Saturday, June 26, 2010
Patton on Hymns
C. Michael Patton:
I went to a church the other day and it was not much different than a rock concert. Might I say, it was a very well done rock concert. Electric guitars, drums in their own sound area, smoke, lights, and two or three people singing the latest in contemporary worship music. There was a part of me that enjoyed it and another part of me which sighed. Another church I attended had a mixture of some of the classic hymns along with some contemporary worship. No smoke. No flashing lights. But the sigh was still there. It just had a different sound. It was lacking something.
There is hardly a place you can go anymore and hear the classic hymns of the faith sung in a classic way. Nine out of ten times, churches have quietly changed their tune. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against contemporary worship music. In fact, I really like it. But more and more the great hymns of the faith are being ushered out. Now, even when they are played, their sound is contemporary. It is not really the same. The best way I can express it is that hymns are epic and epic songs need an epic sound.
I like the word “epic.” It fits when it comes to the great hymns of the faith. Hymns are epic as God is epic. Hymns played in a traditional way, with the traditional sound, are even more epic.
I don’t wish to beat this thing to death. I am 37 years-old. I just caught the tail-end of the transition to contemporary music. Think of this as an opinion piece rather than an informed theological argument. I am not saying that God is more pleased when we play hymns. I am not saying that this is the “right” way to worship. I am just saying that there is a defense that can be made for hymns.
Hymns enter the church into a saga. While I think church can and does take these kind of things to far, there is something to be said for tradition. When I attended an Eastern Orthodox church not too long ago I remember thinking about all the things that they did wrong to the detriment of the Gospel. However, there is something that I believe they get right: they allow people to experience the church. No, not the building they are in or even their congregation, but the historic church. Because of their liturgy, which goes back thousands of years, they join hands with all the saints of the past. Other traditions do this as well in their own respective ways. This is one aspect of the value that the great hymns of the faith sung and played in a classical way have. Of course most of them don’t go back to the earliest church. In fact, most only go back a few hundred years. But when we sing, “A Mighty Fortress is our God” (pipe organ, trumpet, choir and all), their is a sense in which we take the hand of Martin Luther and the reformers expressing our solidarity with them.
I know I have said in the past that I don’t like the organ. Really, I don’t like to sing with it. It drains me. However, I do love to hear it. It is not simply that it has a classic feel, but that it has an historic feel. Big difference here. The same thing with the choir. Not a quartet. A choir. People everywhere are going retro with everything. Retro cars. Retro shoes. Retro movies. Retro restaurants. Why? Because in our fast-paced, technology-doubling-every-four-years, society we are losing ourselves. We no longer feel our heritage as it has disappeared out the rear-view mirror a long time ago. Now we are groping for something to hold on to. Something that reminds informs us of who we are. Why do you think so many church goers are exiting the back door of pop-Evangelicalism in search of something with ties—real ties—to the past?
This type of stuff is simply hard to replicate.
The classic hymns also have wonderful theology. You know I was going here. Please don’t hear me saying that contemporary praise does not have good theology. So much of it does. But classic hymns are classic for a reason. They have stood the test of time and the test of a thousand theologians. Though “It is Well With My Soul” only goes back one-hundred and fifty years, its theological depth combined with the historic circumstance into which it was written make it epic.
For me, there is a time for songs with great theological depth and there is a time for songs that are outbursts of praise and petition. There is a time for everything (didn’t someone already say that?). But let us not forget the value, educational and doxological, of the more didactic hymns.
I am not saying that we should jettison everything contemporary with a self-righteous smug on our face. Don’t sing only hymns. In fact, if you were to only sing hymns, it would detract from what I am saying. We need to respect the overwhelming power of hymns. Too many of them would be exhausting. Just as I don’t want to hear multiple sermons every Sunday (I would end up forgetting them all), I don’t want to hear too many hymns. I would be happy with just one hymn that came across as an epic performance that gave us pause, caused us to joined hands with the historic church, and was rich enough for us to reflect on for days. “And Can it Be” would be fine this week. For the rest of the time, let’s sing the catching worship stuff.
Am I the only one who likes the classic hymns sung in a classic way?