My father loves music and enjoys gathering the family around the piano to sing hymns. Though we often danced to his vinyl records of Keith Green or Farrell and Farrell, such upbeat themes were abandoned come Sunday. Once inside a church, we soberly girded up the loins of our minds. What’s more, we were irritated when this was referred to as a “preference.” We did not think of it as such. We believed it was consistent with a devout and fearful religiosity. We believed it was sourced in biblical fidelity, not personal taste.
However, I found this mindset inevitably led to a dismissal of popular Christian music altogether. Though I considered it perfectly acceptable outside the Sunday service, I began to resent the bawls of Casting Crowns or the electronic fluff of Steven Curtis Chapman in the house. I had the common naiveté that what I believed about Sunday did not mold the rest of the week.
Though it is often raised, the defense for hymns is not their artistic excellence. This isn’t to say there aren’t some genuine beauties out there; only that the majority of hymns originated in villages, slums, and taverns. It is peasant stuff. Contemporary Christian music (CCM) is not spurned for its barbarity, since a hymn is by far the lower of brow. If anything, it is because CCM is highbrow – manufactured in a sleek studio by professional artists and customized to appeal maximally to a demographic of consistent consumers – that makes it undesirable. Rather than stepping up from the Christian tradition, it emerged as repackaged pop music. Incidentally, it exists to be a brand. It is loved even when it is awful, because it is “Christian.” In the pointed words of Hank Hill, “You’re not making Christianity better; you’re just making rock-n-roll worse.”
That said, in terms of musicality the standard hymn is not exactly Handel; but it is infatuated with narrative. A backwoods Southern Baptist music-leader I remember as a child announced we would sing only three of the five verses, then, after reading through, said, “Nevermind. I don’t know which ones to get rid of.” A hymn builds. In my experience, hymn-singing congregations tend to make an effort not to isolate the worship to only the particularly stirring verses. Removing a verse is like removing a chapter from a book. A hymn is best when taken together, without holes.
The standard piece of CCM, however, is a much simpler creature. Instead of building a thesis or telling a story, it recycles the same few lines over and over again. The mad are often trapped in some habitual circularity, such as striking their heads against the wall to arouse stimuli. This is by definition a form of self-killing; it is what makes it madness. This has been the sort of image inexplicably brought to my mind for the modern worship style: the insanity – lust, even – for some personal affirmation or emotional gratuity. At a very reasonable fee, we can all feel like we are Christians.
While worshiping with a non-denominational congregation in Oregon, it was around the fourth rerun of “Hosanna” when I began to laugh.
I was laughing off the intellectual prudery which kept me from worshiping with these assembled saints in this style. Until I did, they were having a Sabbath, and I was left behind to glare down a high nose.
I had broken down when the stanza made a clumsy but valiant attempt to rhyme “us” with “praises,” which inexplicably brought to mind the image of a child mustering with a crayon what few words it knew, and feeling quite triumphant with the result. It was not the laughter of contempt, though; but of humbling.
The ridiculous little rhyme humbled because it revealed. It mocked all words ever written by poets and saints. In a moment of clarity, the song appeared to me what the most excellent song mankind knew to art must appear to God – laughable clatter blurted by raptured stammering tongues. Even scripture, as my father once told me, is but the baby-talk of heaven, patiently repeating itself like the seasons in a language our forgetful infant souls may understand.
This does not make “Hosanna” a good song. But “Hosanna” does manifest the promise that His grace evades our inadequacy. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,” our LORD declares, “neither are your ways my ways.” During the days in which I came to know this congregation, I saw them encouraged and nourished by these incompetent praises. Though I still hunger for the traditional form, I have no excuse not to mingle my voice with theirs. That was the joke of spiritual pride: professing to be wise, I was made a fool.
While I insist that CCM is susceptible to modern biases, I cannot deny Paul when he said, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”
It is true the spiritual madness exists, and that certain worship styles accommodate it. Yet there is another sort of madman who also thrives in repetition: the child, the lover, or the traditionalist. A child delighted will cry to be delighted again. They never bore of doing the same over and over; at least, they might if the grown-ups could keep it up. But a creature of youth demands ritual. It is the bored and aged who do not have the strength or will for repetition. The vigorous insist on rules, because they insist on play. Likewise one lover will say to another, “I love you,” and the second ask, “Say it again” – not because there is reason to doubt it, but because the words must continuously pour out from overflowing joy. Like the beasts of heaven, so is the Christian before the holy tradition of the communion table. He must come to it over and over, his soul growling hungrily, “Say it again.”
I find in traditional worship the vibrancy and playfulness of the children of God; the Christianity I recognized in the isolation of prayers, scripture reading, and meditation, which had lost its identity in the catharsis of flashing lights, smoke, and electric screeches. In traditional worship the sighs of the addict are replaced with the sighs of the lover. Yet if we cannot see the grace of God in CCM – and learn to laugh at our inadequacy – we won’t recognize it in our hymns either.
Blake Adams is a freelance journalist and children’s book illustrator from Powder Springs, GA. He studied journalism at Patrick Henry College. He collects glass bottles with funny shapes. And that’s the extent of his qualifications.