Before we vacate this column next month, here are some inconsequential though not unconsidered sweepings.
Paul Davis has compiled another book of Hymn and Song Stories of the Twentieth Century, carrying on from his first. This one charts the success of two different styles, from the jangly rhythms of post-Sankeyism (‘When the roll is called up yonder’) to the jingly post-Kendricks (‘I am a new creation, no more in condemnation’). He has not discovered much in between, though I am grateful for a rare recognition of Dorsey’s ‘Take my hand, precious Lord’.
One passing thought: why do so many of the 1980s wave seem to be ‘inspirational worship leaders’? But then, why are most traditional hymn writers clergymen? Does a position up front lead them all to see the need for more and better material, particularly more?
A Larry Norman LP was once voted ‘Best Contemporary Christian Album of All Time’. But what made anyone ask Bill Gaither ‘how it makes him feel to be classed among the ranks of history’s great hymn writers’? This is a world of the great, the foremost, the ground-breaking, the inspired, and you must get used to the language.
Move on, not far, to the respectable realm of Grove Booklets; how did I miss Victoria Cooke’s Understanding Songs in Renewal (Renewal Series R4, 2001)? ‘When a Song is More Than a Song’ explains, when it is charismatic. Sections on Matt Redman, the UK Vineyard Movement, and Hillsongs, Australia, follow; some very recent hits are labelled as lasting and famous classics, indicating the short expected life-span of this genre.
Like Paul Davis’s book, this one relates to other forms of writing, but only occasionally, in passing, and by way of criticism. Ms Cooke accepts without comment the personality-cult world of its leading proponents: ‘he … attracts large numbers wherever he is invited to lead worship.’ Although her theological observations seem precariously based on some thinnish lyrics which are more music-driven than she allows, she briefly mentions some criticisms of their style: trivial, trite, mindless, manipulative, and so forth. She then points to their virtues without attempting an answer. But one objection even she does not face, exactly opposite to the puritan charge of ‘entertainment’, is that so many of these songs are just like all the others. The accusation on the charge sheet is not that they are too lively, but too boring. The tunes go nowhere, and lead the words in directions we may not want to go anyway. Exciting they may be in the heady atmosphere of thousands swaying and clapping to some very loud on-stage strumming; transfer that to Sunday morning at the church on the corner, and it’s a case of ‘Yawning has broken’.
Hurriedly we move on. More solid fare in C Michael Hawn’s Gather into One: Praying and Singing Globally (Eerdmans, 2003). This Dallas musician makes some excellent points about the way one culture uses, abuses, or ignores the products of another. But where Paul Davis communicates in tabloid-style cliché, Michael Hawn writes in such abstract polysyllables as to make his work heavy going for those who are not American academics. And for all his wish to be global, inclusive and one, he passes over contemporary English writers (John Bell being Scottish) as if they didn’t exist.
Professor JR Watson apart, whose work has been reviewed in New Directions, this leaves the market wide open for a book free of humbug, hyperbole, and ignorance. Any takers out there?
Christopher Idle has just retired in the Diocese of Southwark.