And therefore restlesse inquietude for the diuturnity of our memories unto present considerations, seems a vanity almost out of date, and superanuated peece of folly. — Sir T. Browne

(c) The Bowes Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationI have about as much musical talent as an Eskimo has at surfing. Thus, the following analysis of modern church music must be taken with a grain of salt—or even disregard entirely. Nevertheless, though I have very little musical talent, I do possess an awareness of good writing, an ability to judge whether meaning and truth are being conveyed through the medium of words. And that is necessarily what music should be set to accomplish—most notably church music. Thus, when a modern Christian songwriter[1] pens such lunacy in his repetition of the phrase “God’s big dance floor,” the man listening to the song should not melt with feeling because the guitar tells him to do so but should question what on earth is meant by “God’s big dance floor.” Now, I use a silly example which will really do no harm, for “God’s big dance floor” essentially means very little and is closer to the jabber of academics than a coherent suggestion on the nature of our Lord. Furthermore, I doubt, though perhaps I shouldn’t, that any church actually sings such a song, and so it should not be labeled as “church music.”

However, there is a very real and a very serious danger when that same lunacy enters the church. If, for example, people began repeating the phrase “stand up” fifteen times in a row for no apparent reason before switching to “hands up” fifteen more times (in which both actions are mimicked respectively by the crowd), the musicians have achieved little more—nay, much less—than if they had simply sung the popular children’s song “Deep and Wide” or “Father Abraham” and had that congregation follow the actions. Those songs at least had a moral to them. But too often congregations are spinning in circles because the guitar and the drums make them feel as if they should.

All this does is make the modern church appear very silly. But when congregations start singing songs which do nothing but focus the attention on themselves and their struggles[2], any sense of worship is nearly completely lost, and the God who was to be praised is now functioning as a mere counselor for our pains.

*****

The organist of a certain church where I reside is a lady of perhaps sixty or seventy. In fact, as I meandered my way in to the sanctuary, and sat near the back, I noticed that the average head donned a light grey or white. (The fine gentleman in my row had such a hoary beard that he looked as if he had just alighted from his sailing ship after many months away from home. I expected him at any moment to reach into his pocket, pull out a pipe, place it between his pursed lips, wink, turn to me, and say “Aye, Matey!”) Barring three children, forced to be there with their parents, and one young intern pastor, forced to be their by the good nature of his willing soul, no one came within fifteen years of me. The organ blared the prelude to the service as laymen prepared their hearts (and knees) for worship. We all rose, slowly, and sang the old hymn “Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling.” Love, it appears was the theme for the service. “Love Lifted Me,” “My Savior’s Love,” “O the Deep Deep Love” were others sung with a mere organ and piano. The beautiful thing about an organ is that it is so loud one can hardly hear themselves singing, and this, in my case, is a plus.

Nevertheless, as we sang together, the deep voice of the old man behind me, whose named I learned is Jim, bellowed like a beluga whale seeking a mate. The congregation was old. The songs were old. There were no drums or bass or electric guitar—there was no guitar at all. But true, genuine worship was had because the words of the hymns had deep meaning and concrete images.

As we sang, “My Savior’s Love,” we arrived at the third verse. Jim, having left and his absence being noticed, now returned with renewed vigor, bellowing louder than ever the beautiful words:

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

Though I enjoy—and was—cracking open the dusty and neglected hymnals when the opportunity affords itself, I noticed the background of the projector with the words was a picture of an ocean. I imagined to myself this was unlike other services where the lyrics of the song are so open to interpretation that one person can be thinking about his rocky marriage while another is thinking about the Rocky Road he will consume after the service. This group of aging worshippers, however, all had for at least a few moments, the exact same image imprinted on their minds. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for a worshipper to get sidetracked when singing a song with such clear images.

*****

It is not that contemporary Christian music simply lacks images and is bad writing. It is that it is not simple. One might hold a note for twenty seconds without any warning, or he might change pace with insane fierceness—like the unfortunate hare who woke up after his nap and had to catch up to the tortoise. The hymn may be overly simplistic, or they may all sound exactly the same to some degree. But the wonder of creativity is not discovered in the randomness. Creativity is had in the fact that hymns are wonderfully uniform, making the entire service appear uniformed. Furthermore, the hymn may be too easy to sing, but at least it can be sung. Some contemporary songs are so “creative” that they create situations in which the congregation is a mere crowd and the compilation a concert.

*****

We arose and sang one last song, “Jesus, We Just Want to Thank You.” After we sat our collective old bones in our seats, a young intern gave announcements. Halfway through the announcements, out of a side door appeared an old man in a blue, buttoned-up shirt and khakis. He proceeded to hold the door open for twenty-two other old men who happened to be dressed in the same get-up. The men proceeded to form to half-circle rows on the stage as the young intern continued giving announcements.

Finishing the announcements, the intern sat himself down, and an older man with a beard in the back of the two rows pulled out a harmonica. After finding the correct pitch, the old man who initially opened the door, conducted the other twenty-two in an acappella version of “This Little Light of Mine.” The same process was repeated as the group sang another song, one unfamiliar to me but just as refreshing for the soul. Indeed, the men were collectively known as the Little Apple Barbershop Chorus. Their music was not catchy. It did not have gadgets and glory. It had nothing with which to move the emotions. But it had character. It had the peculiar ability to take the mere raw materials of man, the voice, and produce a beautiful sound. Modern Christian music would go along way if we did away with the gadgets and glory. It would even benefit more from a mere reading of the hymnals than a smoke filled concert, gabbing and crabbing about “my problems.”

_________________

*In the tradition of C.S. Lewis’ fabulous essay, “On Church Music.”

[1] Chris Tomlin, “God’s Big Dance Floor.” A friend of mine aptly describes the songwriter’s music as “Jesus is my boyfriend music.”

[2] A current song repeats the phrase “He makes all things work together for my good” about 43 times (emphasis mine).

Sam Snow
Written at the Ole Midshipman,
After a morning of worship,
July 27, 2014

Painting: A Lady at a Piano
By French School
Oil on Canvas, 1850-1870

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