Reviews > Books

Books: Hymns of the church

Books | New books that get behind the songs we sing in worship

Issue: "Debunking Darwinism," Nov. 22, 1997

Ours is a singing faith. At every turn, on every occasion, and in every age the Christian church has been marked by a prolific love of music. Wherever the gospel has been preached, it has simultaneously been sung. Wherever the praises of our God have been expressed in words, they have simultaneously been expressed in melodies. As a result, some of the most glorious music ever produced has been the fruit of faithful worship. These three new books explore this rich legacy both historically and biblically.

The poet Alfred Lord Tennyson once quipped, "A good hymn is the most difficult thing in the world to write." The stories in Great Christian Hymn Writers ably verify that observation. Jane Stuart Smith and Betty Carlson, long-time co-laborers at L'Abri in Switzerland, describe how some of the most beloved hymns of all time were written-and in the process, sketch the remarkable ministries and adversities of the remarkable men and women who labored to create them.

Of course they profile the life and work of Fanny Crosby, William Cowper, Isaac Watts, and Charles Wesley. In addition, though, they highlight the lesser known-from Ambrose of Milan and Bernard of Clairveaux to Horatius Bonar to Frances Havergal. Knowing their stories makes the great hymns come alive as never before. This is a marvelous resource, combining the attributes of informed hymnody, inspirational biography, and historical theology.

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According to Martin Luther, "Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in this world." Maybe that is why we are so prone to quibble and squabble over what we sing in our churches-we comprehend its immense value. In Contemporary Worship Music: A Biblical Defense, Reformed theologian and classical musician John Frame attempts to break up the most recent of those family fights. Thus, he tries to answer some tough questions: Do Scripture songs, choruses, and praise songs "dumb down" worship? Do they denigrate the glorious heritage of Christian hymnody? Are they little more than theological junk food?

As the title implies, Mr. Frame defends the use of these contemporary musical forms in worship. But in addition he details a Reformed theology of worship, a fresh critique of modern culture, and a quick education in music theory. Substantive, insightful, and biblical, this book is a valuable contribution to the church's musical heritage.

Isaac Watts has long been recognized as one of the great poets. Samuel Johnson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Arthur Quiller-Couch each ranked him in the highest tier of lyricists. Yet, virtually all of his talent was devoted to the composition of music for the church. During his lifetime the faithful pastor of Mark Lane Chapel in London wrote more than 750 hymns, many of which have become cherished classics of worship. This vast collection assembles all his great hymns along with the rhyming psalter he painstakingly composed for the edification of his flock.

Francis Schaeffer often said that a good hymnbook is "a wonderful companion to the Bible." After reading these three fine volumes, I more fully understand why.

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