Creative Team Building and Leadership Resources - In our Elements

Battle Hymns

Saturday, July 13th, 2013

Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 5) transports me to a ride in the truck this past Monday evening which afforded me the time to catch up on the news via NPR’s All Things Considered. Other than the predictable updates on the latest political sex scandal, Egypt’s ongoing revolution, government spying, concealed weapons controversy, implementation of Obamacare, an airplane crash, and gay marriage, it turned out to be a slow news day. That was what occurred to me as I listened to Blake Farmer’s piece on the resurgence of hymn writing in churches that have grown accustomed to using praise songs in worship. Wow, I thought, they really are trying to consider “all things” on this show if they are dedicating over 4 minutes of precious airtime to this narrow topic, more than they spent on Eliot Spitzer’s sex scandal and the concealed weapons debate and the airplane crash. Unfortunately, I’m sorry to report that in those four plus minutes, the topic really wasn’t well considered. It looked at only one small slice of church culture, predominantly large church white evangelical, and ignored the wide range of hymns and worship music found in the rest of the Christian world. For another thing, this “controversy” over evangelical church music is not news; it’s a tired old story for anyone who has spent time in church work in recent decades. And our version of the church fights over proper praise music is only the most recent in a long string of church music fights. When gospel music emerged on the scene in the mass revival movement of the 19th century, Ira Stanky and Fanny Crosby and other new composers got raked over the coals from people who preferred the old hymns of Isaac Watts. Here’s a representative complaint: There is no doubt that a deterioration in taste follows the use of this type of hymn and tune; it fosters an attachment to the trivial and sensational which dulls and often destroys sense of the dignity and beauty which best befit the song that is used in the service of God. Then you can go back to the 18th century emergence of those beloved Isaac Watts hymns, and you read this response from a typical pastor who longed for his version of that old time religion music: The New Christian Music is not as pleasant as the more established style. . .This new music creates disturbances making people act indecently and disorderly. The preceding generation got along without it.

We could go back through every generation and see protracted battles over propriety of worship music. It’s likely that the earliest church hymn writers were met with resistance from traditionalists who wondered what was wrong with the hymnbook Jesus used, the book of Psalms. When I look at the lyrical themes of the Psalms and compare them to the hymns of various periods of church history, one stark contrast appears: Unlike our songs and hymns old and new, the Psalmists spent an awful lot of time singing about human conflict. I don’t think Isaac Watts or Fanny Crosby or Chris Tomlin ever included a verse like this one from today’s passage in reference to opponents in the battle for hearts and minds: There is no truth in their mouths; their hearts are destruction; their throats are open graves; they flatter with their tongues. Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels. But this must have been part of the soundtrack of Jesus’ upbringing in the faith. It must have been part of the worship music of his youth; I can imagine the hymn was a veritable earworm for him as he encountered his own ideological opponents and engaged in battle for the hearts and minds of the masses, cursing and castigating the fundamentalist Pharisees with the labels of whitewashed tombs and unmarked graves.

Nowadays, we don’t sing much about our faith-based conflicts, we just talk about it in the comments sections of stories like Blake Farmer’s on NPR. One respondent wrote about how music was what drove him out of the church: While the [new hymns] seem to be an improvement over the “zombies for Jesus” garbage that everyone else seems to be singing, it’s still deeply rooted in the new “tradition” of goopy, tasteless, overproduced, manipulative brain-anesthetic that drove me away in the first place. I read this and other similar critiques, and realized what an odd bird I am, because I actually like most all the music I hear in churches, of every style and genre. I considered all the castigation from the various versions of elitist musical fundamentalists, and I suddenly heard one of my favorite choruses ringing through my head – How can I keep from singing? It even has a verse dealing with enemies that I think the Psalmist and Jesus would have liked: When tyrants tremble sick with fear, and hear their death knell ringing, when friends rejoice both far and near, how can I keep from singing?

How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.



  • July 14, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    How Can I Keep from Singing–that is one of my favorites, Stan. I once had a CD on which Enya, the New Age songstress, sang it.
    This also takes me back to when I was a member of First Baptist Church in America where one of the choir members walked up and down the aisles of the church and looked into the faces of folks in each pew as she passed by as she sang these beautiful words. I shall always cherish that moment when Peggy’s melodious soprano voice melted my heart. This needs to be sung more often in churches everywhere. Thanks, Stan!

    Comment by Janet Davies

  • July 14, 2013 at 9:03 pm

    Here’s the full quote I referenced in my talk (Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus conference, 20-22 July 2006), from :

    “Please! NO more new hymns. What’s wrong with the inspiring hymns with which we grew up? When I go to church, it’s to worship God, not to be distracted with learning a new hymn. Last Sunday’s was particularly unnerving. While the text was good, the tune was quite unsingable and the harmonies were quite discordant.”

    —From a letter to the Lutheran Witness dated 1890. The hymn in question was “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

    Comment by Ken Sehested

  • July 17, 2013 at 9:03 am

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