Theology By Numbers
An insightful and amusing article by Anthony Esolen on the banality of modern church music:
Why, when we have a trove of profound, beautiful, and poignant hymns, do we have to endure what is banal, clunky, and silly?
We have a rich treasury of hymn-poems to read, to sing, and to keep close to the heart. Some of them are almost as old as Christianity itself. They come from Latin and Greek, from our own English, from French and German and all the languages of Europe. Some were written by saintly divines with a fine ear for poetry: John Henry Newman (“Praise to the Holiest in the Height”), Charles Wesley (“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”). Many were written by the great Dr. Isaac Watts, who set the psalms to English meter and rhyme. Some rose up from an anonymous lyricist among the folk: “What Wondrous Love Is This.” Some entered our language by the skill of great translators, like John Mason Neale and Catherine Winkworth. Some were the work of pious laymen who meditated upon Scripture all their lives: so the blind Fanny Crosby gives us “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross.” Just as many of our most beautiful melodies were written by the finest composers who ever lived—Bach, Handel, Haydn—so too many of our hymn lyrics were written by poets of some renown: George Herbert, Robert Bridges, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Milton.
So why, then, why do we have verse-by-numbers lyrics posing as real poems in our hymnals? Why, when we have such a trove of the great, the profound, the beautiful, the memorable, the poignant, the splendid, do we have to endure what is banal, clunky, clumsy, dull, vague, and silly?
Sometimes the very titles of the lyrics give them away. They are like the opening sentences of badly written freshman essays. You know the grade is a B-minus before you make it to the end of the paragraph. Let me give some examples from a recent publication:
Who is This Who Breaches Borders? I don’t know—check his passport. Can a border be breached, in English? A wall can be breached; you breach it by breaking it. But you can’t break a border; you can cross it, or trespass upon it. The next lines are worse: “And subverts the social orders, / Crossing chasms that divide.” Political slang, and an absurd redundancy at the end. What, doesn’t he cross all those other chasms that unite?
One of the commenters has it exactly right:
This is not about bad music – that’s the decoy. It’s about bad theology – an at best deistic world view, more likely a fairly Unitarian Universalist type human-centred absence of belief in the supernatural.