Friday, November 18, 2011


On The North River, a blog from or near Pembroke, MA, is unhappy with the new UCC hymnal, and the loss of the old Pilgrim Hymnal.

There are many issues tied together here, and best perhaps to separate them as best we can.  Each would be worthy of its own post, I imagine, but I'm not up to that.  I just like the clarity part.

That hymnals need to change and music needs to be updated is hardly up for discussion.  Some churches will be able to maintain a niche market of traditional music for a few decades, but will lose a majority of even the children who grow up there.  Of those who did not grow up with such music, they will attract none.

It is also true that whatever the change is, some people will not like it.  I barely remember the switch to the Pilgrim Hymnal in my childhood Congregational church, probably around 1961, but I remember being in choir in high school in the late 60's and the older members still complaining about it.  I forget why, or what color the previous hymnal was, but I recall that "Holy, Holy, Holy" was hymn #1.  My wife and I went to a Lutheran Church in the 70's and 80's and liked the Red Hymnal (1962) rather well.  The Green hymnal that came in in the 80's was rather PC and chirpy-cheery, but basically okay.  As the complaints came in about it, some of the old Swedes would chuckle about how it was the same when they switched from the Black hymnal (Augustana Synod, 1925) years before.  Some were more than half-serious when they said they still preferred it.  Then, as Covenanters, we were present for the switch from the Red Hymnal to the Blue.  Some of their old Swedes still pine for the old Brown Hymnal.  (Few pine for the interim softbound Silver, though I liked that reasonably well).  Get ahold of one of those denominational hymnals-before-this-one if you doubt the need to update.

More at issue is the quality of what replaces the traditional music.  Granted that people will complain anyway.  Granted that words become archaic and change subtly in meaning over time.  Granted that the emphasis of church thinking from 1850-1950 was not the pinnacle of Christian understanding.  Granted that we should be more alert to not offend with our phrasing, however beautiful.  I get all that.  Much of the new stuff is still crap.  I think we are moving to non-hymnal eras, and that's likely a good thing.  In an instant communicating world, things go out of fashion so quickly that there really isn't much sense in expensively preserving what we thought was hip in 2000, let alone 1980 or 1960.  It is good to preserve much of what has edified and uplifted the saints from 1500-1950.  Nothing to be added to that now - keep the best and move on.  The current age does not consider the ephemeral nature of its songs to be a negative.  Fine.  Let's not preserve it between expensive covers then.  Leave them available on the net and open to the air and let the best survive - rather like the old days, before the 20th C, actually.

Our attachment to particular songs is often not well-tied to good theology, poetry, or music, but to personal experiences and emotions.  There's nothing wrong with that for us personally, but we need to remember that this doesn't make them more valuable for others.  And most of that ain't so great, neither.  "Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved" may be profound, but many of the rest of the verses are pretty dumb.  They scan and rhyme: sun-begun.  Still dumb. Or...
3. Sinners, whose love can ne'er forget
the wormwood and the gall,
Go spread your trophies at his feet,
and crown him Lord of all.
 And that's one of the really good old hymns.  Imagine how you are going to bring in a tribe of even very obedient, devout, and intelligent middle-schoolers and try and build a life-changing theology for their future around such hymns.


james said...

There are some other aspects as well, besides the bad poetry issues.

May God forgive me, I help with the sound system at church. I've noticed a few things. When the band starts rocking (their term), the congregation can't hear themselves and I stop seeing lips move. Despite being 4 times the size the congregation at the standard service sounds about as loud as that in the elderly "classic" service. I suspect that in general the more the worshipers participate the better, and so I propose that the louder is worse.

The pool of songs is smaller. I don't know why this is, but I see less variety in the standard (contemporary) service music than ever before; here or in Africa.

One side effect of hymnals is that people look down, which isn't so good for voice projection.

Another side effect of using hymnals is that you tended to pick up musical notation along the way. While this isn't strictly a religious consideration, it meant that the church could count on a larger pool of at least semi-trained singers. It wouldn't be hard to project music as well as lyrics, but the suggestion was not well received...

Hymnals also give you something to read during dull sermons.

karrde said...

Much of the new stuff is still crap.

Well, there is the observation that 90% of nearly any artistic style/method is crap. (Known to some as "Sturgeon's law".)

On a more serious front, I have a relative that has collected nearly 200 old hymnals (dated from the mid-1800s to the late 1900s). Scattered among those hymnals are a dozen or more versions of "Amazing Grace", "Tis so Sweet", "The Old Rugged Cross".

That collection might even contain a majority of Fanny Crosby's work...

It is sad to see all of that music and poetry cast aside.

But I suspect that you are right: a majority of those songs will be forgotten because they are not worth remembering.

james said...

And... Plenty of people know at least a few scraps of Spanish, and so are already primed to understand the difference between you and thou. So why get rid of the "Thy's" when it so easy to explain?

A couple of years ago a few folks organized a Christmas carol sing at CERN. The printouts were tiny, and I'd forgotten my magnifiers, but hey, I knew the songs backwards and forwards, right?

Apparently the Brits updated the lyrics considerably, and I couldn't sing a single verse without getting tripped up: all I knew were the old versions. Perhaps the CoE could impose new versions top-down, but in the less centralized US churches people objected to any monkeying with the carols and the leaders went along.

I don't know what's ideal. I do know that the updates don't always match the meter and thought well. A few years ago I turned on a car radio in Geneva and heard a familiar tune with the words "Et maintenant, que vais-je faire?" I could tell in seconds that this was the original, and "What now my love" was the English copy: it matched the music so much better. In the same way updates often feel like third carbons.

Dubbahdee said...

In my recent days as a wanderer in the evangelical wilderness, I keep hearing the same three songs. I can't recall them now, but recognize them when played. These are occasionally interspersed with one or two others that are even more forgettable.

There may be much dreck in any hymnal, but I have seen much of exceptional beauty and power thrown out with that bathwater.

Several weeks ago, I had the misfortune to attend a Sunday gathering of a nightclub/church service where I witnessed the phenomenon to which James attests. The music was so evisceratingly loud that no one could hear themselves, or anyone else, sing. As I watched, I saw that indeed very few were singing. We were not a congregation, but people pounded into and bounded by individual chambers created by the sonic assault. Such customs are completely anti-community. They destroy the common bonds by shattering them with a hammer of sound.

I have stopped apologizing for not liking it and from now on I refuse to submit to this damned foolishness. I have decided to be much less charitable about it than you are AVI. I cannot abide to see this travesty go on without calling it out for what it is. Hymnals, even flawed ones, are absolutely superior to the swill that passes for sacred song today.

I might be wrong...but I'm not.