as just last night I blogged about a new CD I'd bought, Hymns: Ancient and Modern.

I definitely prefer old hymns with modern musical arrangements to most of CCM's "praise" songs, for the reasons stated here. Chris Tomlin does many of them well....I had forgotten about "The Wondrous Cross", which Michael W. Smith does wonderfully.

However, I agree with you about Agnew's "Grace Like Rain". Not just the lyrics - the "melody" is almost impossible for congregational singing. Not only that, but Agnew's voice sounds perpetually hoarse.

Nothing is better than "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes. Although I do like Tomlin's "My Chains are Gone".

Great post.

Anonymous said...

Everything is going down the tubes in the visible church. Praise God that He knows those who are His.
Lin in BC