This may seem obvious… but it’s interesting that I think there are some underlying ideas that may cause us to think that writing new church songs is not really that important or necessary. Much of this comes from a self-analyzing of why I have either now or in the past thought this same way.
One other tidbit. I really do like hymns, regardless of age. I also am really not a fan of heavy repetition or aiming for emotional highs. Truth is important and should drive our emotions. Our affection should be for God, not music. Music is a vehicle for expressing and nurturing (by providing memorable and understandable truth) our affections, but it is not what should drive them.
If it sounds like I am “anti-old-hymn,” it is an unfortunate communication flaw on my side (and let me know where it sounds like that, please, so I can correct it!). I’m pro-hymn-regardless-of-age.
What We Have Is Good Enough
Wesley, Watts, and Crosby already wrote their hymns. Weren’t theirs good enough for us? Why do we need new ones?
For one thing, God seems to actually care that we express our faith and trust and passion for Him in our own words. It’s good to remember the faith of those who have gone before us; it’s also good to express it ourselves. Also, it seems like a logical fallacy to assume that all the good hymns have already been written and we can’t write anything better, anything more understandable in our current cultural language/idiom, etc. This would be similar to people telling Mendelssohn that he shouldn’t write any music, because Bach and Mozart had already written theirs; who needs more?
The Dreaded T Word
Tradition. We like tradition. We feel comfortable with tradition, and we tend to look suspiciously on things that break our tradition. Music and songs are no different; we assume that because a song has been sung traditionally, it is a really good one. If we have all these really good traditional songs, why write new ones? Sure, maybe we could update the music, but the text? What’s wrong with it?
Here’s a counter-example. Would we be happy with our pastors if all they did was read famous people’s sermons and didn’t actually work through it themselves? After all, who can improve upon Spurgeon or Edwards! But, thankfully, we don’t think that way. It seems music should be treated similarly; just as we can learn from old preachers and even use parts of their sermons, so we can learn from old hymns and use them, but that doesn’t mean we should not write new songs.
Do I think we should have mostly new songs? Not really. I think they should be compared. If I write a pretty badly written, confusing, and shallow song about the same topic that Watts wrote about, but Watts’s is really good … I don’t see any reason to use the new one, really. However, I also don’t think we should elevate old hymn writers to the level that it sounds heretical to say “I think, in our day, this new song on the same topic may be better or more understandable.” I, for one, am glad that some of the great hymn writers of the past thought it important enough to continue writing even though they came after other great hymn writers. I’m sure Crosby knew of Wesley and Watts, but she wrote anyway… and I’m glad that she did.
The Golden Age Concept
At times, I sense that we tend to think back to previous centuries as the golden age of things… back when everyone knew their Bible, attended church, were good Christians, and wrote good music.
This is a dangerous topic to talk about, because things do change in periods of history, and cultures change… so it can be true that some time periods may be, in some way, “better” than another. The danger comes, though, when we allow that to cause us to let our guard down and to stop comparing things biblically and to stop thinking about things as we consume them (e.g., worldviews inherent in literature).
We see this in classical music (“good” classical music stopped somewhere right around or before Debussy and the turn of the 20th century). We see it in hymns (good hymns stopped being written around the same time). We see it with morality or theology, and many aspects of culture such as literature and relationships, etc.
What’s interesting is that I’m not sure how true it is. Are there periods of “better morality” in general? Probably, yes. What strikes me, though, is that we think this way about a particular century or time period and then kind of stop being so wary of worldviews or theologies expressed. For example; I enjoy reading Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott books. It’s interesting to read their theology and their satire on society. Their society had major troubles… relationship troubles, adultery troubles, pride issues. Their theology that comes through in their books tends to be a sort of “be good and you’ll probably go to heaven,” even though they all went to church because that was what you did. So they went to church and had a works-based salvation.
Unfortunately, we let down our guard when we think that a particular time period was in some way better. Was it better, morally? Perhaps so. But does that actually mean we stop thinking biblically and critically? I really don’t think it should. When we begin to esteem a certain age and begin to sound like we want to model ourselves after that age, I think we forget human depravity. We need to want to model ourselves after Christ, not the 1850s, 1750s, 1650s, etc.
So how does all this relate to the topic? I think we do tend to golden-age-ify the 19th century (and before). I know I certainly do it with classical music. When we do that, we tend to get into the thought process of well, this old hymn was written in the great 19th century time period of writing, so it’s probably good. That may be true… but it doesn’t excuse me from looking at it just as biblically as I would look at a text written yesterday. All humans make mistakes and are fallen creatures, whether born in 1990 or 1790.
Another problem is starting to argue for our preferences based on this golden-age idea. For example, I really like the Romantic period in classical music… well, more specifically, right around the transition from Classical to Romantic. People like Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, etc. Because of my preference, I can begin to think that Romantic music is better than, say, modern classical music (and I am not referring to kind of crazily academic classical music like twelve tone or minimalism, but even including movie scores, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Holst, etc). There are other arguments that can be made dealing with dissonance or whatever, but I know for me, it starts with my preference driving my opinion, not a logical/good argument. This happens, I think, with hymns, too. We like the style of writing better, and we begin to think that hymns written in that style are better. When we begin to make generalizations like this… it can tend to discourage the use of new songs because the old songs are generally better, so why risk it? What that means, though, is that we’re picking songs based on age and not thinking critically about the songs based on their content.
My conclusion is pretty simple. I should evaluate songs based on their content. I should seek out “better” songs not based on age or author, but based on their content. And I should encourage, if I have opportunity to do so, writing new songs. Does that mean we should use new songs just because they are new? Of course not. Just because something is written, regardless of when, doesn’t mean we need to use it. I would guess we commonly use probably around 1% of the very prolific hymn writers of the past. I feel no need to use a new song; however, I think we do need to strive to write new, good, solid songs.
Incidentally, seeking out unused old hymns is good, too. I like to peruse through other hymns written by Watts or Wesley or Newton simply to see if there are hymns that they wrote that address topics that we don’t tend to have very good ones about (for example, repentance, or unity of believers in a church). Sometimes, I come across some pretty good ones.