Observations on the New Hymns Movement, Part 2

This is part two of a series of posts reflecting on the new hymns movement that has developed in the past ten years as we get ready to join Kevin Twit and Sandra McCracken of Indelible Grace, Mike Cosper of Sojourn Music,  Isaac Wardell of Bifrost Arts, and Elco Vos (Psalm Project) at the Calvin Symposium next week up in Grand Rapids, MI.

- A renewed interest in poetry

This is huge.  While there is nothing sacred about the ‘hymn’ form…there IS something sacred about poetry and how it expresses truth.  The largest book in the Bible attests to this.  Most of the major moments of redemptive action in history are either preceded by or responded with poetic expression. Lester Ruth taught us that poetry often does a better job than prose at communicating the paradoxical theologies of scripture in a way that both maintains the tensions of scripture and leads us to devotion and praise.

“O Love incomprehensible, that made Thee bleed for me. The Judge of all hath suffered death, to set His prisoner free!”- Augustus Toplady

Gaze on that helpless object of endless adoration!
Those infant-hands shall burst our bands,
And work out our salvation” – Charles Wesley

- A renewed interest in the formative nature of poetic theology

When my church began a year-long series in the Psalms of Ascents in 2009-2010 (facilitated by a Worship Renewal grant from Calvin) one of the most significant reflections we made as a leadership team was that our people were totally unequipped to engage with poetry.  No one reads it anymore, no one writes it.  Our culture has relegated poetry to hallmark cards and sentimental schmaltz.  This is a far cry from the culture in which the Psalms were written.  Poetry was the language reserved to communicate the most important things in life.  Poetry (The Psalms) was the language of the heart, of commerce, of kings (David), and only poetry could adequately express the encyclopedia of emotions of the human heart…literally revealing “the anatomy of all parts of the soul” (Calvin).

Kevin Twit and John Witvliet have both emphasized in various places that modern worship has not adequately formed us to engage and deal with suffering and death.  They would both suggest that a return to a formation in the poetry of the psalms AND hymns would help a great deal in correcting this cultural astigmatism.

- A renewed interest in the poetic expression of theology.

The rationalistic emphasis of the enlightenment and our own american culture and history is to blame for this (300 year oversimplication in a sentence).  Our obsession with precision, efficiency and practicality means the neglect of poetry.  There is a reason that we have to borrow almost all of our hymn texts from another time and culture.  There hasn’t been a major pastor/poet to emerge in the American milieu. (How is this possible!! When the British Isles had so many??)  We have had to rely on our musicians (Fanny Crosby is an excellent eg.).  Seminaries don’t teach an appreciation of poetry as a means to teach and express theology and devotion, and this vacuum leaves pastors not only negligent of this biblical literary form but also highly suspect of it as well!   Again we rely on our musicians and worship leaders…often ill equipped themselves to deal with the language and tools of poetry in the faith formation of their congregation’s.

Formation Note: I love one particular practice of Charles Wesley.  I’m not sure if he was the first to do this but he literally wrote ‘hymnio continua’ through scripture. What a great spiritual discipline and one that is a challenge to everyone who wants to worship his/her way through the bible.  This is an important practice we can embody to ‘chew’ on scripture.  We should write and sing our way through all that scripture has to teach us about God and our great salvation.  You can download these two collections here.  (Scripture Hymns Vol 1 ; Vol 2)

Much of the text and sentiment of modern worship is very poor poetry.  I hear pastors lament it all the time…yet somehow they seem unwilling to tackle the problem themselves or broach the topic meaningfully from the pulpit.  Even most pastors think it is the musicians (or the CWM industry’s job??) to write better poetry.  I’ll never forget a songwriting seminar I took with Stuart Townend while I was working in London.  This man had a holy fire to provide the church with great poetry.  (Stuart talked about bad poetry as worse than heresy! He was ruthless!) The incredible success of his and Getty’s collaborations are a testament to his passion and love for the church.

This whole movement of writing new music to old hymn texts seeks to address many of the cultural, theological and devotional voids we feel.  And its exciting to see how so many different groups are approaching this project from various perspectives. Indelible Grace, BiFrost Arts, Sojourn Music, Zac Hicks and Cherry Creek Worship and Cardiphonia all reflect various shades of a love and desire to see great song infused with great poetry.

* Do you have a pastor songwriter that you love?  Let me know!!

Some more resources to check out:

Kevin Twit  – Articles on worship and hymnody

Keith Getty – Seven Tips for writing for congregations.

Bobby and Kristen Gilles – check out this great new blog for songwriting “My Song in the Night

One of the many notable things about Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology is that he concludes each chapter with a hymn.  Here is the list.

I’m looking forward to taking this class in June “Singing What We Believe: Theology and Hymn Texts” taught by Bert Polhman at Calvin Seminary.  Should be very challenging.

Vito and Monique Aiuto of The Welcome Wagon are leading a songwriting workshop at The Glen Workshop East this summer (June 10-17).  He is a published poet and I imagine this would be a stellar atmosphere to work on songwriting.

4 thoughts on “Observations on the New Hymns Movement, Part 2

  1. Once again, excellent summary. These are angles that I needed to think about. These two articles deserve linking on the hymns movement page. This is so well summarized: “Lester Ruth taught us that poetry often does a better job than prose at communicating the paradoxical theologies of scripture in a way that maintains the tensions of scripture and leads us to devotion and praise.” Brilliant.

  2. Great points. As far as pastor songwriters go, I nominate my own Mike Cosper. A pastor-poet can understand and nurture other songwriters, and build a movement. When I met Mike in late 2004, I had made him some demos of songs that my heart wasn’t really in — I was just trying to follow the model of contemporary praise & worship structures as I understood it (being new to modern worship music in general, having come from a hymns & southern gospel background).

    Mike didn’t just say “These aren’t good.” He gleaned from them, engaged me in conversation, and said “You like old hymns don’t you? And you like Bob Dylan, right? Well, you can write like that here. You can write four verses with no chorus if you want. You can work with old hymn texts if you want. Write biblically true songs, the best you can, and don’t worry about fitting into what you think the “worship music box” is.”

  3. Pingback: Observations on the New Hymns Movement, part 3 | Cardiphonia

  4. Pingback: Rediscovering our tradition through the new hymns movement | Meet Jesus at uni

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