Hymns: The Best for the Master

by Arthur Birkby

Print This Article

(Emeritus Professor of Music Arthur Birkby has been on the faculties of Westminster College, the Philadelphia Conservatory, Western Michigan University, the University of Wyoming, and Biblion College & Seminary. Dr. Birkby has performed as concert organist in over 100 cities of Europe and the U.S. His article should not be construed as a condemnation of all contemporary Christian music, but rather as a call to carefully evaluate the music we use to glorify the Lord.)

Since the ninth century A.D., churches were virtually the only centers where historically significant music composition and performance were actively pursued. In contrast, today’s important music events occur more often in concert halls, universities, and arenas. Musical masterworks have endured because their composers, having intuitive ideas, inherent talent, and prodigious industry, were influenced by, and applied fundamental principles of design and structure. Even those composers who introduced what must have seemed novel or iconoclastic inroads into music, were steeped in the traditions of their predecessors, and did not abandon the need for discipline when putting forth innovative kinds of form, harmony, melody, rhythm, or style.

The church’s association with music since antiquity is easily understood. Music is mentioned many times in the Bible. As early as Genesis 4:21 we read of Jubal being the father of those who play the harp and flute. Other instruments mentioned in the Bible include the horn, organ, timbrel, tabret, lyre, trumpet, sistrum, and psaltery; but most of these had little resemblance to today’s instruments. Other Scriptural examples regarding music abound, such as Exodus 15:1-18, describing Moses leading a responsorial song celebrating Israel’s deliverance through the Red Sea. Details of early temple music are described in I Chronicles 15.

Temple musicians were employed by many of Israel’s kings. One music director, Heman, and his fourteen sons were responsible for the temple’s choral music. The temple choir contained 288 highly trained singers who wore white linen robes. During Solomon’s reign, there were 4,000 instrumentalists in addition to the singers (I Chron. 23:5).

The musicians who were engaged in providing music for worship services were skilled, as evidenced in I Chronicles 15:22, II Chronicles 34:12, and Psalm 33:3. Attempting to maintain a high level of music in today’s services, many churches hire well-paid professionals who enhance worship by bringing dignified, reverent praise to the Lord. It must be noted that “dignified” or “reverent” does not preclude jubilant or energetic musical offerings. Sobriety and dignity do not necessarily imply gloom and wretchedness.

Unlike big city “mainline” churches with impressive budgets for music, many congregations rely on their own members to provide worship music without monetary reward. When faced with this situation, they should strive to select musical participants who are competent as well as willing.

By way of analogy, if a preacher were unable to preside at a service for one reason or another, and a substitute were required, it would be patently inappropriate to ask a layperson whose speech was unintelligible, ungrammatical, or crude, and who had no knowledge of Scripture, to preach the sermon. Even worse would be a situation in which a person with limited Bible knowledge, and having a liberal, non-doctrinal view of Scriptural truth, would be asked to preach to a congregation of believers who expect a spiritual gospel message.

Let us see how this might apply to music. The lack of worthy music in today’s worship services is not always because the music leaders are uneducated or unskilled. Rather, it is because they themselves may lack discernment; and some feel that by appealing to an uncultured general cross-section of society, they will attract a larger appreciative audience.

Because of space, this article will address only congregational singing, rather than consider other elements of music in the service. The recent, overwhelmingly ubiquitous use of so-called “praise choruses,” or “worship songs” has led to the virtual elimination of hymnals. The presumed justification for avoiding hymns in a book is that they are old-fashioned, and do not address the needs of the youth. There are several fallacious premises in this argument. Firstly, it assumes that youthful demands are shared by mature adults. Secondly, it suggests that hymns in the book, being “traditional,” are old-fashioned. Any perfunctory scan of a recognized, published, modern hymnal will reveal a wealth of hymns dating from many eras, including songs by contemporaries, and they deserve to be explored.

Hymnal contents often run the gamut from tawdry to magnificent; but rare, indeed, can “magnificent” selections be found among the so-called “praise” songs or choruses. There are, certainly, some songs reflecting popular idioms that do have merit, especially those that derive from actual, traditional folk melodies. “Praise” songs that are banal, trivial, and lacking any redeeming qualities are rampant.

The reader may ask whether there are standards by which a legitimate assessment of a hymn’s worth may be determined. Of course! Let us consider texts as well as musical settings. Most texts are in some form of poetry. Poetry as an art form often has as its purpose the creation of beauty, or perhaps the emphasis or clarification of meaning by using rhetoric, rhyme, or meter not always associated with mere prose.

Consider, for example, the beauty and magnificence expressed in When I Survey the Wondrous Cross by Isaac Watts. All four stanzas are glorious; but ponder for a moment two of the stanzas, which state:

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ, my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a tribute far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Compare the above with the following popular worship chorus:

Lead me in Your everlasting way,
Lead me in Your everlasting way,
Lead me in Your everlasting way,
Lead me in Your everlasting way.

Or, how about this one:

There is no God but Jehovah (16 times)

Or another one:

I love you, Lord. I love you, I love you, I love you, Lord.

Adding salt to the wound, after singing songs like these repetitive ones, the worship teams (as they like to be called) often sing the song a second or third time!

Now a word must be said in behalf of the music. A hymn tune’s worth cannot be justified by whether one likes it, or does not like it; but its intrinsic value can be determined by anyone having a background in music composition. This would include familiarity with harmony, theory, form and analysis, counterpoint and music history. With these points of reference, most “choruses” will be recognized for their shallowness and their flagrant errors in the most fundamental principles of music writing.

Composers of all ages “broke the rules,” so to speak, of writing technique. Even such greats as J. S. Bach, Chopin, Brahms, Debussy, or Schoenberg broke the rules; but the infractions can be easily and legitimately justified as one studies their output. When writing music in a particular idiom, one should follow principles characteristic of that style. The problem with the worship choruses is that they are not stylistically unique in any way. Instead, they are based upon “traditional” concepts, but ignore the compositional principles that would make them acceptable.

An analogy may be made in the art of painting, where one learns about form, composition, color, brush technique, and other related topics. In the eras of Rubens, Raphael, Monet, Goya, and other old masters, artists exercised their own prerogatives in their masterpieces, as have other artists throughout history. In more recent times, Picasso’s inimitable style avoided reality, whether in a portrait or a still life. Dali chose a fanciful dream world in which to create his surrealistic pictures. Great artists, who dare to be different, know thoroughly the accepted precepts of their forerunners, and are able to convey new ideas as developments of the giants who preceded them.

If an aspiring artist today were to paint a replica of the Mona Lisa, and add lipstick and insert a ring into her nose, the result would be sacrilegious. That is, in essence, the kind of charade that some of today’s would-be hymn writers are foisting off on congregations. They are unable to create something that is uniquely contemporary; rather, they create caricatures that are often offensive, corrupting idioms that require principles to be followed.

In centuries past, church musicians such as J. S. Bach adapted folk songs, and even silly love songs, to be used for congregational singing. These unpretentious ditties were modified, and garbed in splendor, depth, and beauty appropriate for sublime texts derived from the Scriptures. One such work is the well-known, O Sacred Head, Now Wounded. The original musical treatment of this tune was used in a song about a lad whose mind was befuddled with thoughts of his ladylove. Bach enriched this melody by modifying its harmony and rhythm so that it became a vehicle for expressing unspeakably profound truths. In contrast, there are church song leaders nowadays who “jazz” up traditional hymns, thereby cheapening them rather than improving them. If one does not actually listen to the words of a praise chorus, the music may often be more readily identified as belonging in a night club, a skating rink, or an MTV broadcast.

There is nothing wrong with having one’s own preferences in music in whatever genre. It is important, however, to make choices appropriate to the environment. In worldly settings, discriminating taste in music is of little consequence. When offering the Lord our worship in song, only the very best befits our sacrifice of praise. Sadly, much of what is presented today falls abysmally short of that goal.

Dr. Birkby will be happy to respond to any question you might have regarding his comments in this article. You can write him at: abirkby@comcast.net.