Sunday, July 17, 2016

Praise Songs with “Old Words”

There was a great post earlier this month on how praise bands update traditional hymns on Ponder Anew. The blog is by Jonathan Aigner, a Texas PCUSA choir director who regularly turns a skeptical eye towards the excesses of CCM.

Entitled “Modernized Hymns: Hymns, or Contemporary Songs with Old Words?” the post starts with a late 20th century example of such modernization at his Baptist youth summer camp by a praise song leader named Chris Tomlin (yes that Chris Tomlin). Even as a teenager it was clear that Aigner smelled something fishy about claiming that the new song — with bridges modulation and additional lyrics — was just a different way of signing the old hymn.

Are Modernized Hymns Actually Hymns?

Here is the crux of his argument:
But were we actually singing hymns?

I didn’t think so then, and I don’t think so now.

Of course, Chris Tomlin and other commercial worship songwriters have led a trend in the industry in which hymns are turned into commercial recordings, and then find a place in churches that practice contemporary worship. We see this even more in December, when everyone wants to hear their favorite carols and Christmas songs. So, all the biggest recording artists cook up their own versions of these songs, and church cover worship bands offer up their best imitations.

I hear from a number of contemporary worship apologists who proudly tell me they sing lots of hymns in their services, but that they are “refreshed” or “reimagined” in a modern style.

I think there’s a problem here. Though singing good theology is important, the way we sing it is also vitally important. Of course, that’s in contrast to the prevailing message of contemporary worship that says it’s all about taste, and that musical style doesn’t matter.

But it does matter. It’s about meaning, not preference. And music always carries meaning.
He continues with additional details of how to tell a hymn from a contemporary song with old words.”

When Was a Hymn Written?

This posting resonated with two other observations on a similar topic.

One was my own posting from last year asking “When was a hymn ‘written’?” Again, in other contexts people have claimed old words with modern music and performance styles qualify as an ancient hymn. It’s one thing to say that acoustic guitar or piano accompaniment does not change the character of an ancient or medieval chant. It’s another thing to claim that it’s a traditional hymn when you have the full-on rhythm guitar, electric bass and drummer accompanying your lead singer.

I think Jonathan and I have similar reservations about the efforts of praise band leaders to modernize traditional hymns while claiming the mantle of the long-accepted form of Christian praise and worship.

The Need for Reverence

The other thing that resonated with this theme was listening the same week to a May 24 podcast of Issues Etc. The topic was “Reverence in Worship,” an interview with Lutheran Pastor David Petersen. (The same topic had been covered seven months earlier in an interview with regular guest Rev. Will Weedon, director of worship for the LCMS.)

The interview drew on his article on the same topic published in (“The Journal of Lutheran Liturgy”). Alas, the journal hasn’t made it to the 21st century with articles (or at least a table of contents) from recent issues.

The arguments made by Rev. Petersen appealed to the authority of Lutheran and seminal Lutheran doctrine, notably the Book of Concord and the Augsburg Confession. In particular, he noted the admonition to worship “with greatest reverence.” But the actual conclusions were ones that should be shared by any liturgical Protestant.

One is that reverence is not (as some might claim) merely in the mind of the worshipper. Instead, it has an objective reality. As Rev. Petersen cited C.S. Lewis:
CS Lewis in The Abolition of Man tells a story about an English textbook, of a story of the artist Coleridge who overhears two tourists looking at a waterfall, and one says it's “sublime.” Coleridge says that is correct, while the textbook says that's not correct, that different people could have different opinions.

There is something objectively real in the waterfall that requires a response from us.
Rev. Petersen’s definition of reverence is
  • virtue — a habit of the heart, developed through practice
  • an attitude and feeling love towards God, tempered by respect, honor, fear, awe and shame
According to his conception, different attributes of this reverence wax and wane depending on where we are in the service.

However, to this conception, Petersen added a final element — joy — or a feeling of exuberance. This ties to the emotive element of music throughout the generations (including the sublime sacred music of composers such as Tallis, Bach and Mozart) without the excesses of CCM.

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