Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Thinking Girl's Guide to ....HYMNS!

In response to a youtube posting of a rendition of Isaac Watt's unbelievable poem, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (1707 ) [later put to various music by Isaac Woodbury (1825 and the most commonly sung); Edward Miller (the oldest rendition at 1790) and the 1600s Irish folk song Waly, Waly ( better known as the Water is Wide)] a commenter wrote:

"This is awesome. Not the bad Christian music churches are singing today. This is true theology! Not the watered down Jesus-is-my-boyfriend type stuff."

Somehow I relate to the aforementioned. So many of today's choruses seem to be wholly secular love songs where a quick replacement of "God" or "Jesus" for "boyfriend" ( for lack of a better word) is not unlikely.

To the commenter's point of "true theology" and recognizing that we cannot question the pure motive of some modern chorus writers, we must keep in mind that 18th and 19th Century hymns were crafted in such a way as to relay the Gospel message profusely----so that any one wandering off of the street and into the service would get the crux of salvation in one song.

Thus, many were divided into a thematic trinity. A perfect example of this is "It is Well with my Soul" (Horatio Spafford) which outlines the make-up of this tiered structure:

a.)I am a sinner
b.)Christ is a great saviour--alluding to sacrifice and the Cross
c.) some day I shall see him in Glory.

If you sift through most of the classic hymns of the church, these three potent themes will jump out at you.

Whereas Bach would explore this trinity in cadence and chord throughout the layers of his music; the inclusion (or not) of soloists and chorus in his vespers, mostly this theme was explored in words.

Indeed many famous hymnists including William Cowper, Charles Wesley and, yes, Isaac Watt, were renowned Renaissance poets foremost ---their words set to music afterward.

What they scribed has lasted three hundred years.

Other hymnists poured their own conviction and stark truth into their works in the same way the most riveting novels and autobiographies do. The famous former slave-trader John Newton's "Amazing Grace" is an exercise in self-conviction and a slow, faltering, fallible and undeserved reconciliation( and recognition) with God's redemption.

Robert Robinson penned one of my favourite hymns, Come Thou Fount of Ev'ry Blessing, including a subtle reference to his own vocation in the first stanza:

"Come thou Fount of Ev'ry Blessing
Tune my Heart to sing thy Grace" a piano tuner, Robinson infused his song of praise with a personal note.

I cannot doubt the sincerity of the music played in churches today; nor its good intentions. But I think the biggest mistake a person of any faith can make is to avoid their history.

Many denominations are relatively new ---many generic, universal and determined to bring seekers to the fold.

I do not contest any of this.

However, Christianity is ---at its core---- a religion steeped in history. How often do we root for excavated proof that David and Moses lived ----a rock here; a scrap of parchment there?

Thousands will flock to see the Dead Sea Scrolls at the ROM this summer---another testament to faith.

Should we not, then, embrace unabashedly a rich cultural history?

Having studied music history from its earliest beginnings and through Gregorian chant, I was thrilled to better understand its creation as a means of worship. Having been pleasantly surprised to see my favourite hymnists pop up in my U of T poetry seminars, I recognized that these writers have had a very stern and lasting influence on our world.

The other day, I saw the following: " Amazing Grace---words and music by Chris Tomlin." Obviously referring to his new arrangement of the song with the addition of "My Chains are Gone", I was distressed that this type-o would occur.

As long as we embrace our long standing history, we need to recognize our great and glorious past.

The best way to set aside any rage at the current perception ( often well-founded ) in Christianity in the world is to revere our wonderful cultural background.

How better to do so than to listen to ethereal music and taste even more ethereally inspired words?

Save the Hymns! two hundred years from now people will still remember John Newton and his Amazing song. That "Jesus is my Boyfriend" ditty? .....maybe not so much.

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