Hymns Revisited

Part of me loves the hymns I grew up with. Part of me scrambles backwards, knocking stuff over, in an attempt to escape them.

A few reasons contribute to my reaction, which is possibly not entirely one of logic and reason.

For one thing, some of the words of these “hymns” are incredibly insipid. For instance, the bouncy little song  “At the Cross,” which took a weighty Isaac Watts poem:

Alas, and did my Savior bleed,
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

And stuck a catchy gospel chorus to it:
At the cross!
At the cross!
Where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart was rolled away!
It was there by faith I received my sight
And now I am happy all the day!

Yeah, so, you know — the ultimate sacrifice of a sinless God to save wretched sinners… and now I am happy all the day!

For another thing, I can’t stand some of the tunes. A Mighty Fortress Is Our God has fantastic words. But good heavens, who on earth wrote that tune and thought, “Yeah! This is IT! Congregational singing, HERE WE COME!”? You start off at a full run and don’t even get to pause for breath between the first and second phrases:


It’s like an entire hymn in hashtag form. And then the sliding end of each phrase, just to finish you off: “O’er mortal ills prevay-ay-ay-ling.” (DJ assures me that most pianists, trying to keep up with the chord changes, mutter imprecations on the tunewriter’s head. Guitarists just give up entirely.)

Other tunes are so locked in their nineteenth- and twentieth-century sound that they’re almost painful to twenty-first century ears. Sweet Hour of Prayer, Blessed Be the Tie, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, Softly and Tenderly. They drag. They whine. I cannot stand those tunes.

But so what? Big deal. Everybody who ever attended church likes some songs and not others. Why does that qualify me to run in the other direction?

Well, because I didn’t just sing them in church, where my associations are good. No, for years I was taught by a now-discredited teacher that these hymns were the only acceptable music to listen to. He also allowed classical music (except for Stravinksy, and Debussy was suspect too, and if he’d ever heard of Gershwin then that would have been off-limits as well). Some Celtic and bluegrass slipped under the line, too. But it was mostly approved arrangements of hymns.

So my life was filled with these hymns. The beautiful (Praise to the Lord the Almighty; Holy, Holy, Holy); the fluffy (Victory in Jesus; Lily of the Valley); and the insipid or annoying (see above).

I couldn’t pick and choose to like them because my options were so limited, and besides, there’s no room in a Godly life to say that you don’t like Godly music.

Once I realized that I could step beyond those artificial boundaries, I walked away from hymns for the most part. Still liked listening to DJ play and sing at the piano, but I was angry that they had been forced on me as “the only good” music when some of it was patently not good.

Yet, as I said, part of me still loves many of those songs.

The other day, I heard Chris Rice on the radio singing a very mellow and low-key praise song. I looked him up. I found this album from 2007 entitled “The Hymns Project” and thought… I can take a chance on this.

Source: Amazon.com: Peace Like A River: The Hymns Project: Chris Rice: MP3 Downloads

And it was a good call. Rice just sings the hymns without trying to make them more than they are. That’s when I realized there’s a lot to them. In fact, I downloaded five of them to my phone, and that’s what’s been playing the last few days:

It Is Well With My Soul — My only complaint about this version is that it’s hard to sing the echo part on the chorus, which is half the fun of the song. But the simple arrangement let me hear the words, written by a man who had lost half his family and all his fortune:

Though Satan should buffet
Though trials should come;
Let this blessed assurance control:
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate
And has shed His own blood for my soul.

Rock of Ages — Same familiar tune, but Rice smoothed out so it doesn’t have so much of that slidy-swing feel to it. It turns out that the words are excellent, once the tune stops being so intrusive.

Not the labors of my hands
Can fulfill thy law’s demands.
Could my zeal no respite know

Could my tears forever flow,
This for sin could not atone.
Thou must save, and thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring
Simply to the cross I cling.

Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing — I’ve discovered that I like this hymn almost no matter how it’s arranged. Something about the words chimes in with my soul every time I hear them.

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be
Let thy goodness like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart to thee
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it
Seal it for thy courts above.

I used to dislike this verse — that whole thing about the “fetter.” But now I deeply appreciate the idea that I can’t wander away from God. He lets me walk away, but never so far that I can’t find him again.

O Love That Will Not Let Me Go — This hymn’s major sin is that it drags. Oh, my gosh this tune drags. But Rice’s version has energy and keeps things moving, and for the first time I realized why DJ loves it so much. Very satisfying poetry and expressive prayer.

O Love that will not let me go
I rest my weary soul in thee
I give thee back the life I owe
That in thy ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

Oh joy that seekest me through pain
I cannot close my heart to thee
I trace the rainbow through the rain
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.

The Old Rugged Cross — This is the stereotypical “little country church” song. Guess what, I usually can’t stand the tune. But Rice doesn’t leap for the hysterical high notes, and liberates it from its swingy rhythm. This song, despite its slightly precious wording, evokes generations of ordinary Christians as they make the most of a life that they know will be done all too soon:

That old rugged cross
So despised by the world
Has a wondrous attraction to me;
For the dear lamb of God left his glory up above
To bear it to dark Calvary

So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross
Till my trophies I at last lay down.
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it someday for a crown.

These old hymns look beyond this tiresome earthly life to the day that we gain heaven and God. Modern hymns and praise songs don’t touch on this theme nearly as much, and I think it’s interesting that these days we like to gloss over the fact that death is a part of life.

I’m glad for the twenty-first century reassurance that God accepts me right now as broken and imperfect… but I’ve appreciated the reminder that there’s also something great and glorious that I’m moving toward.

It’s good to be able to enjoy these hymns again. And as for the rest of the album, well, I didn’t like those songs as much (even Rice couldn’t mellow out A Mighty Fortress). And these days I’m free to pick and choose.

And so can you,.So if you’re like me and wary of hymns, give this one a try.


5 thoughts on “Hymns Revisited

  1. This does sound a lot like my own struggle. I grew up surrounded by hymns but also by 1970s and 80s choruses.

    Like you, I have some negative associations with hymns, although ATI was not really one. My mom did and does love the old hymns, and used to play them regularly. On the one hand, I do treasure the times we spent singing together. But on the other, there was an ongoing fight between us on the subject of music during my teens, when she bought in wholeheartedly to Gothard’s views on music. (That she disliked rock and roll – and LOATHED jazz before Gothard was likely a factor.) Since I was always involved in church music (since about age 11 or so), this was more than an academic discussion. Particularly since I played drums and electric guitar in addition to the more morally acceptable violin. The low point was when I had to bend the truth to her regarding my drum playing. She needed to be reassured that I was emphasizing beats 1 and 3 and NOT 2 and 4, which were the Devil’s beats, clearly. I fudged and made her happy.

    (As any serious musician can tell you, the pattern in most Western music – from classical to rock and roll – is bass on 1 and 3, treble on 2 and 4. So what I said was *true* in the technical sense, but not true in the sense she meant, I guess. Because I played drums on contemporary songs just like anyone else would…)

    I’m totally with you on the way hymns tend to draaaaaaag. And then, if they don’t, they are too fast to say the words. It’s just not always easy to combine an older musical idiom with emotional engagement. (Your mileage will vary, clearly.) For me, the problem is that I DO get the 18th and 19th Century idioms all too well – enough to find that most hymns are simply not good music. When I think of 18th Century sacred music, I want to hear Mozart playing in my brain. And Faure or Vaughan Williams for the 19th. And Vivaldi or Bach any time. (On a related note, THEY could make the tune fit the mood of the words…)

    So, these days, I play a variety. Classical in the Symphony. Whatever I want at church. (Bwahaha!) I like some of the updates to the old hymns, which make them more playable for guitarists and drummers, and I like the entire tradition of modern worship, from the 70s through today, although I obviously pick and choose which ones I find to have quality in lyrics and music. I get away with more rock oriented songs more easily than most, because a violin will cover a multitude of sins for the old folks.

    Alas, the worship wars will probably always be with us.

    • Probably they will. For myself, I still like some fairly valueless gospel songs from sentimental attachment. Just don’t try to tell me they’re somehow superior to other music just because they talk about heaven. Basically, I’ll enjoy hymns as long as I can have Carbon Leaf too. 🙂

    • Thanks for commenting! I look forward to checking these out. Hymns really are complicated animals, since they involve personal taste, various music styles, and theological tangles.

  2. Most of my exposure to hymns was actually through an acapella group called Glad (DC based, oddly enough)– which meant that I was bored to tears by the versions sung at the little white churches we sometimes visited–A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, preformed by a group that takes it’s complexity and impossibleness and makes it a showstopper…that’s the way to do it.

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