Fifth-Rate Poems Set To Sixth-Rate Music
A generation ago, most mature Christians knew the power of singing psalms and psalm-like hymns in corporate worship, in the home, and around the family table. Experienced Christians knew more of life and of the reality of death; they had knelt at the deathbed of loved ones and friends, and made the connection. A disciplined life of joyful singing was one of the very important ways we prepared ourselves for singing in the hour of death, blessing and encouraging the dying—and ourselves, the bereaved living.
Enter one of the great tragic problems for the new generation of Christians who have spent their lives singing happy-clappy songs, with little or nothing about death and dying in those songs, and singing them in a venue that requires the full array of entertainment instruments and soloists to lead us, a venue that is wholly inaccessible at the deathbed. There’ll be no band, no lead vocalist, nor will there be an organ at your loved one’s deathbed—or at yours.
Thoughtful Christians, ones who look down the road, will want to sing in the home and in their churches in ways that can be portable, can be carried on in the hospice bed. Christian, rediscover how to sing, before it’s too late.
The stories are legion of the elderly unable to remember anything and anyone, but able to sing hymns they had learned in their childhood. My father-in-law, suffering with Alzheimer’s, unable to remember his own wife and children, and unable to read the words in front him, sang Christmas carols with us a few short months before his death, all by memory—which he had of nothing else. Ten minutes before my father died, he sang Psalm 23 with us; I believe he was even harmonizing on the bass line, as he had taught me to do in corporate singing as a young man.
But it’s not just the elderly. There’s the 2014 account of eighteen-year-old Lexi Hansen who was pronounced brain dead and on life support after being struck by a car while riding her longboard. The doctors were grim; they said the unresponsive teen had a 5% likelihood of survival. Lexi’s mother gave the account of the family joining hands around her hospital bed, expecting her to die. Then, one of them began singing hymns. The rest of the family joined in. In moments, Lexi’s eyes opened, and she squeezed her family’s hands as they sang.
I remember seeing my aunt who had turned away from her Christian upbringing, now in her eighties, weeping as we stood around the piano singing hymns from her childhood, hymns whose content she no longer claimed to believe. Tears, nevertheless.
In his Confessions, Augustine credits overhearing Christians singing with preparing his heart for the gospel. “How greatly did I weep in thy hymns and canticles, deeply moved by the voices of thy Church so sweetly singing.”
It would be impossible to overstate the role of corporate singing in the Reformation. John Calvin, cautious about music, nevertheless, knew its power over human hearts. “Music has a secret and almost incredible power to move hearts.” And Luther ranked music, and singing hymns together in worship, next only to the Word of God and theology.
Though C. S. Lewis did not get everything right, one of the things that compels many of us back to his writing, is that in the things he did get right he wrote and spoke about those things better than just about anyone. But when it comes to singing in corporate worship, Lewis seems unable to break free of some of his early prejudices against corporate singing. Put bluntly, Lewis did not agree with Augustine, Calvin, and Luther about hymns and the power of singing them in worship, at least not initially.
Picture Lewis as a new convert in 1931, knotting his tie and walking from his home The Kilns to attend corporate worship at Holy Trinity parish church for the very first time as a true believer in Christ, in working-class Headington Quarry, only three miles from the exalted spires of his sophisticated life at the oldest university in England, but an intellectual and aesthetic cosmos apart from his life in blue-color Headington Quarry.
In his collection of essays, God in the Dock, Lewis describes his initial impression of his neighbors’ singing, their untrained voices, their unrefined musical tastes.
I disliked very much their hymns, which I
considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate
music. But as I went on, I saw the great merit of it. I
came up against different people of quite different
outlooks and different education, and then gradually
my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the
hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were,
nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit
by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite
pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean
those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.
It is not for me to lay down laws, as I am only a
layman, and I don’t know much.
Notice the development of his opinion about their singing, “the great merit of it.” Whatever his claims about not knowing much, Lewis had finely tuned, refined musical and literary tastes. Literature was his life’s work. He was one of the best-read scholars of his century, and much of that reading was poetry. Yet, he was operating under the cloud of postmodern changes in poetry, the Imagists of the early 20th century, the fragments of vers libre poets, and the general revolt against conventional poetry, the kind Lewis appreciated, understood, and loved. This may have had an influence on his early rejection of their “fifth-rate hymns.” The literary elites of the 20th century insisted that poetry with specific theological content was lesser poetry, perhaps not even worthy of being included as poetry. Lewis could not be entirely unaffected by his culture’s secular prejudice.
But observe Lewis’s change, his confession that it was his pride, his “solitary conceit” that led to his early dislike of corporate singing at Holy Trinity.
HYMN TO EVOLUTION
More of a spoof than a true hymn of praise to God, Lewis did set his pen to write a hymn, a tongue-in-cheek lyric to evolution.
Lead us, Evolution, lead us
Up the future’s endless stair;
Chop us, change us, prod us, weed us.
For stagnation is despair:
Groping, guessing, yet progressing,
Lead us nobody knows where.
Having fun at evolution’s expense, Lewis continues his playfully derisive verse through several more stanzas. We can’t help applauding his mocking lyric. But Lewis, of course, would not rank this as a proper hymn to be sung in the praise of God in corporate worship.
Nevertheless, hymns and singing not infrequently appear in Lewis’s writing... [excerpt from God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To), available at bondbooks.net]
Douglas Bond is author of Grace Works! (And Ways We Think It Doesn't) and twenty-seven other books of historical fiction, biography, devotion, and practical theology. He is lyricist for New Reformation Hymns, directs the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, speaks at churches and conferences, and leads Church history tours in Europe. His book God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To), from which this post is an excerpt, is available at bondbooks.net; order today and receive a free Rise and Worship cd.