John Stackhouse on worship music

Posted on March 12, 2009


[ht Andy and Ben]

John Stackhouse (who was once kind enough to buy me breakfast) has posted a farily blunt condemnation of certain trends in contemporary worship music, focusing on Chris Tomlin. He makes, as far as I can see, two separable complaints: on the one hand, contemporary worship music (as exemplified by Tomlin) is lyrically poor – an aesthetic judgement; on the other, that it is doctrinally light or erroneous – a theological judgement.

I have posted before on the error of assuming that the great songs that have come down to us from earlier ages were in any way normal in those ages. Wesley, Watts and Newton were the pinnacles of what was happening in their day, not average examples. And each of them wrote his fair share of weaker lyrics – consider this, from a verse-diatribe against Muslims, by Charles Wesley:

The smoke of the infernal cave,
Which half the Christian world o’erspread,
Disperse, Thou heavenly Light, and save
The souls by that Impostor led,
That Arab-chief, as Satan bold,
Who quite destroy’d Thy Asian fold.

O might the blood of sprinkling cry
For those who spurn the sprinkled blood!
Assert Thy glorious Deity,
Stretch out Thine arm, Thou Triune God
The Unitarian fiend expel,
And chase his doctrine back to hell.

Yes, well…

Charles Wesley was allowed to publish 6000-odd hymns by his brother (who censored an unknown number as not being good enough). We know perhaps twenty – perhaps not that. Were the other 5980 all of the same quality as ‘And Can it Be’ or ‘Hark the Herald’? Oddly enough, no… (and even his best are sometimes the result of editorial work: famously, Wesley wrote ‘Hark, how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings…’ Whitefield edited the first two lines a few years later, much to Wesley’s disgust, by all accounts; the first verse also ended ‘universal nature say / Christ the Lord is born today’; someone else put that one right…).

But consider a hymn-writer we’ve all-but forgotten: Benjamin Keach was a significant leader amongst the Baptists, and taught our churches to sing hymns, which is pretty amazing, when you consider the general quality of his output:

The Pure in heart are thy delight
O Thou most holy One!
All that do what things are right
May sing thy Praise alone.

All mixtures, Lord, in Doctrine
And Practice thou dost hate;
Ourselves therefore with wicked men
Let’s not associate!

(Hymn 32 from A Feast of Fat Things (1696); this is pretty average quality for Keach; by no means his worst.)

Of course, that’s not an excuse for bad writing, but it does make Ben’s point: good hymn-writing is hard, really hard. We cannot expect every song written to be of high quality, and there is a place for singing about welkins, because an editor may appear who puts the problem right and gives us a great hymn from the wreckage of something that just isn’t. (Whittier’s ‘Dear Lord and Father’ is actually the last six stanzas of an odd 17-stanza poem entitled ‘The Brewing of Soma’ in begins like this:

The fagots blazed, the cauldron’s smoke
Up through the green wood curled;
‘Bring honey from the hollow oak,
Bring milky sap,’ the brewers spoke,
In the childhood of the world.

And brewed they well or brewed they ill,
The priests thrust in their rods,
First tasted, and then drank their fill,
and shouted, with one voice and will,
‘Behold the drink of gods!’

Who saw a hymn in that?!)

John’s complaints about the quality of Tomlin’s writing are actually slightly eccentric: he complains about mixed metaphors (which is a classic of bad hymnody, admittedly), but also about the use of half-rhymes. But this is endemic in Christian hymnody (and in English poetry), and is in some of the greatest hymns we have. Wesley again:

Come, and partake the gospel feast;
Be saved from sin; in Jesus rest;
O taste the goodness of your God,
And eat his flesh, and drink his blood!

(From ‘Come sinners to the gospel feast’) Neither of those ‘rhymes’ is even close, but it’s a great piece of writing by any poetic standards I know. Rhyming ‘God’ with ‘blood’ is so common in Wesley as to be almost a leitmotiv.

What of the claim of weak theology? John says ‘We are the most educated Christians in history, and yet our lyrics are considerably stupider than our much less educated Christian forebears…’ Well, for starters I’m not sure about this – once again, one would need to look at what they actually sang, not the classics that have come down to us. Victorian hymnody was full of sentimental claptrap with no discernable doctrinal content at all (check out ‘Blessed Assurance’ for the best of the genre, that has been judged good enough to survive).

That said, I have a certain sympathy with John’s point – Christian George, who is currently working on a thesis on Spurgeon with me, described it well in his excellent book Sex, Sushi and Salvation as ‘miniskirt music – songs that barely cover the essentials’ (p. 107). I wonder, though, if John’s comment is its own answer? We are the most educated Christians in history – perhaps what we need from our music is to learn non-intellectual modes of faith? I don’t want a song to teach me theology – I know a  bit of theology already – I want songs that enable me, in the fellowship of my local church, to cut through all my questions and doubts and half-formed ideas and pet theories and theological hobbyhorses, and express devotion. And I think Chris Tomlin’s songs are sometimes pretty good at that (‘Forever God is faithful, Forever God is strong, Forever God is with us, Forever, Forever’). Not as good as Matt and Beth Redman’s. But pretty good.

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