Keep or Toss?
Patheos wrote an article of a unique nature. Jonathan Aigner decided to go after hymns, ten of them specifically, and that piece can be read here.
In our current worship wars we not only debate the style and volume of music, but the actual songs themselves. We pit hymns against contemporary Christian music. The stereotype is that hymns are rich in theology, and easy to sing. On the other hand, contemporary music is emotional and beautiful, but lacks substance.
I do understand from where this stereotype comes. I think that the characterization above did not sprout from nowhere. There is truth to it. However, it is painting with a broad brush. The fact remains that many churches are missing out on wonderful music that is rich in content if they refuse to play hymns, or if they never do. There is a lot of good and lot of bad both within and outside of the hymnals.
So I really did appreciate this article. Especially within the Reformed community, many are willing to criticize contemporary music for vapid, ambiguous lyrical content, while remaining reluctant to ever do the same when thumbing through a hymnal. The fact of the matter is that many of the legitimate criticisms of contemporary worship music can find a home on the pages of many hymns. From bad lyrical content, to melodies which strain congregational singing, there are hymns in many of our hymnbooks that don’t belong on our lips, at least not on Sunday mornings. I think this is a gutsy blog, and as you will see, I find myself in much agreement with the commentary. Nevertheless, I think it also missed the mark in a lot of the criticisms, and so I would like to offer my critique.
Aigner listed ten hymns that he considers not worthy of being sung by your church, and I will interact with each, and then share whether or not I would keep the hymn or toss it.
10. He Lives
I haven’t heard anyone do this one in years, but I still hear it mentioned occasionally, so I include it here. It contains more sentimental sappiness than a thousand Hallmark stores. If only it wasn’t so dang fun to sing! Better get ready for the high F in the refrain.
I can give or take this one. I am not familiar with the hymn, so I don’t know if it is singable or not. Lyrically, I think the author is a bit dramatic, but I do agree with his sentiment. I am not against “He Lives,” but I won’t be sad if it’s never sung in my church. But since I am feeling amenable and congenial: Toss it.
9. Patriotic Hymns
All of them. Conflating the gospel with American exceptionalism is a dangerous thing, indeed.
I don’t know if I would accuse all of them as equating the Gospel with American exceptionalism, but I am nonetheless in agreement that they need to go. Sunday morning is about worshiping the Triune God and proclaiming His kingdom. We can appreciate and sing about America, sure. But church is not the time for that, and that applies to every country, not just America. I have never been comfortable with the patriotic tributes to America found in many hymnals.
My take: Toss them.
8. Softly and Tenderly, Jesus Is Calling
This one represents a larger group of invitation hymns from the gospel song tradition. The image of an unsure and hesitant Jesus waiting at the window might perhaps allude to the story of the prodigal son, but it doesn’t quite make the connection. The evangelistic invitation doesn’t really fit in with the historical liturgy, either, instead borrowing the ad hoc order of the revival tent.
Again, I am in agreement here. This hymn is sappy, it does lack substance, and it clearly was intended for the emotional revivalism that I preach against so often in my ministry.
It is not uncommon for Christians to rightly criticize contemporary worship music for lyrics that sound more like singing about high school dating relationships than worshiping the thrice holy God. This hymn fits that bill. Jesus is our effeminate Romeo tenderly calling us from underneath our windowsill.
If this hymn disappeared from the hymnbooks, I wouldn’t miss it. Toss it.
7. How Great Thou Art
Second, the beginning of the fourth stanza, “When Christ shall come with shout of acclimation / and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.” This line reeks of escapist theology. Christ isn’t coming to “take us home,” but to renew and restore this world. N.T. Wright suggests changing it to, “…and heal this world.” That might just fix it enough for me.
Aigner admits to not having cut this one out completely, and I am glad to hear that. I certainly would not do that. This one needs to stay. Although, I do sympathize with one of the two criticisms he offers.
First, the nebulous rhythm at the end of the refrain, coupled with the seemingly obligatory rubato can cause a train wreck.
I have always thought this song was better for a solo performance than congregational worship. Superstar vocalists like Carrie Underwood or the Gaithers have a great time with this because it’s more for them. I do not believe this is a particular congregation-friendly song. For as often as many criticize contemporary worship songs for not being written with easy, simple melodies, making them easier to sing, I am shocked this hymn has not made that list. I am not saying it’s incredibly difficult, but I do think many contemporary songs which are said to be far too complex are easier to sing than this. Remember, this is such a classic you can follow along easy. But if you were new to this song, it is not all that easy.
However, I am in strong disagreement with his second complaint. Aigner takes issue with this line of the song:
When Christ shall come with shout of acclimation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.
This is gold. This is a great line that I love to hear fall from the lips of every Christian longing for God. So, what’s the problem?
This line reeks of escapist theology. Christ isn’t coming to “take us home,” but to renew and restore this world. N.T. Wright suggests changing it to, “…and heal this world.” That might just fix it enough for me.
It’s clear N.T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope” has influenced the author greatly. Wright is essentially a postmillenialist who sees the Gospel restoring the world. He believes this earth renewed will be heaven. He denies the rapture, and he sees the predominant pessimistic theology of the Church today as hurting the advance of the Gospel. After all, who wants to polish the brass on a sinking ship?
Ironically, I agree with all of that! I am a postmillenialist (though I hold that theology very, very loosely.) I am very attracted to all of the above. However, escapist theology is hardly being expressed in the song. The fact remains that everyone, regardless of their eschatology, is longing for the return of Christ. Everyone knows that the Kingdom is not complete until He returns, and our joy in that day will be inexpressible. Referring to being taken home rather than being at home here is far too finicky on this. It’s a bad reason to reject the hymn which is rich in Gospel content and is a lyrical blessing. We are all longing for the day of the appearing of our blessed hope (Titus 2:13). Come quickly Lord Jesus (Revelation 22:20)! Keep the hymn.
6. I’ll Fly Away
No, I won’t, and neither will you. Sorry, Kirk Cameron. The rapture is never, ever, ever going to happen, at least not the way dispensationalists claim. I will be gloriously resurrected as heaven meets earth (86 the sloppy, wet kiss part) and the curse of death is broken. But I’m not a bird, and I will not fly away to glory in my birthday suit.
Like a skittish horse, Aigner is far too easily spooked by anything whose shadow might resemble dispensational, rapture theology. The song is not a dispy tribute to Kirk Cameron movies.
The author admitted that the rapture will not happen “at least not the way dispensationalists claim,” and that is the reason his criticism here misses the mark. The song doesn’t seem to be focused on the rapture, as it very specifically addresses death
Some glad mornin’ when this life is over…
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by, I’ll fly away…
The song is not about a pretribulational rapture taking the church off of the earth without warning. It is about believers dying and going to be with the Lord.
“I’ll Fly Away” is a fun hymn that can really fill the Christian with the hope of heaven. Nonetheless, it isn’t so particularly substantive and beautiful that I would put up much of a fight for it. Additionally, it is not very ancient, so it nearly falls into the “contemporary” category. I really don’t have a preference one way or another for this song, but being allergic to anything that even smells like a premillenial rapture is not a good reason to jettison this hopeful hymn. Keep it.
5. Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus
I think Helen gets this one wrong. The things of earth will grow strangely clear in the light of his glory and grace.
Yet again, I think this criticism is not relevant to the song. Helen’s lyrics are in no way contradictory to the concept of Christ making things grow clear (whatever that means). The song is not talking about having a Christian worldview, it’s not a rejection of seeing the world through redeemed eyes (if that’s even what Aigner is getting at). The song is merely saying that the glory of Christ makes our suffering and worries go away, or dim. It’s about the light Christ’s glory casting out the darkness of sin and dread. Here are the stanzas which provide the context to the chorus:
O soul, are you weary and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
There’s light for a look at the Savior,
And life more abundant and free!
Through death into life everlasting
He passed, and we follow Him there;
O’er us sin no more hath dominion—
For more than conqu’rors we are!
His Word shall not fail you—He promised;
Believe Him, and all will be well:
Then go to a world that is dying,
His perfect salvation to tell!
Thus when you “turn your eyes upon Jesus” and “look full in His wonderful face” then “the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.” This is all consistent with Paul’s comforting words,
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18).
Paul is saying the coming glory turns our deepest sorrows into “light afflictions.” The glory of Christ makes endless pain “momentary.” That’s the way “dim” is being used in the song. Keep the song.
4. Onward, Christian Soldiers.
Aigner admitted to really, really liking this song in his article. He gave it credit for being fun, singable, and for having “pretty sound” theology. So why did it make his list of songs to put on the chopping block?
But this war declaration, which the singer proclaims ad nauseam to be led and shielded by the very cross of Jesus Christ, is a confusing and dangerous image in a context that has so easily conflated patriotism with Christ’s gospel.
I suppose I will march without Aigner on this one. I think this is a great hymn. For starters, it’s a unique concept not found in many songs today. Most Americans are probably uncomfortable singing about warfare and marching. Yet, the Psalmists write of this very thing constantly. The people of God have never been coy as it pertains to singing songs of warfare and victory. The song makes very clear it is speaking of Gospel. spiritual warfare, and in no way contributes to nationalism. These are the kinds of masculine songs, rich in theology that we need more of in the Christian church.
Additionally, I appreciate the author’s disgust with repetition. I find it prevalent in contemporary worship music. But I don’t see this hymn pushing the boundaries on that.
Keep marching to this tune in your church.
3. The Old Rugged Cross
The cross is our most precious symbol, but the sentimental, sappy poetry comes dangerously close to worshiping the wood, instead of the One who was nailed to it.
I can see the hesitation, but ultimately the song makes very clear in the lryrics that what happened on that cross is what is to be believed, and Who it was Who died on that cross is Who is to be cherished.
That said, I do find the song to be a little too sentimental, and even a little sappy. My biggest critique is that it’s very hard to do this song without collapsing into a hard, country rhythm.
I know how cherished this song is by many, and so I am going to say keep it. It’s not that bad. Though I will admit, I don’t always understand its massive appeal.
2. Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee
This is perhaps the hymn I took the most exception with in his list. It’s not a hymn I particularly enjoy. In fact, I never do it outside of the Advent season, which is strange because it really is not incarnation themed at all. However, I just don’t see any merit to his three criticisms.
1) there’s no real theological substance beyond some veiled, nebulous reference to an unnamed deity and one token mention of Christ.
I don’t think this is fair. The opening stanza mentions God,
Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love.
And the rest of the stanzas refer to the worship God is due from us and receives from His creation. I don’t think the song needs to specify the Triune of God of Scripture in the first stanza in order to avoid allegations of worshiping a nebulous deity.
Additionally, the song does specify both God the Father and God the Son.
Thou art giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blest, Wellspring of the joy of living, Ocean depth of happy rest! Thou our Father, Christ our Brother, All who live in love are Thine; Teach us how to love each other, Lift us to the joy divine.
The theology is nothing at which to scoff. Surely it doesn’t rival many classic worship songs, but it is not vapid enough to reject.
2) The entire thing seems more humanistic than anything else, partially because of the dearth of theology, and because it seems to ultimately rely on human resolve instead of our good God.
I do not see where this criticism is coming from at all. The song is not humanistic, and in no way relies upon human resolve. It is God who drives away our sorrow and gives us eternal joy,
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; drive the dark of doubt away. Giver of immortal gladness fill us with the light of day!
It is the glory revealed in God’s creation which beckon us to worship Him,
All Thy works with joy surround Thee. Earth and heav’n reflect Thy rays. Stars and angels sing around Thee, center of unbroken praise. Field and forest, vale and mountain, flow’ry meadow, flashing sea, singing bird and flowing fountain. Call us to rejoice in Thee.
And it is only through our union with God that He teaches us how to love,
All who live in love are Thine. Teach us how to love each other. Lift us to the joy divine.
The theology is simple and it is draped in poetry. I agree that more specific references to the Lord would be helpful. Nonetheless, I see no humanism or ambiguous deities in the hymn.
3) It strikes me as blissfully, ignorantly optimistic. I feel like singing it means I have to ignore the fallenness and pain and violence and injustice and crap going on around me.
Well what happened to all of that N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, latent postmillenialism? What happened to all the subtle but scathing contempt for escapism and defeatism? It appears that Aigner flinches at ever sign of theological pessimism but his own. He can find dispensational theology under every rock, but he can’t see it when it’s right under his own nose.
Many of the Psalms show us there is a place for lament and sorrow. A church which never sings songs expressing lament or sorrow have an important aspect of their diet missing. Nonetheless, Church is ultimately about victory. It’s about celebrating the goodness of God. It’s about enjoying God no matter our circumstances. We proclaim His victory over sin and death ever Sunday until He returns again to judge the living and the dead and dwell among His people. We proclaim that He is reigning, and that He must reign until He has put every enemy under His feet. We need songs where we sing about the glory of creation, the joy of knowing God, and the triumph of his goodness!
Mortals, join the happy chorus which the morning stars began. Father love is reigning o’er us; Brother love binds man to man. Ever singing, march we onward, victors in the midst of strife, Joyful music leads us Sonward in the triumph song of life.
I think these themes of victory and joy are why the song has become a “Christmas” song. The hope of the Messiah was and is a hope of peace on earth, the defeat of God’s enemies. He did come to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found. He did come to rule with justice. This is the hope and victory we sing ever Christmas season, and Jo, Joyful fits in relatively nicely. Admittedly, I do not love this enough to sing it outside of the Advent season. But nonetheless, I don’t think it needs to be cut. I could take it or leave it, but for now, I’ll say keep it.
1. In the Garden
Aigner ended with a bang. This is without a doubt one of the worst worship songs I have ever sung. The article’s commentary was interesting. He focused on how the song is too light to prepare us for the difficulty of life, while still showing respect for the “country churches” who love the hymn. I agree with all of that, and I especially agree that “A Mighty Fortress” is have the potential to mount a resistance with which few other hymns, especially “In the Garden” can compete.
I too do not want to offend. The song is not sinful or blasphemous. If you love it, listen to it and sing it! Want it at your funeral? Great! The fact remains though that it does not belong in church on Sunday mornings. The melody is sappy and cheesy, there is no theological substance, and the song is a very sentimental, romantic hymn that makes Jesus sound more like a boyfriend then our Lord. Jesus is not walking in dew filled gardens whispering in our ears about how important we are to Him. This is the easiest one on the entire list: trash it.
Aigner concluded with a short list of what to look for in songs. I appreciate this, so I will punt to him and let him take us out:
[Sing] songs with substance;
Songs that clearly tell the Christian story;
Songs that refocus the lenses through which we view God and the world around us;
Songs with words we believe;
Songs that bring the witness of saints from other times and places into our own vocabulary…
Songs that make us uncomfortable with our selfishness and apathy;
Songs that turn our eyes to Jesus (who, of course, will make the things around us grow strangely clear).