Thursday, January 1, 2009

Laying (Dangerous) Groundwork

Occasionally I will say something negative about a hymn. If you're thinking "What's the big deal?", you have obviously never done it yourself in front of someone who disagreed with you. People get emotionally attached to hymns, and we have to respect that. People also disagree in the assessment of spiritual, poetic, and musical value of any given hymn. It's all subjective, right?

This is an old argument, and I am probably over-generalizing it, but here goes. Subjectivity, taken to an extreme, says that there is no good or bad in art, there are just the likes and dislikes of individuals. No one can really say that, for example, a hymn is bad, or even worse than any other hymn. If this is true, however, the inverse must also be true--no one can say that any hymn is better than another. They are all equally good, or equally bad, or equally mediocre. Value judgment is meaningless.

We know this isn't true, right? "Amazing grace" is a great hymn, by nearly universal acclamation. Can you think of at least one song that isn't quite as good as "Amazing grace"? That, if one or the other had never been written, would be less a loss to the world? I think it's safe to say that anyone with a passing familiarity of English hymns can think of at least one hymn that is worse than "Amazing grace". But if subjectivity is absolute, and no hymn can be called bad, there are no really great hymns either.

This brings me right where I want to be for this blog. I'm not interested in labeling the bad, but rather in praising the good. Occasionally that will involve the word "better", but I will never be mean about it. And of course above all this discussion has to be tempered by the purpose of hymns--to praise God and to edify one another (Col. 3:16). Regardless of how an individual assesses the poetic or musical merit of a hymn, if another Christian has offered it in pleasing worship to God, that is the most important merit it can have.


  1. I think you have hit the nail on the head with this one.

    Aesthetic and spiritual values do not always correspond. C. S. Lewis once essayed about a farmer in a country church singing third rate hymns to fifth rate music, but with great sincerity and evident spiritual benefit.

    If a value or aesthetic standard which "feels" intrinsic to us does not translate well into a less educated or less affluent culture, then it cannot be part of the universal value system of God.

    None of this, however, excuses deliberate mediocrity. When we write, or sing, we are offering something to God, and that something ought to come from the best we have.

    That does not, however, diminish the value of someone else's best. I strongly suspect that if God wanted a hymnwiter or a chorus, He has better at his disposal than the likes of us, no matter how highly we may think of ourselves.

  2. Thanks for your comments! I am reminded of John Cotton's statement in the preface to the Bay Psalm Book: "God's altar needs not our polishing."