Thursday, March 12, 2009

Should Bob Dylan Become The Church's New Hymn Writer?

Faith And Theology has an interesting post critiquing church music: Faith and Theology: Are our hymns becoming stupider?---here is the first few paragraphs of that post:


Are our hymns becoming stupider?

In a spirited polemic, John Stackhouse complains about the stupidity of contemporary Christian hymns: “We are the most educated Christians in history, and yet our lyrics are considerably stupider than our much less educated Christian forebears.”

I sympathise with Stackhouse’s complaints. But in all fairness, I think the majority of hymns have always been pretty stupid. If we think the 19th century (for example) was full of great hymn-writers, it’s just because our hymnbooks today include only the highlights from that entire century. And let’s face it, even the highlights are usually pretty atrocious. Hymns typically suffer either from painfully bad lyrics or from a trivial, no-less-painful sentimentality.

The great hymns – and there are so few great hymns: if you subtract the Christmas carols and Charles Wesley, there’s hardly anything left – are always the exception. For strange and mysterious reasons, these hymns awaken our feelings of reverence and love and thanksgiving and joy. In spite of the fact that they are hymns, they somehow manage to communicate truth and to evoke deep feeling.

Of course, there’s no single recipe for writing a great hymn. And similarly, bad hymns can be bad in several different ways. They can deploy metaphor ineptly, or they can mix metaphors in ridiculous ways (my favourite examples are hymns that get hopelessly muddled over the two different words “Son” and “sun”). They can use rhythm badly, so that the wrong kinds of words and syllables are stressed (this is most noticeable when the end-of-line stress falls on a banality). They can use horrible words with no poetic capacity (for example, I once heard a contemporary praise song with the line “this is my priority in life” – any hymn that uses the word “priority” will immediately be very very bad). And as Stackhouse observes, they can also fail to rhyme properly – although in my opinion, this is actually the least problematic feature of a bad hymn, since rhyme is far less important than the function of rhythm or metaphor or word-choice.

(Read on: Here).

I agree with Ben Myers' assessment---a lot of hymns are really bad poetry set to even worse music. Take for example this "gem" of a hymn:

Immortal, invisible

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great Name we praise.

Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
Nor wanting, nor wasting, Thou rulest in might;
Thy justice, like mountains, high soaring above
Thy clouds, which are fountains of goodness and love.

To all, life Thou givest, to both great and small;
In all life Thou livest, the true life of all;
We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
And wither and perish—but naught changeth Thee.

Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
Thine angels adore Thee, all veiling their sight;
But of all Thy rich graces this grace, Lord, impart
Take the veil from our faces, the vile from our heart.

All laud we would render; O help us to see
‘Tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee,
And so let Thy glory, Almighty, impart,
Through Christ in His story, Thy Christ to the heart.

In this example, it is bad poetry set to bad music: , but in this example it is bad poetry rescued by sublime acapella music:

So in light of the bad poetry of most hymns and the master craftsman that Bob Dylan is with words---I ask: should Bob Dylan Become The Church's New Hymn Writer? Compare the above hymn to these Christian songs of Bob Dylan's:

When He Returns

The iron hand it ain't no match for the iron rod,
The strongest wall will crumble and fall to a mighty God.
For all those who have eyes and all those who have ears
It is only He who can reduce me to tears.
Don't you cry and don't you die and don't you burn
For like a thief in the night, He'll replace wrong with right
When He returns.

Truth is an arrow and the gate is narrow that it passes through,
He unleashed His power at an unknown hour that no one knew.
How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?
Can I cast it aside, all this loyalty and this pride?
Will I ever learn that there'll be no peace, that the war won't cease
Until He returns?

Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground, take off your mask,
He sees your deeds, He knows your needs even before you ask.
How long can you falsify and deny what is real?
How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal?
Of every earthly plan that be known to man, He is unconcerned,
He's got plans of His own to set up His throne
When He returns.

Copyright ©1979 Special Rider Music

Every Grain Of Sand

In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed
There's a dyin' voice within me reaching out somewhere,
Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair.

Don't have the inclination to look back on any mistake,
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break.
In the fury of the moment I can see the Master's hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.

Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear,
Like criminals, they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer.
The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay.

I gaze into the doorway of temptation's angry flame
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name.
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand.

I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night
In the violence of a summer's dream, in the chill of a wintry light,
In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space,
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face.

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there's someone there, other times it's only me.
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.

Copyright ©1981 Special Rider Music

For more critiques of church music, see these posts of mine:
TheoPoetic Musings: Insipid Contemporary Christian Music And Shallow Hymns

TheoPoetic Musings: More Thoughts on Contemporary Worship

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