Archives For Armed Forces

Good, Bad and Ugly Hymns

August 12, 2019 — 21 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.”

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If you were going to enlist in the military, which branch of the armed forces would you choose? And why?

The choice would have great consequences. The simple fact is that despite their similar charters, not all branches are created equal. Your choice will influence countless aspects of your life, including your post-military employment options and even the likelihood of whether or not you’ll survive your enlistment.

Gallup recently completed research into which branch of the armed forces most Americans would encourage someone to join. The Air Force came out on top.

Americans hold all branches of the U.S. military in high regard, but that does not necessarily translate into a desire to see their loved ones enlist. Fewer than half would be likely to recommend joining the Coast Guard (48%), Marines (43%) or Army (41%) to their children or grandchildren, while a majority would be likely to recommend the Navy (53%) or Air Force (64%).

As a chaplain, I heard some amazing reasons for people’s choice of service. One Army NCO told me, “I was leaning toward the Air Force until the Army recruiter pulled out this huge poster covered with every imaginable weapon, and said, ‘we’ll teach you how to use all of these.’” Not a bad technique for persuading testosterone-fueled eighteen-year-olds to sign on the dotted line.

One young woman who had served a tour in the Marines told me she didn’t even consider another option. “It was the Corps or nothing,” she said, before shouting “Semper Fi!” The USMC has the advantage of requiring fewer recruits and has brilliantly fostered a reputation as “the most prestigious of the military branches.”

A common motivator for Navy recruits seems to be the exotic locations of many of their installations. Can’t argue with that. Most of them are located on or near coasts, while the Air Force strategically places its bases where a falling aircraft would have the smallest chance of injuring someone on the ground. Places like Lubbock, Texas, where I served my first active duty tour at Reese AFB. [The people in Lubbock are amazing patriots.]

The Coast Guard, a sometimes-military organization, attracts people interested in their search and rescue ethos. This despite the fact that most of their mission involves enforcing laws and protecting the nation’s borders.

The Air Force draws lots of recruits who are interested in pursuing technical fields. The other services have similar career paths, of course, but the clear perception is that the Air Force offers the most. Still, it’s a bit embarrassing to share here the reason one friend of mine chose the USAF. Actually, it was his reason for choosing the chaplain assistant career field in particular. “I told them at basic training that I would take any job where I worked in a climate-controlled environment.” He was serious, but the last laugh was on him. When we deploy to the field, chaplain assistants are not only responsible their own safety, they have to protect their noncombatant chaplains as well (in any weather).

The different branches of the military go to war against their nation’s enemies—but they also maintain intense rivalries with their sister services. This competition is usually fun to observe . . . as long as alcohol is not in the vicinity.

C.S. Lewis’ Military Service

In the United Kingdom, the Navy is the senior service. Seems fitting for an island nation. That doesn’t mean that the Army traditions, which date back to historic militias, lack prestige.

During the First World War, C.S. Lewis was exempt from the draft. This, because he was from Northern Ireland. Despite this, he followed his brother Warren into the Royal Army.

Warnie was a career officer, graduating in 1914 from an expedited course at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. Jack, in contrast, was one of many young college students who were subjected to a far more rapid training regimen, commissioned, and shipped off to the front.

In 1918 C.S. Lewis was severely wounded. One writer summarizes this event quite effectively.

The Lewis who crawled away from the carnage was not yet the C.S. Lewis of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Space Trilogy, The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity. Then, he was like so many others who fought in World War I—just another wounded soldier desperate not to bleed to death.

Eventually Lewis would wear another “military” uniform during the Second World War—that of the Home Guard (originally called the “Local Defence Volunteers”). But that is a curious story for another day. Lewis patrolled Oxford in a uniform similar to those portrayed in the photos on this page.

Lewis did not have formal personal ties to the Navy, although his maternal grandfather, a Church of Ireland priest, had served as chaplain in the Royal Navy.

During WWII Lewis developed a warm relationship with members of the Royal Air Force. He offered lectures at a number of installations and taught at the RAF Chaplain School. Although his first lecture began rather inauspiciously, his work with the airmen proved extremely fruitful.

Lewis is a fine example of the man of gentle demeanor who “does his duty” when called upon by his country. Had his lifetime not overarched two global conflicts, he would have been utterly content to remain a civilian and wear the “uniform” of an Oxbridge professor.

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