Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Bad hymns

One of the blogs I tend to check in with quite often is written by Father Dwight Longnecker. His is an unusual story in that he was an American Episcopalian who, after studying in England and marrying his English wife, was ordained in the Church of England and served a number of years as a vicar of a rural parish before converting to Catholicism. He tried for a few years to be ordained to an English diocese but was rejected a couple of times, arguably for being "too orthodox". He eventually returned home to the US with his family and was accepted for ordination over there. He's now a Catholic priest, and is one of the small number of married former Anglicans in the Roman Rite. He has a sensible perspective that isn't tainted by the bitterness or seperative mentality I find with many traditionalists.

He wrote a series of posts on music, and specifically hymns and the failings in many parishes when it comes to hymn selection. He makes a lucid point that with bad catechesis and poor sermonising that hymns are quite often the only exposure some catholics get to apologetics, and many hymns fail in that regard. I would really recommend reading the posts in detail, but I want to pull out some of his points.

His criticisms of modern hymns are that quite often they fail to be hymns. Hymns are songs of praise and worship and recognise the relationship we have with God, namely creator and created. All to often in modern hymnody that relationship is turned over and God, and Our Lord are nothing more than our "mates". Your mates take you down to the pub for a drink, are your equal, give you things, and tell you you're wonderful. And in these hymns, so it is with God. I'll quote him directly because he makes the point well enough that I wouldn't want to change his wording:

A second category of non-hymns are the 'comfort hymns'. Again, these are hymns that do not reference God at all except as a kind of comfort blanket. Usually very sentimental and subjective, they often have syrupy tunes and are all about how "I walked on the beach one day and felt alone, and when I only saw one set of footprints I knew that was when he carried me." You can spot these hymns because they are all about me and us and how sweet it is to be loved by Jesus. They are Coca Cola hymns--sweet and fizzy but likely to rot your teeth/soul. There is nothing wrong, of course, with devotional hymns that turn our attention to God in time of need and praise him for his loving mercy. Psalm 23 and all its different versions do just that. However, if the focus is not on God, but on me, and this is the only sort of hymn that is ever chosen it becomes ridiculous.

A few weeks ago in my own parish we had one such "hymn". You might recognise it, but it's worth looking at in some detail to explore it in all of its "glory".

O Lord All The World
Words and Music: Patrick Appleford.

O Lord all the world belongs to you
And you are always making all things new.
What is wrong you forgive and the new life you give
Is what’s turning the world upside down.

The world’s only loving to its friends
But you have brought us love that never ends.
Loving enemies too and this loving with you
Is what’s turning the world upside down.

This world lives divided and apart.
You draw us all together and we
In your body to see that in
fellowship we
Can be turning the world upside down.

O Lord all the world belongs to you
And you are always making all things new.
Send your Spirit on all in your Church whom you call
To be turning the world upside down.

Let's just take the first verse:

O Lord all the world belongs to you
Well I suppose I can't argue with that, but it's a painfully obvious statement. Neither could I argue with the statement that the sun comes up in the morning as it's true, but it doesn't really tell me anything I can't directly observe myself. As an opening line you have to start somewhere, but it says nothing. I'm all in favour of brevity, but compare it to the opening line of any of the old hymns which make a statement about what we believe. It neither expresses anything (compared to say "faith of our fathers Holy Faith!") or sets a tone of thanksgiving (Immaculate Mary our hearts are on fire").

And you are always making all things new.
What exactly does this mean? It's a highly ambiguous statement. The clostest biblical reference to this I can find is Psalm 104: "Thou shalt send forth thy spirit, and they shall be created: and thou shalt renew the face of the earth." but it kind of just hangs there. There is no preceding reference to the Holy Spirit or the context in which the psalmist writes, so it gives the impression that God is permenently busy re-doing everything he creates, which would naturally follow from the opening statement. Is this born out by any theological reasoning? I doubt it. If God is perfect, as we believe, and his creation is perfect (but which man has corrupted with sin) then why would he be set about permanently and continually re-creating what he has created? It just doesn't make any sense.

What is wrong you forgive and the new life you give
God does forgive. The Messianic mission was ultimately one of mercy, HOWEVER, this statement would seem to suggest that mercy is something that is just handed over whether we ask for it or not. That is simply not the case and is dangerously misleading. If you have never been properly taught about the gifts of mercy and the need for redemption then the first natural presumption that you would make about Catholic teaching on mercy and forgiveness is that it is automatic. Imagine this is the last hymn you hear before leaving the church knowing no better. Imagine considering going to confession before you leave but having heard this hymn decide it's not worth it because God's forgiveness is automatic and you leave the church and get wiped out by a bus. It might be a far-fetched analogy, but what service is this hymn doing to Catholics when it confuses the faithful?

Is what’s turning the world upside down.
Turning the world upside down? Say what? Is that the nature of Catholicism? to turn the worlkd upside down? Did Christ ever say "Guess what? I've come to turn the world upside down!"? Is this the ecclesiology of revolution? What this suggests is a mentality of turmoil and disorder. That isn't God's way. If it weren't for its triteness and banality this statement would trouble me.

A better exegete and theologian than me would tear this hymn apart. It is fairly typical of any number of hymns being sung as part of the 4-hymn sandwich in church each Sunday. The usual arguments in favour are that they are "nice" or "pastoral" or "people like them". What I generally tend to find is that they fit the mindset of parishes where the clergy are lukewarm about the supernatural aspects of the faith in their own beliefs and where the emphasis is on a revisionist theology or a social justice ecclesiology of activism rather than devotion.
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