When Sleep Eludes You (3)

Style or substance- is it either or?

“Oh well…”, I say to myself, sometimes as an excuse, sometimes as a symptom of apathy or something similar.  Or giving up? No, rather a mild attack of cynicism, I think. Then something comes my way and everything changes. This is when, deep in the night, I start missing that old “oh well” of mine.  Ok, let’s start!  It was Sunday night; it was a night already prone to drive sleep away as Monday morning followed – usually a time when the previous week’s expectations prove to be wrong, a time when all the unexpected phone calls are meant to shatter your day and the mild blues grow to anxiety or whatever you call it.   But this was unexpectedly more than all of the above and many other Monday morning annoyances I failed to list.

What was it? Believe it or not, it was a hymn – a hymn that outlasted more than four generations, validated by the test of time as an artistic masterpiece, rewarded by the humility and joy of countless newborn Christians. This hymn was canonized by the universality of its message and tune beyond any boundaries and cherished by fond memories during crucial moments in the lives of so many.  Most of all, I believe, it has the eternal commendation of The Most High…  “Just as I am, I come to Thee…”, “So wie ich bin, so muse s sein”,  “Asa cum sunt la Tine vin… “,  “Takov kak est, bez del, bez slov”…  and so on…   Different languages, same tune, same harmony, same heavenly presence…  In the summer of 1992 we joined the worship of a reputable local body without even speaking or understanding much English.  It was that heavenly tune that brought our hearts together with our fellow Canadians’ hearts.  Oh, what a joy!…  And so it was, at other times, with “Amazing Grace”, “A mighty fortress is our God”, “What can wash away my sins…”, “It is well with my soul”…  That’s how we got across to each other as members of the same body when the language barrier could not be overcome.  It was the melody of the heart; it was the anointing of The Spirit, it was the breeze of heaven in the scorching heat of this always hostile environment for whosoever boldly acknowledges Christ’s lordship.  I apologize, my dear reader, I did not mean to digress and I beg you, stay with me for a while longer…  “Where are you, {“oh well”}”?  That was my loud inner shout that Sunday night.  Here it is:  if today’s Sunday morning happened 23 years ago, that summer of 1992, we would have missed the awesome touch of heaven that we felt back then.

Please understand me, this is what I am not trying to say:

  1. I am not saying that only old hymns should be sung and that there is no divine anointing in contemporary worship music. I am actually fond of many new Christian songs and I joyfully sing along whenever the tunes and the rhythm and the anointing pull me in.
  2. I am not saying that you must, despite your will, sing our old hymns, although it would be a good show of respect towards our Christian heritage if you did it once in a while.
  3. I am not questioning anyone’s motives in the things that generated mine and many other people’s frustrations.
  4. I am not aligning myself with anyone’s “religious correctness” in regards to what I am trying to say in this article.
  5. I am not holding back anything that I believe is true and should be said.

I struggled after this sleepless Sunday night with the thought that some kind of churchy, pharisaic judgment spirit crept into my soul leading me to believe that I am a misfit, a cynical sour fellow…  Then I checked the world out there and, to my comfort, many voices of different ages, even millennials (!!!), share, in one way or another, my feelings about this business of taking these old hymns[1] from our treasure box and singing them in a “new” way.   Dear brother, couldn’t you just come up with a new song?   It would have been commendable, pleasing to God and pleasing to all the people who cherish the memories of what this hymn means to them. It is our treasure box, brother, do not touch it unless you want to dust it off and display it to the joy of all of us, including the millennials whom you’re trying so hard to reach. One of the millenials[2] speaking out his mind gives us an inside look about the issue I am speaking about: “I am one of those rascally millennials, by the way. One of those enigmatic, paradoxical, media-dependent, coffee-drinking young people swept together under this millennial umbrella.” ( See footnote 2 for the whole article).   Here is what else he says:

“I love the theology, but I hate the expectations of pseudo piety. Love the gospel, hate the patriotic moralism. Love the Bible, hate the way it’s used. Love Jesus, but hate what we’ve done with him. Love worship, but hate Jesusy entertainment.” (Bold, italics and underlining are mine). Oh, how I love this friend, as he calls himself, Jonathan Aigner[3]! Here is how he defines worship[4]:” Worship is not an evangelistic tool. We don’t worship together to attract unbelievers. We worship together because God is worthy. We worship together because this gracious God has called us into his story and grafted us together as covenant people. We worship together because we desperately need to tell and retell and hear and rehear that story. We worship together to be refocused, reshaped, renewed by God’s gifts. We need liturgy. We need Word and sacrament.” (Bold letter outlines are part of the original text. Italics are mine)

I would like to return to my dilemma. Here is what I believe comes out of the “extreme makeover” of the old Christian hymns according to the taste and the will of our CCM[5] worship leaders: they believe that an old hymn will become more attractive to the young generation.  Wrong!  As the above-mentioned brother stated, there is no proof of that this will be more than “Jesusy entertainment”.  There is better entertainment outside the church, if you will, and sustained by professionals. They know all the ins and outs of the marketplace and master the manipulations of mind and emotions in a considerably more efficient way.  I suggest you stay away from this.  Whatever is out there cannot outsmart or outperform the work inspired by the Holy Spirit.  This is the way you should go.

…And, please, do not bring that shallow argument around style and substance. “Listen to the words!”, they will say, but the words are buried in the fluff of noisy instruments, sophisticated lighting, rhythm that is out of step with the message.  You know, it is like saying, “Drink the water, brother, it is the same water!”  Wrong again!  I would rather drink the water from a clean crystal-clear glass than from a gasoline tank or toilet bowl.  Since when have “style and substance” become “either or”? I might come back with more thoughts on “style or substance” but right now I will continue to pour out my two-penny wrath (please, call it thoughts!) on what I originally intended. There are damages in modernizing – that’s too mild; maybe “disfiguring” will be more appropriate – the old masterpieces and these damages come in more than one way:

  1. You are depriving the young generation of knowing and owning our rich Christian heritage. There is only one way to make it right: show them the original versions and let them judge and chose. That way they will, at least, know that we have a past and we have a history… They will probably experience the nostalgia of the times when a divinely inspired hymn of the 16th century is still beautiful today and there is nothing from stopping it from being sung today.  Not even the style!
  2. You damage your call. Because all these hymns are in the public domain, yes, you are safe from being accused of plagiarism, but you can surely fall into the music vandalism category. That would be the assessment of whosoever loves and cherishes true music. That trend of yours would resemble a graffiti “work” over the original painting of Mona Lisa. It is ironic that Il Divo or Nana Mouskoury or many other secular singers and groups show more respect and consideration for our musical heritage that our CCM worship leaders. They also sing our hymns and enjoy considerable success in the world we try to reach. You go figure!
  3. You damage the true meaning of worship. Worship is not meant to reach people for Christ, but rather to reach the heart of Christ.

There is more, a lot more that should be said along these lines.  As for me, I found rest in the serene atmosphere of old hymns after times when my soul was mercilessly hammered by whatever the world calls music and my mind was fogged by cheap alcohol and the blues.  I want God more than anything else, and what I sing or listen to must be in total harmony with His heart. I know, my dear CCM worship leader, that you have meant well.  I believe that out of your shattered alabaster box can flow the sweetest music, and through its tunes the glory of Christ will cover the earth.

[1][1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just_As_I_Am_(hymn)

[2][2] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/ponderanew/2015/05/13/dear-church-an-open-letter-from-one-of-those-millennials-you-cant-figure-out/?ref_widget=related&ref_blog=ponderanew&ref_post=modernized-hymns-are-you-singing-hymns-or-just-contemporary-songs-with-old-words

[3][3] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/ponderanew/about-jonathan-aigner/

[4][4] http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/54085

[5] [5] Christian Contemporary Music


2 thoughts on “When Sleep Eludes You (3)

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