Ever been part of a spontaneous "singspiration"? Just within the past year at my local church, occasionally after the evening service a few of us, both young and old, have started gathering around the piano and begun singing even while folks are still mingling in the auditorium (sometimes we're still singing past closing time; Pastor Joe just reminds us to set the alarm code when we're done). This is not a part of the "formal" worship service, but it is worship nonetheless. This can easily last for an hour or so, and can include anywhere from 3 to 16 or so of us together at one time. We sing from a variety of songbooks, but one of our favorites is the recent Hymns: Modern & Ancient (compiled by Fred R. Coleman; Milwaukee, Wis.: Heart Publications, 2011).
We are told multiple times in the Psalms to sing a "new song" to the Lord. While there are plenty of old classics ("There is a Fountain Filled with Blood" remains one of my favorites), I don't think the Creator of the universe, the ultimate Creative Genius, intended us to sing the same songs day after day. Rather, I believe he intended us to stretch our intellect and our imagination in both poetry and music, and to appreciate the efforts of others, especially when it teaches us good theology!
This, then, is my greatest praise of Hymns: Modern & Ancient--it has taught me many new songs with powerful theological messages which have consequently had a positive impact on me at the emotional and spiritual level.
The first section of this post will give a basic overview of the book, the second section will offer some positive (and slightly negative) critique, while the third section will then launch off into a discussion of lyrics and their theological message.
Hymns: Modern & Ancient (hereafter referred to as HMA) deliberately patterns its title after the great Anglican book Hymns: Ancient and Modern (1861). Like the older work, ultimately the purpose of HMA is to "include both ancient and modern texts that articulate the timeless truths of Scripture and are rich in biblical doctrine" (from the introduction, n.p.). Unlike the older work, however, compiler Fred Coleman hopes that HMA will prove more accessible to the average congregation of a local church. Concerned that "modern congregations ignore too many great hymns of the past and shun too many great hymns of the present," Coleman hopes that "the tunes in this collection will prove to be both accessible and memorable for any who revel in the Gospel and its life-changing power."
The book itself (available from Heart Publications; it also appears on Amazon.com but is currently listed as "unavailable") comes either in a hard-cover format or a "concealed spiral binding" format that allows it to be opened on a music stand without closing. It's roughly 16 dollars and contains 133 songs, together with an introduction and the indexes you would expect. Interestingly, the songs are all in alphabetical order.
The reader should note that first and foremost this is a supplementary songbook. In other words, this is not the kind of songbook that you'll find in the pew of your average church, simply because most of the songs will not be as familiar to the average Christian (or at least the average Baptist). This is deliberate, and simultaneously represents both the songbook's greatest strength and its only major obstacle to widespread use. You won't find "A Mighty Fortress" or even "Amazing Grace" in here, but those songs exist in virtually every mainstream Christian hymnal and there is no need to introduce them to believers. You will find many obscure (yet awesome) songs, as well as some that have started becoming more popular lately such as "Before the Throne of God Above" and "Complete in Thee" (and for good reason). Some songs will be familiar, but most probably will not be.
The book does live up to its name. Some of the songs have very old roots (e.g., "Jerusalem the Golden," with the words written by Bernard of Cluny; also a song paraphrased off of the 4th century Te Deum Laudamus, etc.), while others were penned by contemporary authors (NT scholar D. A. Carson himself is behind about five of the songs). In fact, you'll find a lot of songs by Keith and Kristyn Getty, Bob Kauflin, Stuart Townend, and Fred Coleman himself (along with his wife). As will be discussed below, given the ecclesiastical background of this particular book, this is actually more surprising than you would think (I'm deliberately being cryptic here; more on that below).
Here's some of the more noteworthy songs. First of all, "Before the Throne of God" (#14) is fast becoming a Christian classic, as it should! When I took the doctoral seminary "Hebrews" with visiting NT scholar George Guthrie (possibly the Best Class Ever!), Dr. Guthrie ended the week-long seminar by having us sing this song together as a class. The theology is straight out of the book of Hebrews and contains a powerful message. Christian, if you have not yet learned this song, do so immediately!
Other modern classics that may be better known in broader evangelical circles include "Complete in Thee" (28) and "How Deep the Father's Love for Us" (#52), which has even been sung by The Irish Tenors.
Other songs may be lesser known but contain familiar tunes. "O Love Divine," for example, is based off of the Irish tune "Star of the County Down" (still sung by modern group Celtic Woman). The rhythm, however, has undergone a major overhaul, going from a fast-paced, "spunky" folk song to something slower and considerably more reverent. The lyrics, of course, are first-rate.
More importantly, however, there are some songs that I learned directly as a result from singing from this book alongside of friends. These include #70 "Jesus, the Son of God", #15, the Getty's "Behold the Lamb,"#48 "His Robes for Mine," and the emotionally powerful #35, "Free from Guilt and Free from Sin."
Note: copyright laws prohibit me from quoting even a tiny snippet of the lyrics of these songs, though I can quote older songs that are public domain. However, I urge you, dear reader, to find the lyrics somewhere and meditate on them.
HMA, then, has enough content in it to keep any congregation occupied learning both new and old songs.
As already mentioned, my greatest praise for HMA is that it taught me new songs rich with powerful theology. When I take that into consideration with all the hours I've spent singing these songs in spiritual fellowship with my friends, and the powerful conviction and assurance that these songs can bring, I conclude that this songbook is definitely spiritually beneficial both to the individual Christian and to any community of believers (provided you aren't daunted by learning new songs). Thus, although I cannot critique individual songs, I believe overall this is an all-star selection that is reasonably accessible to a church.
It may, however, be a bit too obscure for its own good. Since the vast majority of songs are not those you'd find in the average hymnal, the average Christian may struggle a bit to get enjoyment out of it without help. Even though I can more-or-less read music (if you don't rush me!), I still feel that as an individual Christian I had no hope of utilizing the songbook to its fullest potential without the help of my friends. Only when paired with somebody who knows how to use the piano have I truly benefited from it initially; once I learn the song, though, then I'm set and can sing it by myself. This will not be an issue for the truly musically talented, of course, but may be a stumbling block for most individual Christians.
Given the obscure nature of most of these songs, and given that this is a supplementary songbook, perhaps a brief history of some of the older songs might have been appropriate. In addition, some other hymnals place an appropriate Scripture verse below the song's title; off all songbooks, that would have been especially appropriate here given that the theological depth of the songs in HMA put many others to shame.
Other than that, my only negative critique stems from certain omissions. There are only two Christmas songs that I could tell (#59, "Holy Child,"and #106, "See in Yonder Manger Low"). A few more would have been very beneficial since generally we end up singing the same dozen or so every November and December (and not all of them are theologically deep).
It's hard to critique HMA beyond that, since making the book any bigger would have hindered its accessibility. I do wish, however, that "Be Thou My Vision" had been included, just because it would "feel right" in this kind of book even though it's more well-known that most (yes, I realize that's a purely subjective critique; deal with it :)
This are all very minor, picky critiques (and I'm only offering them as a matter of principle; it's a personal quirk of my writing that I'm not going to give any book a perfect, 100% score unless I'm reviewing Scripture itself!), and they are fairly insignificant in light of the benefit this book can bring.
This, then, naturally leads into a discussion of lyrics in our songs . . .
Lyrics and Theology
I have a confession: it irritates me to no end when people sing only the first verse to "A Mighty Fortress" (yes, I've heard this done, including on an otherwise top-notch CD by a men's music group). Think about it; where does the verse end? "And armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal," a reference to the devil himself! You absolutely must follow it with the second verse ("Did we in our own strength confide our striving would be losing/were not the right Man on our side? The man of God's own choosing").
The sad fact is, many congregations don't pay attention to the actual content of their songs (this is why, this December, many congregations singing "The First Noel" will skip from verse 1 to verse 3, which makes absolutely no sense if you're actually paying attention to the lyrics). This results in some flat-out inaccurate phrases. In "Away in a Manger," for example, the phrase "No crying he makes" is, at best, inaccurate, and at worst, a diminishing of Christ's true humanity. Likewise, "We Three Kings" is inaccurate even in the title. It should be "We Three Magi" (there's a major difference between a "king" and a "magi"). Even theologian Roger Olson recently noted in a blog post about the irony of a premillennial church singing the postmillennial song "We've a Story to Tell to the Nations" (right after a sermon on the imminent return of Christ, no less!)
Now, this can be taken a bit too far, of course. I'm not going to stop signing "We Three Kings," I'm just going to replace "Kings" with "Magi" because accuracy matters, especially in worship. How can I dare to sing a lie to God who is literally "the un-lying One" (Titus 1:2--Gr. apsudeis)? Thus when singing "Away in a Manger," I replace "no crying" with "some crying."
I'm a little less harsh on theological issues in songs. The writers of "We've a Story to Tell to the Nations" felt they were accurately representing Scripture, and I'll respect them for that even as I disagree with their eschatology. I'm not going to throw out the song, I'll just hum a certain part of the chorus. Similarly, I have some friends who believe a certain phrase in verse 4 of the song "In Christ Alone" (by Getty/Townend) is too Calvinistic for them to sing. I'm not totally convinced that the phrase necessarily implies hyper-Calvinist theology, but even if it did I'm unwilling to throw out a beautiful and powerful love message to the Creator simply because I disagree on a relatively minor theological issue (and I firmly believe issues of Calvinism and Arminianism are relatively minor, in the grand scheme of things).
I say all that with a recognition that my own theology and exegesis and thinking is going to be inaccurate and even flawed in some places. Yet I hope that people will still read what I write in spite of that!
Having said all that, my point is simply that lyrics do make a difference and we should be aware of them and seek those songs that will be edify the church. I've long wondered, for example, what theological benefit a classic song like "I Come to the Garden Alone" really brings. Granted, the song isn't heretical, and it may even be quite beautiful. It reads like a personal love letter to Jesus, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Yet there is not much theological depth to it, nothing that can really teach the congregation. As such, I wonder whether or not this song is best sung by oneself rather than by the congregation. (feel free to disagree with me on this, dear reader)
In closing consider two modern songs about Mary. The first one, "Still Her Little Child" by Ray Boltz and Steve Milikan, I once heard sung in an IFB church by two ladies who cried all throughout the song (nothing wrong with the crying part per se; frankly, I think we should cry more often when we sing). The song is all about how Jesus was still, in Mary's eyes, her little boy throughout his ministry and culminating in the crucifixion. Now, there is a hint of theology in the song (find it for yourself; copyright laws prohibit me from quoting from it). The focus, however, is all wrong. Not that it focuses on Mary per se, but rather that in this song Mary's relationship to Jesus as her child trumps everything else in the Gospel narrative. Not only is this a wrong focus, it may be bad theology, because in both Matthew 12:46-50 and Luke 11:27-28, Jesus declares that obeying God trumps genetic relationship. Indeed, it is not the one who gave birth to him that is family, but rather the one who follows him and does the will of God (not that this is any excuse for us to neglect our moms on Mother's Day! :) Whatever the case, this is theologically inadequate for worship, especially congregational worship. I don't mean to criticuze Boltz/Milikan directly; I'm sure they're good folk who love the Lord. I just wish they had thought their song through a bit more.
Consider, on the other hand, "Mary Did You Know," by Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene. Now, granted, I've heard this song sung in ways that I would consider inappropriate for congregational worship (that's a very subjective discussion for another time), but I've also heard it sung very reverently. More importantly, however, the message is extremely power and focuses on Christ's deity, the mystery of the incarnation, and the fact that the Child whom Mary gave birth to will actually bring her (and others) redemption.
Notice the difference between these two songs. The first one focuses on Mary's relationship to her little boy; the second one focuses on Mary's relationship to her Lord and Savior!! This makes all the difference in the world. The first one is nice and sweet, but it's not worship. The second one makes you want to fall down on your face or raise your hands in triumphant adoration.
Dear reader, let's celebrate good lyrics, especially those that reflect good theology! If the ESPN commentators pull out all the stops to both imaginatively and accurately describe a football game, should we not strive to do the same when worshipping the Uncreated One?