The debate wears on. When we ditch our trad. hymns in church for some of the funkier stuff we heard at Soul Survivor or Spring Harvest, is it a case of ‘out with the old and in with the new’, or is there an important part of our spiritual heritage that we’re abandoning when we do that? Don’t get me wrong. Everyone loves a good chorus of ‘Oh, Happy Day’.
Oh, happy day, happy day!
You washed my sin away,
Oh, happy day, happy day!
I’ll never be the same!
Forever I am changed!
So precisely what is wrong with this song? The statements are true, but the problem is that that’s all they are. Statements. Recitals of facts are good. But when they come with an obligatory expression of joy or emotion, then there is a problem. The singer is not allowed, within the space of the song, to explore what those facts mean, so that they can decide what or how they feel about them. If you went to one of these churches where all you’re taught is that Jesus loves you and you’re perfect and you should just love yourself more, then you could leave this song thinking, so… what? What does it mean to have my sins washed away? What was Christ’s part in it? What was my part in it? And most importantly, why am I supposed to be feeling so chipper about all of this? Because of some vague obligation to be grateful? These aren’t questions of awe-inspired reflection. These are questions of bewilderment and dissatisfaction.
In our heart of hearts some of us might genuinely feel the happiness described by the song, but that’s not because of anything we’ve learned from the song. If we know why we’re happy, it’s because of something we brought to the song, from our own individual lives and walks. In fact, the chances are, if we feel happy while we’re singing a song like this, we were either happy to begin with, or else we’re just happy because we like the song. And who realistically enters church in an emotional state of mind set to ‘happy’ by default, even if they are buzzing with a profound understanding of how Christ has redeemed them, and enjoying the fruits of a flourishing spiritual life? Some of us might only wish we could feel this way, and some still might wonder why we should go on pretending.
I’m not saying that the facts aren’t important, but the core of wonder and delight in worship does not simply lie in the facts. It is unfair to state facts and expect emotion without allowing people space to digest what they’ve heard. Wonder and delight in the gospel lie deeper than just ‘facts’; they lie in a person’s own appropriation of the facts for themselves, in their own understanding of what the facts mean, and how the facts actually relate to them. In this song, it is taken for granted that the congregation can supply the depths of Biblical understanding and doctrinal ramifications and personal experience behind the notions of “sin” and “washed away” that are necessary to sing the lyrics sincerely – and that the congregation can draw these things clearly enough to mind within the space of a single chorus to be able to celebrate them in a sudden burst of scheduled joy at 10am on a Sunday morning. And while all of this is going on, there is no room for any actual wonder at all. Just a loud exclamation of a fact and an emotional ‘response’ that is demanded before the singer even has time to think about how they feel inclined to respond, if at all.
Again, that is not to say that modern songs have no place. They are good for encouraging and consolidating a certain view or perception of God, and making people enthusiastic about God – albeit usually with a lively drum beat, a catchy/emotive tune and a good singer. To be fair, many modern worship songs do contain very profound things to consider and reflect on. But when songs on a par with ‘Oh, happy day’ become so popular as to replace songs that actually explain their subject matter and provide substantial grounds for wonder and reflection, there is a far greater problem. Most importantly, when we lose lyrics like the following to our modern here-today-gone-tomorrow fads; lyrics by great theological divines like Charles Wesley, and people who shaped centuries of Christian worship history and knew what they were talking about – then we have lost something far richer and more profound.
And can it be that I should gain
An interest in my Saviour’s blood?
Died he for me that caused him pain?
For me that him to death pursued?
How can it be
That thou my God should’st die for me?
Embedded in this short verse is the classic evangelical doctrine of penal substitution: that Christ died to bear the believer’s penalty for sin. People have died for this doctrine – it’s part of the reason why we have a Protestant Church today. There is a reason why lyrics like this don’t go gentle into that goodnight. The excitement in this song, if there is any excitement at all, is not just to be found in the musical apparatus, or even in the (very beautiful) hymn tune associated with the words. The excitement lies in what the song is actually about. This is the missing link in ‘Oh, Happy Day’. The wonder in this song, the repeated questioning and the impassioned exclamation, lies in the details of Christ’s sin-bearing, and precisely what they has to do with the individual on a personal level. Why should we be happy that Christ washed our sins away? Should we even be ‘happy’? Is happy really the right word? Wesley’s song doesn’t force ‘happy’ on us. He just explains precisely what Christ’s sufferings had to do with our sin, and lets the singer fill in any emotional gaps that are left to fill from a realisation of something that, when fully understood, leaves nobody ambivalent about how they feel, however they may feel about it. It is one thing to have your sins washed away. It is quite another for your sins to have caused a God-man to volunteer to be nailed to a tree to suffer and die, because he wanted to be a stand-in for the punishment that ought to have come to you. This is not simply a cause to be ‘chipper’, as John Piper puts it, and as ‘Oh, Happy Day’ seems to embody. No, this is cause to be astonished and confounded – and in a way that has everything to do with the Cross, and nothing to do with how loud the drums are or how good the singer is!
So there is a reason to retain songs like these – songs that were not prompted by a youth-fronted commercial Christian music industry, but written by people who spent years upon years trying to articulate what Christ’s death on the cross meant for them and for all mankind, in real terms. These people wrote many of these songs after years of reading and theological reflection on exactly what the cross means – an element sorely lacking in much modern worship music. They often did so as part of ministries that demanded extreme personal sacrifices, left them with fierce opposition, and which endured for centuries down the line. What to do about all these hymns, then?
The tunes are old fashioned, to be sure. One could never mistake a Matt Redman album for a compilation of Victorian hymn tunes. There are people like Sovereign Grace who revive old hymns and make them sound like modern evangelical worship songs, and do so well. That is, if you’re not put off by the slightly effeminate, easy-learn, easy-listening, easy-play tunes that typify modern evangelical music today, which do generally tend to annoy a lot of old-hymn-lovers, and especially those who associate the dignified lyrics that they love with ‘dignified’ tunes. Perhaps it is because of the music industry having cottoned on to this, that titles such as ‘Alas, and Did My Saviour Bleed’ and ‘I Will Glory in My Redeemer (from Sovereign Grace Music’s album Songs for the Cross Centred Life), still have a decidedly hymn-like feel, which passes as Celtic and folk-y for most. They may be popular in conservative evangelical student churches in Oxford, but that charismatic independent church down the road probably wouldn’t know that they existed.
On the other hand, there is also your local church worship band that tries to power through ‘Love Divine, All Loves Excelling’ on a few guitars and drum kit, often to produce a haphazard compromise of untrendy music with a trying-to-be-trendy band that’s not really fit to play it. Often, of course, the band is very good and very much fit to play it, in which case, bravo. The only problem you’re then left with is the wistful glances of the tweed jacket types who murmur to themselves, “If only they used the organ”. At its very worst, this sort of ‘worship song’ is the musical equivalent of cringey dad-dancing, or mutton dressed as lamb, and it pleases few. When the trendy evangelical youth then take it a step further and remove the ‘thees’ and ‘thous’, along with some cherished, theologically-loaded poetic figures that are thought no longer ‘relevant’ (usually after a famous Christian singer has done so at a music conference), then for understandable reasons, all those who found wonder and edification in the original hymn finally see red.
Neither of these solutions really breaks through the barrier of hatred that some old-hymn-lovers harbour towards trendy evangelical music, and that some trendy evangelicals harbour against old hymns. As one with no significant preference either way (although slightly skeptical of some of the song-writing that goes on within the ‘trendy’ evangelical scene), I personally can appreciate modern songs and old hymns alike, as long as the lyrics and music are of good quality, and are performed well.
There is, however, a completely different solution. This is presently in the form of a band I recently discovered, Page CXVI. This band is committed to preserving these beautiful, awe-inspiring, Christ-centred hymn lyrics that dig into the heart of the gospel and make you marvel at it – and their sound is completely different to anything I’ve heard on the Christian music scene. Not the ‘quasi-Celtic-hymn’ music that irritates the trendy youth; not the dad-dancing band covers. This is fresh. The word that comes to mind when I listen to Page CXVI is “chilled”. There is definitely a lot of contemporary ‘Christian music’ influence in there – suspended chords abound. But it doesn’t sound like contemporary Christian music. Not the slightly hymn-like stuff that has much in common with 80s and 90s power ballads. If anything, it’s more bluesy. Jazzy. R’n’B-sy. But without being any of these things. To tell the truth, I’m not the best qualified person to say what this music is, though I’ve just waxed lyrical for nearly 1500 words about what it isn’t. This isn’t the sort of music I usually listen to, because I’m pretty well accustomed to the mickey-mouse, easy-learn evangellyfish worship music that my friends at church listen to. Do I enjoy it? The truthful answer is that for me, personally, being raised as I have, on a diet of high-octane Broadway thrills, power ballads, Puccini opera and charismatic Christian music, ‘enjoy’ isn’t the word I’d pick. My palate isn’t refined enough for that, and if our God is the God of the “still, small voice” – then maybe it actually should be.
Do I appreciate this music? That I certainly do. This is surprisingly, refreshingly different. What CXVI have achieved is not a compromise, but a multiway fusion. It doesn’t enter the fray of the ‘battle of the church music’, precisely because it doesn’t quite sit within it. Consequently, I don’t know whether to call these hymns or worship songs. If I had friends round to my house, or if I wanted to host a Bible study group in my home, or wanted something to jog to, or something atmospheric in my car to drive home to, or something to read my Bible to, or something to do my ‘Quiet Time’ to, then this music is what would be playing. Not ‘Close Every Door to Me’ or ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ or ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ or ‘I Will Always Love You’ or ‘My Jesus, My Saviour’ or anything by Townend, Getty, Tomlin, Selah, Hillsong, Bob Kauflin or Graham Kendrick. As for exactly what this music is… maybe you’ll just have to listen and make your own mind up. Page CXVI are releasing their brand new album ‘Lent to Maundy Thursday’ on 4th March 2014 and are streaming it in advance for everyone to hear. To support them, I’m including their SoundCloud stream here, so that you can decide for yourself what they are and (if you like them) buy a copy of their album for your ‘Quiet Times’, Bible times, fellowship times, drive times, fitness times, social times…
Image credit: http://blog.pagecxvi.com/. Used with permission.