Monday, January 19, 2009

The Beauty of Hymns

Last evening I spent a few minutes going through some old magazines on the coffee table. I came across an article on beauty by Gene Edward Veith, entitled "Acquired Taste," that I had marked to save (see World Magazine, February 9/16, 2008). In it he argues that beauty is not a subjective measurement (ie. if I like it then it must be beautiful). Here is a quote:

"A work is beautiful to the extent that it displays at the same time both complexity and unity...Pop music typically consists of no more than three chords in a simple melody with simple lyrics. Not much is going on. Contrast that with a hymn (whether traditional or contemporary): It consists of many different musical notes for different voices, all coming together in the unity of harmony. Its lyrics, in turn, are packed with theology, figures of speech, biblical references, and emotions. The hymn is objectively better by aesthetic standards than the pop ditty."

I was reminded of this truth when we worshiped at another church while on vacation over the holidays. The music was of the "Jesus is my girlfriend" genre. The most common words in the choruses were "I, My, You, Your." Absent was doctrine as well as harmony and complexity. Worse, the words were projected onto a screen that changed from one landscape scene to another so as to match the mood of the songs.

Contrast that to a hymn we sang yesterday in response to God's Declaration of Pardon to those who repent of their sins:

I Lay My Sins on Jesus
Horatius Bonar, 1843

I lay my sins on Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God;
He bears them all, and frees us from the accursed load;
I bring my guilt to Jesus, to wash my crimson stains
White in his blood most precious, till not a spot remains.

I lay my wants on Jesus; all fulness dwells in him;
He heals all my diseases, he doth my soul redeem;
I lay my griefs on Jesus, my burdens and my cares;
He from them all releases, he all my sorrows shares.

I rest my soul on Jesus, this weary soul of mine;
His right hand me embraces, I on his breast recline.
I love the name of Jesus, Immanuel, Christ, the Lord;
Like fragrance on the breezes, his name abroad is poured.

I long to be like Jesus, meek, loving, lowly, mild;
I long to be like Jesus, the Father's holy child:
I long to be with Jesus amid the heav'nly throng
To sing with saints his praises, to learn the angels' song.

Friends, it doesn't get any better than this.


Technoprairie said...

Except for maybe the words in "How Great Thou Art" or "Striken, Smitten, and Afflicted" or "O Father You are Sovereign".

Dave Sarafolean said...

Oh, I don't disagree at all. I wasn't trying to say that this hymn is the best one ever crafted. My point is that most hymns far and away excel over what is sung today in most churches. Part of the reason is that they have stood the test of time speaking truth to generation after generation.

This raises and important question about today's worship music: Will it be sung in a hundred years? Probably not.