Voices

Strike up the lyre

Old and new can meet in today's songs, hymns, and spiritual singing

Issue: "New Orleans' comeback kids," Oct. 22, 2005

John M. Frame's Contemporary Worship Music has a dedication "To the New Life Churches, who swim against the current of Reformed opinion for the sake of the Reformed gospel." I am embarrassed to say that coming across that tribute was my first inkling of being engaged in a quasi-political act on Sunday mornings. One simply gets used to things the way they are, whether hymnody or psalmody or "Indelible Grace." (What would the anti-CWM folks say about rollicking, roof-raising rhythms in the African-American church down the road, I wonder.)

It must not be assumed that because I am a "boomer" the guitar is naturally more congenial to my soul than the pipe organ. In my childhood town of French Canadian transplants, I elbowed into the choir a year earlier than was the rule, and we lisped only in Latin ("Tantum ergo sacramentum . . .") and French ("Il est né, le divin enfant . . ."), following some unquestioned conviction that these pleased God more than the vernacular, which any old commoner could understand.

So I didn't take easily to the raising of hands and eruption of spontaneous smiles during the serious business of praise, and even penned a letter of complaint to the elders (which I rather hope has been incinerated), calling for a return to what was good enough for a couple of centuries of Christians. The upstart music, I protested, seemed the product of two guys with four chords in a garage, and the lyricist needed a course in "Verbal Advantage."

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That was a bum rap. As author David Foster Wallace says, "For me, the heavier the stuff gets, the littler the words need to get. The most important stuff is reflected in the vocabulary of a fifth-grader." So "Vive la difference!" We mix it up in my church-one "How Majestic Is Your Name" (Michael W. Smith) for every "Crown Him with Many Crowns" (Matthew Bridges and Godfrey Thring). And many Psalms as well. Some brothers prefer the old standards, and others the newfangled, so we compromise in deference to one another and to our weekly visitors ("all things to all men").

Now I have my favorites from columns A, B, and C. But that's all beside the point, of course, if God objects to being worshipped with drums and electric bass. Yet we take our orders from Scripture alone (sola Scriptura), which says nothing about 18th-century music being holier than 21st-century, or "thou" being better than "you," or Hammond organs more spiritual than Yamaha guitars. The unflattering truth is that I am a recovering musical snob-some latter-day Michal despising David from her latticed window, scruples barely concealing the devil in her heart (2 Samuel 6:16).

I know a church that sings the Trinity Hymnal's "None Other Lamb" but won't touch "In Christ Alone" because word got around it was written by one of those modern pop worship guys. You tell me how Rossetti and Wiseman's 19th-century song is holier than Stuart Townend's 2002 inspiration.

Turns out there are all kinds of reasons why one likes or hates a song that have less to do with theology than with where you hung out when you first heard it. I figure the critics of contemporary Christian music are as susceptible to historical nostalgia as I am to high-school nostalgia. It's amazing how much better even our junior-high worship team, with its sledgehammer rhythms, sounds now that I've changed my attitude from Salon.com critic to worshipper in spirit and truth.

Why not embrace all kinds of reverent and God-honoring song as a way of loving the brethren? As we enlarge our tents to make place for organ, fiddle, lyre, horn, and drum, we acknowledge that God's heart in this age is an evangelizing heart.

Modernity and reverence. No necessary contradiction. "The Little Drummer Boy" sings: "I play my drum for Him" (i.e., it is only a crude and humble thing that I am able to bring). He also sings, "I play my best for Him" (i.e., I don't bring Him sloppiness but only my utmost for His Highest).

And brethren, sometimes on a Sunday morning when the rafters are swaying, I think I see David in linen ephod, thronged by all Israel, with trumpets and shouts, and dancing before the Lord with all his might (2 Samuel 6:14-15).

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again. Follow Andrée on Twitter @Andreespeterson.

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