(Author’s note: this blog was originally titled “A Year of Hymns” and I released a song per month. This was the first post)
First of all, thanks for checking out this blog. I hope this first entry will make you want to follow it for the next 12 months. Since this is the first official entry, I’ll give you a little more background than I plan to in future posts. I guess the best place to start is with this question: why rearrange old hymns? Well, for several reasons. First, there is a long tradition in the Christian church of taking old texts (lyrics) and putting them to new music. It’s been going on now for over 1000 years (arguably much longer). If you look at the bottom of the page in most hymnals, you will see two pieces of information. In my Trinity Hymnal (published by Great Commission Publications) on the left-hand side of the page you find information about the author of the text, and usually when the text was written or translated to English. In the case of some older texts, you simply see the years corresponding to the author’s life. On the right-hand side of the page you see information about the composer of the tune and the name of the tune as well as the year it was composed if available.
As you thumb through the pages of the hymnal, you notice very quickly that many of the words and melodies that are now joined together to make a hymn were not written by the same person or even in the same century. There are many different ways these texts and melodies ended up together. Some hymnwriters wrote most of their texts in Common Meter so their words could be joined to existing melodies. Many of the traditional hymn tunes were patterned after court music or even the folk music of the day. In many cases it was the editor of the hymnal, not the writer or composer, who put the two together. But almost without exception, the tunes and texts were written by different people.
This is a drastically different method than we now have. At the risk of sounding cynical, our modern purveyors of Christian music should take note here. Hymns were not cranked out in cubicles. They were not composed based on trends, marketing, and status quo. Rather men and women were moved by the truth of God’s word and the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. They wrote texts that taught doctrine. Other men and women saw worth in these texts and set them to the music of their day, music that moved the hearts and souls of worshippers.
A Connection to Our Past
I believe there is great worth in retaining a connection to the past. I call it an “intangible enrichment.” I grew up in (what we call in the south) a “Bible Church.” I heard the Gospel there. I repented of my sin and trusted Jesus there. Our pastor was a man of God who truly loved God and loved God’s people. I am thankful for all of that. But frankly we lacked a lot. I grew up with basically no understanding of Christian heritage. I knew no church history. We sang very few ancient or even classic hymns. Most of our hymns came from the revivalist movement of the late 19th century or “songs of praise” from the 1940s and 50’s. My view of the Christian faith was narrow and distorted. I had no concept of the Church (capital C). I had never heard of a creed or confession. I learned about the Reformation in my 10th grade Western Civilization class. I had never heard of Polycarp, Irenaeus, Blandina, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Bunyan, Edwards, Wesley, Newton, Watts, Cowper or countless others whose writing and ministries have so shaped the Christianity we have inherited.
An understanding of where we have come from leads to an enriched Christian life, and I believe a more faithful discipleship. As we read of the ecumenical councils, we see the theological issues with which the church was struggling. We see the outcomes of those councils and we test our own views of Christology, Ecclesiology, Soteriology and the like against what the church has traditionally taught and believed. And we test all these things against the scriptures. We are encouraged by the faith of men and women over the span of years, and we are reminded that Jesus Christ is building his Church and that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. We glory in the church’s triumphs and we lament its misguided abuses, but all in all we are strengthened by a solid foundation of knowing who we are and from whence we have come. Retaining a connection with the music of the church is part of this process. We can sing John Newton’s “Amazing Grace“ and remember how his encounter with Jesus eventually took him from a career in the slave trade to service as an Anglican priest. We can sing William Cowper’s “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood“ and contemplate how God used a broken man such as Cowper, who fought depression all of his days, to pen some of the most encouraging words ever sung. We can sing hymns such as “At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing” which is a Latin hymn from the 6th century, and almost feel the connection to the invisible church as we sing a text that has been used by Christians for more than 1400 years. The hymns play a role in a rich Christian heritage.
Singing the Truth
The hymns not only provide that intangible enrichment of connecting to the past, but they also teach us right doctrine (of course the caveat here is that you have to pick doctrinally sound hymns). My good friend Jerry Harwood always says “theology must become biography.” Not only must it, but it will. Our beliefs about God will directly affect the way we live. And wrong ideas about God lead to terrible distortions and abuses of the Christian faith. We need the truth of the Gospel to infiltrate our lives. David says in Psalm 139 “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” David knew his heart was prone to sin. He pleaded with God to shine the light of his truth into the darkest corners of his soul. We should be of the same mind. Only the truth can truly set us free. And so what we sing in corporate worship matters. The hymns in form and function allow us to embed the life-giving truths of God’s Word into our lives through repetition and memorable tunes.
But the didactic effectiveness of the hymns of Isaac Watts, John Newton and others from our past seems to be lacking in our modern songs. Let’s face it, with a few exceptions such as Stewart Townend, the Getty’s and a few others, there are not many people writing rich lyrics to go along with modern music in the form of hymns. The hymn writers of yesteryear were of a higher ilk than most of our modern writers. Again, the writer of the text was concerned not with writing a hit song that fit a radio format, but in clearly conveying a biblical truth through poetry or verse. Today, most Christian music that finds its way into corporate worship was written and arranged by a recording artist or the person who has been hired to write them a hit. Generally the music takes precedent over the words. In most cases the artist’s commitment to Christ is clear and in some cases their writing is really strong. But on the whole I think we have lost the art of placing strong doctrine into our music. Revisiting the old hymns can challenge us, and perhaps even lead the way as we modern writers attempt by God’s grace to write something new and of worth.
So Why New Music?
So why rearrange, rewrite, and revamp? Why not just sing the hymns as they are? Well, we do. And we will continue to do so. But here’s the point. Truth never changes. Music is always changing. I don’t know anything about psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, or really even that much about music theory. I can’t tell you why I love Rock and Blues but don’t like Jazz. I don’t know why the same song can evoke tears of joy in one person and an apathetic yawn in another. What I do know is that each generation forges new ground musically. Admittedly some of that new ground seems to be regress rather than progress. But the sounds, instrumentation, form, meter, and “feel” of music touch people in different ways at different times. The hymns offer us much to be thankful for in the way of context, connection, truth, and art, but frankly the melodies of the past do not always prick the heart of the modern worshipper.
For instance, there are in my church hymnal 737 hymns. We sing about 60 of them in the course of a year. Granted our music director uses a good bit of music from outside our hymnal, but the point is still valid. There are over 600 texts in our hymnal that have fallen out of circulation. And the sad part is, many if not the majority of them are so strong. Why don’t we sing them? I think it is because the melodies do not resonate with our souls. Perhaps they would have 100 years ago, but they do not today. In the liner notes to my CD From the Shoulders of Giants I said that one of my goals for the album was to “give an earthly voice to men and women whose dwelling is with God.” When I rearrange a hymn with folk or rock music, it is like allowing the author to speak to my generation in its own language. We are in effect singing the faith of a brother or sister in Christ from another era. And frankly I take some flak for it. There are those who certainly don’t like what we are doing. They see it in the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” category. But they are forgetting that many of the melodies they hold so dear are not the original melodies that were joined to the texts. We are simply doing what has always been done, reframing the songs to fit our own cultural context. Also, I never rearrange a hymn just for the sake of doing it. Usually this is what happens: I go into my studio late at night, turn on the mic (and plenty of reverb in the headphones) and thumb through the hymnal. When I come across a text that moves me or really touches on something with which I am personally struggling, I begin to sing. I try to form melodies and chord structures and progressions that capture the heart behind the text. Truth and emotion should match musically. Sometimes I will add to the text if the structure of my melody needs more or if I feel that the thought is incomplete, but for the most part I try to leave the text much as it is. And this process is for me an act of worship. This process allows me to spend time alone with God and sing his truth back to him in a way that it has never been done before. Honestly, I cherish this time. It has been several years now, but I still remember the night I wrote my melody for William Cowper’s “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” I was so overcome by the text, that I literally sang my new melody in its entirety complete with verse, chorus, and bridge. The line that moved me was “The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day, and there have I as vile as he washed all my sins away.” Here in one verse we see the greatness of our own sin and our disease’s complete and final cure, the grace of God through the blood of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God!
And so I rewrite hymns. I do it to enrich my own faith and as an act of worship to Jesus Christ. But I also do it for the church. I don’t expect all (or even most) of them to be used in gathered worship, but to whatever extent my art can be used to enrich the life of the Church’s worship I offer it. If you’re still reading after all this, please share this blog with people you think will benefit from it. Each month I will post one hymn and some of the background about it, its author, and any doctrinal issues it addresses or proclaims. The songs are free. But if you want to donate or “pay” for the song, please make a donation to International Justice Mission. You can do that at www.ijm.org . The project will begin April 1st. Please check back in a few weeks for the first song.