Are our hymns becoming stupider

Professor John Stackhouse thinks that contemporary hymns are insipid and says so in a blog post here. Ben Myers of the Faith and Theology blog takes a different view:

I sympathise with Stackhouse’s complaints. But in all fairness, I think the majority of hymns have always been pretty stupid. If we think the 19th century (for example) was full of great hymn-writers, it’s just because our hymnbooks today include only the highlights from that entire century. And let’s face it, even the highlights are usually pretty atrocious. Hymns typically suffer either from painfully bad lyrics or from a trivial, no-less-painful sentimentality.

The great hymns – and there are so few great hymns: if you subtract the Christmas carols and Charles Wesley, there’s hardly anything left – are always the exception. For strange and mysterious reasons, these hymns awaken our feelings of reverence and love and thanksgiving and joy. In spite of the fact that they are hymns, they somehow manage to communicate truth and to evoke deep feeling.

. . .

In any case, I don’t share John Stackhouse’s pessimism about contemporary hymn writing. Hymns have always been bad; the good hymn (to say nothing of great hymns like “Amazing Grace” or “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”) will always be the exception to the rule. The historical narrative of decay and decline really has more to do with churchly nostalgia than with the actual state of present (or past) songwriting.

Myers even gives some examples of contemporary hymns that he thinks will stand the test of time. Read it all here.

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  1. Jonathan

    Even Charles Wesley wrote a lot of bad hymns. According to E. Gordon Rupp, he wrote over 7300 hymns and more than 3000 of them were never published.

    Jonathan Grieser

  2. John B. Chilton

    Jonathan made my point for me. There’s a bias in the comparisons, but we have retained from the past is the good stuff. There was plenty of the insipid, too. I like to collect old hymn books — lots of syrup, bad poetry and bad theology. All of which I like in its way.

    All that said, does anyone have nominations for good contemporary hymns?

  3. tgflux

    Do any hymns in The ’82 count as “contemporary”? ;-/

    Three of the more recent hymns therein I like: 130 (just missed for Last Epiphany, but perfect for the Feast of the Trans in August), 196 (Easter’s comin’: start learning it now!), and 463 (Auden and a Big, Fat Episcopal Wedding {opposite- *or* same-sex}: made for each other!).

    Calvin Hampton breathed wonderful new life into “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” (469), too.

    JC Fisher

  4. Clint Davis

    These articles are from an evangelical perspective, for an evangelical audience. I honestly can’t see where the points made pertain to Episcopalians or our musical traditions.

  5. I think there are some good contemporary hymns out there. The church I attend most frequently (between supply jobs) uses some contemporary music, as well as music from the Hymnal ’82 and supplements. Some of the new stuff really does constitute hymns. I just get tired of trying to make Christian pop music, written for the stage, work for worship – and commonly it doesn’t.

    Of course, this is all the more reason to have actual revisions of Prayer Book and Hymnal, and not just endless supplemental texts. The good never really gets evaluated, and most Episcopalians never get exposed.

    Marshall Scott

  6. I think it applies to the Episcopal Church having suffered through some dreadful dirge-y (even for Lent – aren’t all Sundays – the day of Resurrection?) hymns recently. Days like that make me like 8 o’clock with no music even more. Some days I like 7-11 music (seven words repeated 11 times) and other days something grand and complex. The key is not whether it is great music but are we fed and supported to go back into the fray as witnesses to Christ.

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