Some of the oldest hymns we sing today are maybe 200 years old. It has been nearly 2,000 years since Christ walked this earth. The rich “heritage” and “tradition” many hold near and dear to their hearts when it comes to music, probably isn’t really “traditional” at all…
I feel like I could blast out a blog going so many different directions right now…
[HYMNS] an introduction.
Music has always been a staple in the Christian faith, over both the Old and New Testament, we see many examples of songs that were written; songs written in battle, defeat, victory, quiet moments, joyous events, and spontaneous songs of praise as well. I’d like to speak about the text of hymns first, and then talk about musicianship, and writing hymns secondly. I will try my best to refrain from making personal comments and observations until the conclusion.
Generally, in the function of music in the church, the text is perceived as the most important piece of worship, and rightfully so. But, let us not forget the importance of musicianship, and playing skillfully, as the Psalmist speaks about. And as recorded in 1 Chronicles 15:22, “Chenaniah, leader of the Levites in music, was to direct the music, for he understood it” (emphasis mine). The importance of knowing music is vital, because music is a powerful emotional tool to bring humanity to Christ. There is also another topic I would like to touch on, and that is the tension between the old and the new. Christianity has always held tightly (sometimes too tightly) to the traditions passed down by our forefathers, however, the Psalmist speaks about singing a “new song” to the Lord (Psalm 96:1, Psalm 33:3…), and the prophet Isaiah also speaks about God doing a new thing, and to forget the former ways (Isaiah 42-43). Living in the tension of tradition, and the new and what is to come is part of the dichotomy of knowing Christ, and walking with him, and if you will (musical pun intended), the dissonance of harmonies being played all at once, making it into something beautiful.
Forgive my scattered thoughts, but this is turning into bit more of an academic research paper, than just a blog post.
Over countless years, the Christian Church has seen many, many beautiful hymns [songs] written, speaking of the character and life of Christ, articulating theology in a very real and artistic way, and speaking about the life of the Christian. There are many wonderful hymns/songs out there, but there are also many terrible hymns as well. Don’t get me started on this…. We digress. Anyway, the purpose of music in worship is an agent for connecting the human, to the divine. This spans across religions. There is something absolutely beyond this world that is the very essence of what music is. The human and Divine meeting together as one and creating something beautiful, but also more mysterious than we could ever understand with our minds as humans.
First, the text of a hymn can be approached in many different ways, but one common “formula”, if you will, that many hymn writers use is a progression of earth to heaven, in various different ways. Just a few examples of this are: Amazing Grace, Abide with Me, It is Well With My Soul, How Great Thou Art (this is in fact actually a modern day hymn), among many, many others.
For this particular examination of music, there will not be as much focus on how hymn text was written, but I do want to highlight that when the Liturgy was established and standardized by Charlemagne (more on him in the coming section), it also set a standardized text for Mass sung in churches. In these days, circa 500 AD, the text remained the same each Sunday, and as time progressed, different composers would simply set this same text to different music and arrangement.
This was the structure of the Mass, the liturgy sung and spoken by the people:
The same overtones of the Mass are still a large part of what happens from week to week (in some form or fashion) in our Evangelical churches even today. Kyrie was the only Greek element to the Roman mass, and the words “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy“, was the translations of what was sung. Gloria, the story of Christ’s birth, and the songs the angels sang to announce Christ’s birth. Sanctus, meaning Holy, resonating in parallel with Isaiah 6, Agnus Dei, worthy is the Lamb who was slain, and so forth. (Some of this I’m spouting from memory, other pieces from this book. Read more on good old wikipedia). As you can see, many of the songs we sing in our churches today are singing these exact same words, in different and new ways. Not much has changed over time, and our traditions are still traditions, but in a new way.
[HYMNS] early church history. music.
Next, I will attempt to highlight in broad terms about the musical side of how hymns were written, and are written. In the early days of the church, the church was the only source for well written and well performed music. The church set the tempo for what expectations were when it came to music, and all this music, was worship. In the Medieval Era, circa 400 AD, there was a significant draw away from secular music all together. Monasticism communities were a way people could withdraw from the societal pressures of living in the world, and Christians could live distinct lives devoted completely to serving God, which also had a huge impact on music in the church. This music was “Gregorian chant”, or also called “plainchant”, and vocal music was generally all monophonic (sung in the same tone and one melody), and slightly polyphonic also (different melodies sung together at the same time).
Other historic events also lead to more development in music within the church, including the rule Charlemagne, where Christianity was made the official religion in the Roman Empire, and he also standardized many forms of worship, and lead to great musical development. From his rule, he standardized a unified liturgy, along with music, as discussed earlier.
Another vital piece of the history of church music is to also understand that in these days, within the first 800-1,300 years of Church History, music was performance based, there was no participation required of the listener, only to simply listen and be moved by the music. Music was left up to the professional, trained musician (this was not the case in the Old and New Testament, only what we see in this particular era).
As musical styles unfolded in the 1,000-1,700 AD range, so did the development of more secular music, and a departure from music only being performed within the church; but several factors influenced what emerged out of church music from this time frame. First being the birth and events of Martin Luther’s life, the father of the Reformation. Luther, as many may not realize, was a theologian, but also a hymn writer as well. Part of his view on the separation from the Catholic Church was that worship should be something that was participatory, as he composed many congregational hymns. His “preposterous” view that the mass be changed from Latin, to German was an outrageous suggestion, but at the time most people would attend church and not hear a word of the actual language they spoke. Congregational songs, where the attender in church could engage in, was a huge breakthrough, and even now, as this is the basis for what church music and worship is today.
Luther said, quoting Augustine, “For music is a gift…of God, not a gift of men [sic]… Therefore accustom yourself to see in music your Creator and to praise him through it”. Luther also was a proponent for secular music being an avenue for worshipping God, and his famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”, used the same tune as a secular song, and was used as a congregational hymn.
Much more could be said of the road Martin Luther paved, but that is an entirely different blog/book.
I’d like to also mention and briefly highlight Johann Sebastian Bach, as most everyone, secular or Christian, would agree made huge strides in both the vocal and classical music genres, and was a composer, choirmaster, and Church musician his entire life. Almost all the songs he ever composed were songs of worship, for the glory of God. It is quite interesting to consider, since his legacy is regarded as one of the most influential musicians and composers who ever lived.
[HYMNS] then and now.
(this is the part all of you who skipped the long history might want to read)
Tradition is what makes humans, human. We cannot deny this fact. Tradition makes our churches what they are today, however, if we as Christians now, in the twenty-first century are simply relying on our own “evangelical” or “gospel” traditions, we are missing the boat. It’s already sailed, long ago. Let’s admit it: music is something that touches our hearts, so if we are truly honest, we want to hear sometimes the music and songs that were meaningful to us as we went through a difficult time, or songs that were significant to bringing us to Christ, but let us not confuse this with being “better” or more spiritual. This is called personal preference.
Let us educate ourselves. If people at Church ABC are continually requesting “hymns”, but what they really want are the Gospel songs written in the 50’s by the Gather’s, then let us just say it like we mean it: we want what makes us feel good. We cannot be Christians that continually live in the past and the “good old days”, because, as mentioned in the introduction, God is continually working , and he is doing new things even today (Isaiah 42-43). The church is called to engage in a conversation with the culture we live in, but the purpose of the church is not to be “hip” and “cool”. The church is called to acknowledge tradition (and by “tradition” I mean TRUE tradition– such as the early church as seen in Acts), not just the “tradition” that we were raised on, whenever we happened to be born. God has put us on this earth, now, “for such a time as this”, and we can choose to acknowledge this, or simply live on our own planet, and not engage with what is going on.
My main point is this: our expression of our faith can never be divorced from our culture. Don’t believe me? Research the New Testament, in particular, and you will see that the language used, phrasing and wording, things Paul addresses in his letters, etc., were all things that had to do with the culture of THAT day. So we, as students of the scriptures, can do our very best to examine this, and prayerfully seek the Spirit to know how those truths translate to us today.
Don’t read me wrong, we are not going to be singing Justin Bieber in church, or sacrifice the truths that are TRUTHS, but we cannot continue to live in the dark. We cannot simply request all our favorite songs from the 50’s because that’s the ONLY way we can connect with God, God is beyond time. God is beyond musical style. Wrap your brain around that!
As I mentioned in the introduction, we are called to simply connect the human with the Divine, through music and worship. This can be done by singing scripture, theological truths, telling the story of Christ, and speaking to our own humanity. We can communicate this through painting a musical picture, simply through an instrumental piece. But let us not miss the simple fact of this: it is all for the glory of God. It is not for us.
Do you hear what I’m saying? It is not about US. It is not about the songs WE want. It is not about how the songs make US feel.
It is all about HIM.
God’s majesty. His beauty. His reign in our hearts and lives.
May we never miss this, because if we do, then we are simply attending church to worship ourselves.