Dearest Rachel –
I’m not sure why, but I woke up this morning with the tune of “He Lives” running through my head. I can’t be quite sure of which lyrics, but I think I recall hearing the first (“I serve a risen Savior, He’s in the world today.”) and third (“Rejoice, rejoice, O Christian, lift up your voice and sing”) verses – which would probably disappoint you, as you were a stickler that the congregation sing all the verses every time they sang that hymn – back when we were still singing hymns.
Of course, that applied not just to “He Lives” – which, admittedly, has special significance for you, as it’s the song you came forward to, in order to receive Christ as your savior in your heart, and so serves to remind you (and by extension, me) of your conversion, and where you are these days, now and forever – but to every hymn you heard or sang, and you were often disappointed when, in church, they might settle for, say, the first and last verses. That desire poses a problem, as many hymns have many verses, and while each verse may contain powerful truths, the tune itself can get repetitious. When I was beginning to learn how to play the trombone, my instrument tutor always taught me that each verse of a hymn needed something different in it to mix it up, so as not to bore the listener; a change in tempo, key or other complexity to both pique their interest even as I was signaling by the melody that we were back at the beginning again.
Of course, most churches – including ours – have addressed this issue by dispensing with hymns entirely. If it bothers you that we don’t sing all of the verses, then maybe it’s best that we just not sing any at all. After all, the thought goes, the church is not here for the purpose of kindling nostalgia within the flock, as much as it is for reaching out to new people. If the music gets in the way by being inaccessible (due to being boring, or repetitious) to someone who’s just walked in off the street, then it no longer serves it’s purpose. It’s something we have come to expect as we try to maintain a certain relevance within society. While the message of the church has to stay constant from generation to generation, the church has at times (and darned if this isn’t one of those times) had to alter its format to get its message heard.
Music seems to have a shelf life, after all, even when their lyrics – since so many of them are taken from scripture – are all but eternal. Admittedly, even the old truths need to be in expressed in a modern way; anyone who’s had to slog through Shakespeare in high school knows that his archaic language can be difficult to parse. The same criticism can be applied to many hymns, just as much as it can be to the English of the King James translation of the Bible – which, if I recall correctly, was actually deliberately written in a slightly archaic form of English for even that time, apparently in order to extend a certain gravitas that, admittedly, modern English strips from it. Compare the Living Bible, or The Message to the KJV, and they read more like a story than like words handed down from on high.
And that’s quite the tightrope to walk with regard to the message of the Gospel – as well as everything leading up to it and proceeding forward from it. It has to be accessible to those who haven’t heard it – those to whom the ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ tend to be puzzling, if not outright offputting – while still possessing a certain gravitas, or some clear indication that it comes from God Himself, and of course, the message should never be diluted in the process of making it ‘relatable.’
You would think that eternal truths wouldn’t require that much revision, or constantly need to be updated to get the attention of each new generation. You would think that, even as each generation gets the pop music it demands, there would be certain classics that remain, standing against the tests of time. And perhaps there are; certainly, the thirty-year pop culture recycling process is giving the youngsters of today a taste of the Eighties’ music we grew up with (but with much of the lesser dreck abandoned, so all they’re made familiar with are the best of that era), and most of them still seem familiar with the likes of, say, the Beatles and Bob Dylan. Meanwhile, the sacred side has a few timeless classics, such as “Amazing Grace” (which, to be fair, is updated and occasionally given new verses or a chorus in modern recordings, for better or worse), although I can’t think of too many others apart from the many traditional Christmas songs that make up the current repertoire of the typical thriving church (which, you’ll note, is a far cry from the typical church, period – too many of them cling tightly to their old ways, and in so doing, cease to function for their original purpose, and eventually, altogether)
To you and me, who grew up in somewhat traditional churches, it’s a sad fact of life. While the old hymns weren’t scripture in their own right, they were based on them. Indeed, there are a lot of songs we grew up with whose whole point was to help us memorize this or that verse – Erin would talk about the ones she grew up with that were sometimes different from ours when we were discussing various thoughts about the YouTube channel we wanted to put together, and (it’s appropriate I mention this on a Wednesday) Pastor Joel is as likely as not to reference some verse through a song as part of the evening’s study (although, given that we’re starting on Isaiah, there might not be as much to work with as much of the New Testament). It’s sad to see them discarded, like the many dumpsters full of old stuff I had to get rid of in order to clean the house and make it suitable for a potential future. I guess it needs to be done, from time to time, but I’m sure you’d agree with me that we might have thrown out a lot of important stuff in the process.
And what are we replacing it with? I’m sure I haven’t mentioned it to you before, but several of our worship staff are putting their music education to more use than just leading the… do we even call them a congregation anymore? Maybe we should bring our language up to date and refer to them as an audience? Anyway, apart from leading singing, they’re starting to write songs of their own. There may have been one or two that you got to hear before you had to leave, but they’re stepping up production these days. There’s even talk of cutting an album, which (publicity and profit aside) would extend our exposure, and more importantly, that of the message we’re called to broadcast to the world. So, it’s another thing to be excited about.
But I’m not always sure about the stuff. Granted, I’m not a musical scholar myself, but as the phrase goes about art, “I know what I like.” Paul Simon complained in one of his works (one of ‘our’ songs that I sent you back in the day, I think) about “writing songs I can’t believe / with words that tear and strain to rhyme.” Now, I know the guys believe every word they’re writing, don’t let me give you any other impression. But sometimes, it sounds as if they’re going out of their way not to rhyme. I’ve actually pointed it out to them in rehearsals, and suggested a line that (if I could come up with it off the top of my head) wouldn’t be difficult to use; it fits the meter, and it meshes well with the lines around it.
Of course, maybe current songwriting has gone beyond the need to do so. I’m not the target audience, after all – heck, my work in the booth precludes my singing along most weekends, regardless. If these new song touch those who are new to the place, they’re serving their purpose, and I’ve no cause to gainsay it. I just wonder – and if you were still here, I imagine you’d wonder, too – if we haven’t lost something by dispensing with all of the old in favor of the new.
I don’t have an answer to any of that, mind you; that’s how these letters go. I just woke up with a topic, and wanted to discuss it with you. I wish I wasn’t the only one talking, though. Some hymns really need context to truly appreciate, now that I think of it. “It Is Well With My Soul,” for instance, has more behind it when you take into account that it was written when the author passed the spot where the ship carrying the rest of his family went down, taking his four daughters with it. I understand his final plea to God “Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight.” He doesn’t mention that he wants to see his girls, of course – that pales in comparison to the sight of Him descending to Earth – but when you know, you understand. That’s about where I am, right now… and I’m still trying get to the point where it is, in fact, well with my soul.
Until that day, honey, keep an eye on me, and wish me luck. I’m going to need it.