Archives For Curtana

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.”

Getting Fresh

September 18, 2014 — 8 Comments

freshenIt’s possible for blogs to get stale. That’s no surprise, to regular readers.

Like everything else in life, same old same old (American slang) gets old.

I’ve never been one to desire change for its own sake. C.S. Lewis satirizes such notions in his poem, “Evolutionary Hymn.”

Lead us, Evolution, lead us

     Up the future’s endless stair:

Chop us, change us, prod us, weed us.

     For stagnation is despair:

Groping, guessing, yet progressing

     Lead us nobody knows where.

Still, for some time I have felt like I wanted to freshen up the look of Mere Inkling.

I’ve taken the plunge and purchased the package where I can tailor colors and fonts. I’ve also decided to move some of my old websites here to Mere Inkling.

First of all, I have added The Odes of Solomon. If you’re interested in learning about the most ancient Christian hymnal, check it out. I have included paraphrases of five of the Odes.

Next I will either move my C.S. Lewis Chronicles pages here, or the information that I’ve assembled online for two of our family’s ancestors who served in the American Civil War. I have also added a link to the military chaplaincy journal I edit.

Those will all be static pages, of course. The main feature of Mere Inkling will continue to be the regular columns, or posts.

I hope you enjoy the new format. I think it is an improvement, and enabling me to get all of these efforts under a single digital “roof,” will certainly help me stay better organized.

In expanding the offerings of Mere Inkling, I have maintained the valued past and am importing material that will be of interest to some. My goal has been to have the site “grow,” in the sense used by C.S. Lewis in “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem.”

Mere change is not growth. Growth is the synthesis of change and continuity, and where there is no continuity there is no growth.

I edit a free online journal for military chaplains. Articles have been contributed by clergy from most of the world’s continents, sharing their experiences and opinions. Much of the material will be of interest to anyone interested in the nature of ministry within the armed forces.

The current issue was “published” at the end of June, and includes one article that may be of particular interest to the readers of Mere Inkling.

On page fifty-seven you’ll find the preface to a series of six letters. They are collected under the same title as this post, “Screwtape Goes to War.” It is available via this link: Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

Those familiar with C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece of diabolical correspondence will require no introduction. Here’s an excerpt from one of the six epistles gathered in this modest collection. Remember, it is from the pen of a senior demon advising a junior Tempter on how to corrupt his “patient” (in this case a chaplain).

While preaching can in theory be used by the Enemy to draw his servants closer to himself, it’s equally possible to use the pulpit to drive a wedge between the Enemy and those ordained to serve him. In fact, there is something uniquely satisfying about using a chaplain’s own preaching to immunize him to the disgusting message of hope and forgiveness.

There are so many tactics to undermining the effectiveness of your chaplain’s sermons . . . where to begin? I have found the following methods to be most useful.

1. Encourage him to subscribe to all sorts of periodicals and keep him as far away from the Enemy’s book as possible. Tell him that by this means he “will remain in touch with the culture” to which he is preaching. We do not want him opening the Scriptures. It’s not too challenging persuading many clergy today that they’ll bore and alienate their audience by citing passages from that archaic text. Let him explore all sorts of publications so he discovers ones he honestly enjoys. That will make the choice easier when he looks on his desk at a tempting contemporary publication lying next to that black book.

Not all journals are created equal, of course. Some actually contribute to the knowledge and comprehension of the Enemy’s book. Avoid these. Secular publications are usually safe, the more so when they celebrate selfishness, man’s favorite religion. The most precious, however, are those published by “religious” presses. You know those to which I refer. The ones penned by our allies who where wear the garb of the Enemy but live with either themselves or some other idol on the throne of their souls. Those who may praise him with their lips but deny him access to their hearts. Mind you, these documents need to be chosen with great care. But if you can find some which appeal to him, it will aid you immeasurably in bringing about his demise. . . .

Curtana discusses both historical matters and contemporary issues. It is interfaith and international in scope. The website includes a “subscription” form for those who wish to be notified whenever a new issue of the journal is published.

Don’t be confused when you see the date on the current issue. Like many minimally-staffed, free publications, we’ve fallen slightly “behind schedule.” Thus, the current issue is dated Fall & Winter 2011. (I promise this is due not merely to procrastination, but also to the editor’s chronic propensity for terribly over-extending himself.) At any rate, Curtana 3.1 is indeed the issue which includes the afore-described article.

Many people who don’t write live a bit in awe of those who do. Even in this POD age, an almost mystical aura surrounds those who “successfully” write. This is especially true for those who are published, but not restricted to them.

Over the years, many friends and family members have asked why I “like to write.” Some years ago, the vague responses I once offered assumed clarity. It was, in a sense, due to a personal epiphany. I now answer such queries with the words, “it’s not that I enjoy writing itself . . . but I find the satisfaction of having written to be deeply rewarding.” (Well, that’s not a verbatim quote of how I respond, but you get the idea.)

One of my driving desires when I retired from the Air Force was to spend more time pursuing my lifelong avocation. Toward that end, I’ve devoted a serious amount of time to publishing a free online journal about the military chaplaincy. It is semi-annual, and even at that, it’s currently behind its publication schedule. (Mea culpa.)

I’m happy to share that the latest issue of the journal is now ready for free download. You can find it here. In fact, all four issues of the journal are available for download in PDF.

Curtana features new articles, editorials, poetry and reviews. In addition, since a major purpose of the journal is to gather chaplaincy history from disparate sources, we also compile biographical notes and other material.

As Curtana’s editor, I’m proud of the international scope of the journal. We’ve received contributions from Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Great Britain, Haiti, Ireland, and even the United States. Most articles have been written by chaplains, but that’s not a requirement. Skim the contents of the issues and you’ll note the breadth and depth that characterize Curtana.

C.S. Lewis recognized the value of thoughtful literary works. Good literature might be fiction or nonfiction, but it bears the mark of genuine reflection.

Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.

I hope that in some small way Curtana: Sword of Mercy helps irrigate the arid minds of modern men and women. Please share news of its existence with your acquaintances who may be interested in ministry within the armed forces.