Good, Bad and Ugly Hymns

August 12, 2019 — 17 Comments

There’s good “church music.” There’s mediocre church music. (And, there’s even terrible church music.) Read on and I’ll provide a link to an article I wrote about one questionable ditty that wormed its way into a military hymnal.

C.S. Lewis was not a fan of most church music. I’ve written about his musical tastes previously.

His assessment is no secret. He deemed most hymns to be “fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.”

When it comes to hymns, there is general agreement on what’s good. These songs have passed the test of time. They have proven edifying and inspirational for generations. Some contemporary music is also biblically faithful and possesses the potential to join the ranks of the church’s lasting hymnody.

Then there are the others. Uninhibited redundancy, for example, suggests a corresponding shallowness. I forego the idiom about something being broad but shallow, since such songs are actually narrow and shallow. Case in point, the song “Yes, Lord.”

It begins promisingly enough:
I’m trading my sorrow
I’m trading my shame
I’m laying it down for the joy of the Lord

Then the theology gets a wee bit blurrier, especially for believers who still suffer after praying for healing:

I’m trading my sickness
I’m trading my pain
I’m laying it down for the joy of the Lord

But it’s the chorus that undermines the song’s edificatory potential.

And we say
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord Amen

Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord Amen

The last two chorus breaks are replaced by the less challenging:

La la la la la la
La la la la la
La la la la la la
La la la la la
La la la la la la la la la
La la la la

La la la laLa la
La la la la la
La la la la la la
La la la la la
La la la la la la la la la
La la la laLa la la la

To those of you who adore this particular song—please accept my apologies for singling it out. Yet I stand by my view of these lyrics. And I can certainly imagine what C.S. Lewis would have thought of it.

The Power of Music

Various Christian leaders have expressed the opinion it’s more important to write the church’s hymns than its theological books. Hopefully that’s hyperbole, but few would deny the words we sing directly influence our thinking.

Arius, one of the early heretics who denied the divinity of Christ, knew this. His movement created tremendous confusion and resulted in much persecution. One of his most successful tools consisted of composing heretical songs. The words were “religious,” and the tunes were catchy, so people were singing them even when they didn’t agree with his doctrine.

C.S. Lewis & Church Music

As mentioned above, C.S. Lewis was very candid about his own disaffection for most church hymnody. In “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” Lewis answers the question of whether it’s necessary to attend worship services. He describes how duty rather than desire brought him to congregational worship.

When I first became a Christian . . . I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; and then later I found that it was the only way of flying your flag . . .

[However,] 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.

In light of Lewis’ attitude toward religious hymnody, it’s ironic that in 1946 he was invited to help evaluate new hymns.

The Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland is opening a file of new hymns to which modern hymn-writers are to be asked to contribute. I have been asked to write to you and ask if you will be a member of the panel to whom new hymns may be submitted in order that their merit may be assessed . . .

Lewis’ response to the invitation is as revealing as it is (unintentionally, I’m sure) curt.

The truth is that I’m not in sufficient sympathy with the project to help you. I know that many of the congregation like singing hymns: but I am not yet convinced that their enjoyment is of a spiritual kind. It may be: I don’t know.

To the minority, of whom I am one, the hymns are mostly the dead wood of the service. Recently in a party of six people I found that all without exception would like fewer hymns. Naturally, one holding this view can’t help you.

Two months later, the men exchanged letters again, and Lewis clarified his thoughts.

I can’t quite remember my own last letter; but I was wrong if I said or implied that . . . hymns, were bad in principle. . . . In modern England, however, we can’t sing—as the Welsh and Germans can. Also (a great pity, but a fact) the art of poetry has developed for two centuries in a private and subjective direction.

That is why I find hymns ‘dead wood.’ But I spoke only for myself and a few others. If an improved hymnody—or even the present hymnody—does edify other people, of course it is an elementary duty of charity and humility for me to submit. I have never spoken in public against the use of hymns . . .

The Gospel Coalition has an informative essay on Lewis’ broader view of worship here.

The Armed Forces Hymnal Scandal

At the outset of this column I promised readers a link to a recently published article. If you would like to read about a bizarre hymn that (temporarily) slithered into the Book of Worship for United States Forces, check it out here. The article begins on page fifteen of the new issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

The hymn in question may be thought-provoking, but it belongs in a discussion group, not in a worship service. The lyrics are placed on the tongue of thief crucified beside Jesus. The criminal who was not invited by Jesus to “be with [him] in paradise” (Luke 23). The first stanza will amply illustrate the spirit of the piece.

It was on a Friday morning that they took me from my cell,
And I saw they had a carpenter to crucify as well
You can blame it on to Pilate, you can blame it on the Jews,
You can blame it on the Devil, It’s God I accuse.
(Refrain)
It’s God they ought to crucify, instead of you and me.
I said to the carpenter a-hanging on the tree.

If you read the article, and consider me unfair to the song’s writer, please leave a comment below. I would love the chance to respond. Likewise, if you think I’ve been too harsh in my evaluation of “Yes, Lord.” Given a choice between mediocre and terrible hymns, there’s no contest.

One wonders how Lewis would have rated “It was on a Friday Morning.” I suspect it would not even rise to the bar of being a “fifth-rate poem.”

17 responses to Good, Bad and Ugly Hymns

  1. 

    I always say when song writers have nothing creative to say, they put in a long repetitive line of words that don’t really say anything. Seems it is done across the board from the Beatles, to pop music to church music! Being of the old school hymns genre, I prefer the meat and potatoes of those songs to the whipped cream fluff of “praise and worship music!”

  2. 

    Well, you’re suppose to make a joyful noise. That being said there’s a lot of really grim and dreadful hymns both old and new. And a bunch that sound a whole lot better if sung faster than many churches do.
    We’ve noticed the same exact song may sound like a dirge in an Episcopalian church…a bit more comforting/.friendly by Methodist and down right perky by some Baptist (not Southern Baptist – a whole different group) congregations.
    Dad grew up in a rural area without a minister every week, but he used to talk about the “All day singing with dinner on the grounds” gatherings which happened a lot: quilts were rolled out in the aisle for the kids to nap on when they got tired. There weren’t hymnals – which didn’t matter since everyone knew the 1st, 2nd, and last verse of each song anyway. Ladies spread out all the food for a big buffet, then after a bit of visiting, there would be a late “service/Prayer service” with more songs before everyone hitched the wagons back up and went home.
    Can’t tell you the times I heard him say he “came to church only for the singing.”( That was the era of Tennises Ernie Ford and the old time gospel singers and even Elvis’s albums with hymns.) A whole different era and style of country / Southern hymns.

    • 

      Many church traditions have celebrated hymn-centered worship or hymn-fests. It’s more common in Bible Belt traditions… and even more so from previous generations.

      I agree completely about the pace of music changing its meaning and impact. I had an organist one place I served where I constantly had to ask her to pick up the tempo. For her, everything “serious” required a sloooow pace. At another location I had to train an accompanist to downshift her gears since she seemed to think every song was a sprint.

      People do attend worship services for different reasons. Music was terribly important to my mother and now to my wife. My focus is on hearing a biblically faithful proclamation of the Gospel. I can sacrifice a lot of the trappings as long as I find that.

      • 

        That was a long time ago – more west – mostly rural with only a itinerant minister.
        Please spare me the over use of many repetition of simple, short words and phrases, the drums, electric guitars and massive screens with the words flashing and bouncing balls…not exactly desirable as a worship service ( but to “modern” and appealing …might want to rethink that.
        3 songs ( not all verses), a welcome, a collection, Reading of sermon’s Bible verses (which could could bookmark and reread at home), sermon, then song and invitation and over. Over and done. Works for me.
        (I can’t remember the titles but some favorite songs started with “I come to the garden alone”, “Up from the grave he arose” and something about “fire, fire fire in the blood, in the blood, of the lamb” Maybe not masterpiece lyrics but rich vocabulary to match the King James version.

      • 

        In the chaplaincy we faced the never-ending challenge choosing music that would be edifying to all attendees. It was pretty straightforward when conducting a subgroup (e.g. “Contemporary Service” or “Evangelical Service”). But for a “General Protestant” service, designed to be as broadly accessible as possible, it was a challenge.

        From my perspective it seemed we usually defaulted to a sort of Methodist mix, with a smattering of evangelical songs and an occasional contemporary chorus thrown in.

  3. 

    In many hymns I’ve found very meaningful and sophisticated theology expressed in simple lyrics and soul touching music.

  4. 

    I’ve not come across the “Yes, Lord” before but I do agree with your analysis. Coming from the German tradition, I am encouraged that Lewis thought we were good singers, although I do sometimes wonder. There are some wonderful old hymns and there are also some wonderful contemporary songs. It’s all about discernment. One of the things that I think is important is a good marriage between words and music. I have often been frustrated when a good hymn is destroyed by an awful unsingable tune. In a good hymn or song, the music should support and draw attention to the words.

    • 

      That’s a great point about compatibility between the lyrics and the tune. I’ve faced my share of unsingable songs over the years.

      As for Germans being good singers… that seems to be a fairly common notion. If it’s true, it suggests that the rest of the church may be even weaker that we think. (I mean by that, that Germans aren’t that great, themselves.

      I’m always disappointed to glance around and see how many men (of all ethnicities) who don’t sing out loud with the congregation…

  5. 

    Enjoyed your article and never heard that “hymn” before. I’d study it with the same eye I’d use on Paradise Lost, and it would take less time. I completely agree with you about “Yes, Lord.” In fact, I often feel our songs are meant to tickle us, to send us out into the world smiling, chuffed at our goodness. I get it. No one keeps attending a church that brings them down every Sunday. But the focus of many modern worship songs is on us, not on God. What would C.S. Lewis think of clapping during worship? I respect those who do, but it feels like I cheapen God. I clap for people. I stand silent before God. Maybe it’s how you’re first shown to worship? Anyway, thanks for giving me something to think about.

    • 

      I believe you are right about our first lessons in worship shaping us in lasting ways. Not that our tastes can’t change… but when it comes to worship I share your default–standing in silence, in awe before our Creator.

      As for what Lewis would think of applause in church… I don’t really need to answer that rhetorical question, do I? :)

  6. 

    Excellent post! I’m LDS, so have been around hymns in church service my whole life. Few of the ones in our hymnal are as annoyingly repetitious as your “Yes, Lord;” they are also more traditional in tune and lyric, so I have a more difficult time accepting new age hymns as such (likewise, with accepting other versions of scripture besides the KJV).

    Between upbringing and a precocious prudishness, I just love traditional.

    • 

      There are actually several expressly LDS hymns included in the Armed Forces Service Book. Although your church has a worldwide presence, my impression is that its core hymnody reflects the nineteenth century, expressly American, context in which it arose.

      Also, I bet that if most people from other churches listened to a collection of 20 mixed hymns, they would have a difficult time separating out the so-called LDS choruses.

      • 

        I wouldn’t know. My experience has been primarily the LDS hymns, American folk songs, and the occasional sitting in on Protestant religions who favor attracting younger crowds.

      • 

        “Younger crowds” got me thinking about our assumption that musical tastes correlate to our ages. There’s probably some truth to that idea… but I’ve met a fair number of folks my children’s ages and younger, whose preferences are more traditional than my own.

        But I suppose that’s to be expected from a guy who still recalls enjoying Larry Norman’s iconoclastic music from the seventies. Don’t ask me, I’m only visiting this planet…

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