Anthony Esolen: Poetic Traditional Hymns Put Alternatives to Shame | Crisis Magazine (with comments)

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I have taken one small liberty, in substituting a more specifically Anglican image!

“Come on, priests, musicians, and singers. Learn some poetry. Open the old hymnals and read. You need not feed on slop all your life long when you might enjoy real meat and potatoes and vegetables. And sometimes—more often than you suspect—you might feast like kings.”

Source: Poetic Traditional Hymns Put Alternatives to Shame | Crisis Magazine

A typically excellent treatment of the subject, by the inimitable Professor Anthony Esolen.

“Not every carpenter in 1800 could make tables fit for Windsor Castle. But he made what would stand the test of time, because it required great skill and practice to make any kind of table at all. The sifting would already have occurred when the man was a boy, learning the feel of wood and tool.

“So, too, with the old hymns. A person would have needed certain skills not only to write a good poem in meter and rhyme, but to write any such poem, and he would have been accustomed to writing such poetry from his youth. Poetry was a big part of the ordinary person’s life. For some people it was only the poetry in folk songs and hymns, but for literate people—and I am not talking about college graduates—it was far more…

“Modernism is nearly synonymous with disruption from and dismissal of the past. The modernist says the clock’s hands have turned, that there’s no going back, and we must look to the future. Its results have been meager, and at worst a spree of destruction. I am not speaking merely of quality. Whole genres of poetry, to name one branch of art, have disappeared.

“This is not to say that modernist poets write poor dramatic monologues, poor epics, poor songs, and poor narratives; they do not write them at all. Poetry has shrunk to the confessional or political lyric, usually in free verse. Never in human history has poetry meant less to the ordinary man. It is a tree torn up by the roots.”

Click through and read on for more! It’s well worth it.

Of course, having identified and described the problem, the next issue is figuring out what to do about it. Professor Esolen’s recommendation – “Learn some poetry. Open the old hymnals and read” – is an excellent place to start! But how to get people to actually do that is a bit more of a conundrum.

As the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” And you can lead a writer of “worship songs” to classic hymnody, but you can’t make him appreciate it, still less internalize its lessons, in such a way as to enable him to write in the same tradition… or at least, it doesn’t seem so.

It also helps to come from a faith tradition that actually is a faith tradition. Far too much of what passes for Christianity today is in point of fact what Patheos blogger Jonathan Aigner refers to as “jesusy” worship “experiences.” (He also refers to a lot of it as “masturbatory worship,” calling it a “self-worshiping, self-referential, nearly auto-erotic pursuit.” I don’t think he’s far wrong, but I’m trying to be nice.)

For a church – or a would-be hymn-writer – to have an authentic faith tradition, they have to be part of an authentic faith tradition: and for that, you need something like the Anglican tradition. Or the Lutheran, or Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or (God help us… after all, I am an Anglican!) Presbyterian / Reformed traditions: traditions that have developed over the centuries, even the millennia, of the Christian era.

You won’t find it in the “community church” model, which almost seems to take pride in not being part of any tradition, which seems to practically glory in being cut off from the past (which, of course, is what inevitably happens when you hitch your wagon to the “contemporary” star).

There are a few such churches that seem to be trying to graft themselves back onto the Great Tradition, and I wish them all the best! But they are still relatively few and far between, and they’ve got their work cut out for them.

And of course, far too many of those who are members of churches that have historically been part of the Great Tradition have, for the last four or five decades (or more), been doing their best to cast off those connections. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these have nearly all seen a steep decline in membership.

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But I digress. The point – for the purposes of this post – is that to write hymns that have both theological and poetical depth, one must be steeped in both the poetical tradition and in an authentic, historical faith tradition.

It is said that the old Celtic Bards had to study for 21 years to become masters of their craft and trade. They had to learn not only the musical arts, but history, folklore, genealogy, myths and legends, and much more. Even law codes! Then and only then were they seen to be ready to ply the bardic arts.

Yet now, it seems, everyone who can string together a few lines of doggerel thinks they can write “worship songs” or “praise music.” Maybe we need a more Bardic approach to Christian hymnody! We had something like it once, though we may not have called it by that name: Tony Esolen explicates it, and the fertile soil in which it grew.

I pray we can get it back.

 

It’s Time to Boycott the Worship Industry | Jonathan Aigner

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It’s time for us to boycott an industry that cares very much what the whole church thinks. We’re their only hope of staying afloat.

It’s time to boycott the worship industry.

Source: It’s Time to Boycott the Worship Industry | Jonathan Aigner

Jonathan Aigner often has good things to say, and this is no exception. As he accurately notes,

“It’s time to stop mimicking pop culture. It’s time for us to learn how to sing and make music again, instead of allowing others to do it for us. It’s time to rediscover the proper place of music in corporate worship. It’s time to end the Hillsongization, dethrone our jesusy American Idols, and once again foster creative beauty and artistry, especially in our children. It’s time to make worship about the work of the people once again, not just a good show and an hour of vegging out.”

Amen. Follow the link for five excellent reasons why the worship industry is leading Christians down the wrong path, and why boycotting it is not only a good idea, but may be essential for the faith – or at least, for the faith of Christians who have been caught up in it.

How the Church Exchanged Worshiping God For Cheap Emotional Thrills

Worship is supposed to be the Body of Christ accepting God’s invitation into His life, the Divine Life of God as it is expressed in the selfless and absolute love of God lived out forever in the Trinity.

Source: How the Church Exchanged Worshiping God For Cheap Emotional Thrills

I am aware of the saying, often attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo (although it is not found in any of his extant writings), that “He who sings, prays twice.” As a former Methodist and continuing respecter of John Wesley, I am aware of the high premium he placed on congregational singing, as found in his “Directions for Singing.”

However, as I read the “Directions,” I am not at all sure he would find much to approve in a lot of what passes for “Christian music” these days. And I suspect he might share my suspicion of the assumptions underlying the concept of “praise music” – and the idea of “praise services,” generally: are not traditional services also filled with praise for God?

But they are not unbalanced in that direction; to use the oft-used acronym “ACTS,” traditional liturgies balance Adoration (praise) with Contrition (confession and repentance), Thanksgiving, and Supplication (asking God for His aid for the concerns of ourselves or others). And I am quite sure Wesley would look askance – as do I! – at blogger Sarah Koenig’s assertion, quoted in the linked post, that

“Praise and Worship time is a means of coming into close contact with the mercy and love of the Divine – one might even consider it a means of grace. It not only replaces the service of the Table as a primary ordering liturgical element, it also in some sense functions eucharistically for its participants.”

“Replaces the service of the Table”…? “Functions eucharistically”…? Hmmmm. I have a problem with that. Christ did not say, “Sing this in remembrance of me!” Rather, I agree with Patheos guest blogger Les Lamkin, when he writes,

“I do not question music’s power. I do not question that it touches us deeply and profoundly. I question its fitness for shaping us into Christ-like people both individually and as the Body of Christ. I question the idea that raw sensuality is what Jesus had in mind when he said that true worshipers will worship in spirit and truth. I question the idea that somehow drawing people into church with cheap, ‘sanctified’ parodies of Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga is going to shape us into the Bride of Christ, without spot or wrinkle.”

More generally, to quote Lamkin again, “here’s the problem: the Bible never connects worship to preference. Or emotion. Or music.” As a wise priest once commented to me, part of our problem, or at least challenge, as Christians is distinguishing between feeling our heart “strangely warmed” (a la Wesley)… and heartburn.

We live in a society that teaches – sometimes explicitly, almost always implicitly – “if it feels good, do it.” We are trained, by our current society, to associate “warm fuzzies” (to use the old ’70s buzzword) with what is good and right, “cold pricklies” with what is bad and wrong. “How does it make you feel?” is the dominant question – not, “is it right or wrong?”

This is problematic, when dealing with theology, and related concepts like morality. Because often, our faith teaches us – or should, if it is itself being taught correctly – that there are times when we need to feel bad!

We need to experience the guilt, pain, and sorrow of understanding ourselves as sinners, so that we can truly repent; we need to feel the awe – and even terror – of realizing the power of God, literally the Creator of “all things, visible and invisible,” even if we are also grateful and reassured by his goodness to us. We need to mourn the fact that our sinfulness led to the death of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, in order to fully experience the joy of His Resurrection, and all that it means for us.

We cannot do these things, we cannot have these experiences and the understanding that comes with them, if we equate worship with a giddy emotional high. And we cannot even understand and appreciate that we as humans go through times of spiritual drought – what has often been referred to as a “dark night of the soul” – if we key our religious experience primarily into being made to feel good.

“I really felt the Spirit’s presence there” can mean exactly what it says… and it can also mean that we particularly enjoyed the music and fellowship that day. Can you reliably tell the difference? Is your heart strangely warmed, or do you have a case of heartburn? Sometimes the Holy Spirit comes to us in the midst of that dark night of the soul. Sometimes His presence isn’t even discernible to us, except in retrospect.

And we also need to reflect on these things, intellectually, using our God-given rational faculties. We need to understand their implications. We need to internalize not only feelings, but the truths of the faith, and their personal as well as doctrinal implications. This requires rational thought, cognition, reflection – not just emotion.

I am reminded of an excellent essay by David Mills, which I posted here on the blog a few years ago, entitled “A Defense of Traditional Worship.” In it, he writes,

“The concert ended with everyone singing an old hymn, swaying gently from side to side, many holding hands with the strangers beside them. Someone turned out the lights, and people began holding up lit matches, as a feeling of brotherhood descended, it seemed, on everyone in the hall. Out in the parking lot a few minutes later, many of them were fighting, stealing, and selling drugs to small children.

“It was a rock concert ending in the then-popular style. It taught me, a new Christian, that feelings of worship were easily aroused and often almost completely transitory and insincere, in the sense that they did not reflect any change in the will, or any desire in the worshipers to turn from their wickedness and live. Such feelings may be spiritual, but they are not always Christian.

“People are easily moved but not easily changed. The most elevated feelings are no guide whatsoever to the formative value of an experience. To be changed people need to be made to see the world and to act in certain ways and not in others, and this is the reason that Christians ought to worship traditionally, that is, in formal, ordered, regular, heavily textual liturgies designed by a central authority in its historical tradition.”

This is as true now as it was when Mr. (now Dr.) Mills wrote it, which was a good few years before I posted it here on The Anglophilic Anglican. I strongly encourage you to read his whole essay, if you have not already done so! It is well worth the “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” treatment I recommend for particularly seminal readings.

To return to the present essay, Mr. Lamkin reminds us that

“Worship is supposed to be the Body of Christ accepting God’s invitation into His life, the Divine Life of God as it is expressed in the selfless and absolute love of God lived out forever in the Trinity. It is supposed to be formative and the experience derived from is meant as a means of grace in which the Divine Life of God is imparted to us, individually and as the Body of Christ,”

and then warns us, aptly, of the hazards of using emotion as a guide to this:

“Our emotions are powerful influences. Scripture encourages emotion as a response to God, His greatness, His glory, His love. But we must recognize that scripture also warns against allowing emotion to be our sole, or even a significant, guide regarding faith and practice.”

He even goes so far as to assert,

“I’m a musician. I led my church’s worship team for nearly 30 years. I wish I could take it all back; all the rock and roll from the stage, all the outpouring of raw emotion in the name of worship, all the—do I dare use the word?— idolatry.”

“Idolatry”? Really? Yup! Some powerful stuff here. And and he writes “from the inside,” as it were: from the perspective of someone who’s been down the road, and trying to dissuade other travelers from taking the same unproductive detour.

Here again, I encourage you to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.” I think you may find it interesting, helpful, illuminating, and perhaps even… to cite a “cold prickly” that is nonetheless an important part of faith… convicting.