Hymn Writing for the Ages

When I saw a picture of Notre Dame on fire, my first thought was, “How in the world? Is it even possible?” It’s easy to think in our modern era that things like this can’t happen. Yet, somehow, disaster still strikes.

I want to sound the same warning about our modern hymn movement. Conservative evangelical Christianity has enjoyed a beautiful reawakening of hymn singing and hymn writing. But we need to be careful while renovating. As we contribute to this vast cathedral we call “hymnody,” we want to avoid setting fire to it in the process. My aim in this post is very specific. I want to speak to two groups of people.

  1. Hymn singers: If you are in a church that cherishes a conservative, evangelical hymn-singing tradition, I hope you take a few minutes to read this for your own benefit. I hope it helps you think carefully about the hymns your church sings, both old and new. I hope it helps you appreciate and encourage the growing wave of hymn writers in our time. And I hope it helps you contribute to the growth and maturity of this hymn movement in a positive way.
  2. Hymn writers: I really, really, really hope this article comes to the attention of just the right people. I’m talking about any writers who are contributing to this wonderful wave of “new songs” in our hymn tradition (Ps. 96:1). Many of them have significant influence; their recommendations will influence hundreds if not thousands of people. What they say will influence church hymnody for years to come.

Just Who Do You Think You Are?

First things first, I need to address a big question up front. What makes me think I have any authority to critique modern hymn writing? Good question. I don’t have any huge “hymn hits.” I’m not a recognized, accomplished hymn composer. I’ve only been at this songwriting thing for a half a decade or so. Maybe I should just let my thoughts percolate for another decade or two.

But when I consider the current state of modern hymn writing, having learned the “basics” of songwriting, I’m a bit alarmed to see some very basic principles still being ignored. What I’m about to talk about is not technical, esoteric stuff. I’m talking about fundamental songwriting principles that should immediately make sense when explained.

I received some good advice early on in my songwriting journey. I was told to focus on my strengths. I am not “proficient” in any instrument, though I have had a lot of voice training. I can follow music theory discussions, but that’s not really my thing either. Rather, my skills and training are in the areas of theology, lyric crafting, and melody writing. So, while I love all those other areas and try to develop them as I am able, I am trying to focus this post on what I know best.

Last week I shared some of my angst on social media, and a former teacher from college helpfully mentioned Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism (1711). So I went back and read it. In it, Pope makes the point that a bad critic is just as dangerous, if not more, than a bad writer. I have been duly warned. Today I hope to avoid being a bad critic. Instead, I hope to provide something of value for you to think about (and some more quotes from Alexander Pope).

So what’s wrong with modern hymn writing?

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A Personal Opinion

Recently I noticed a social media post by a prominent hymn writer in conservative evangelical circles that sang the praises of a new hymn. I love all things related to modern hymns, so I checked it out. And it was… ok.  I noticed at least one basic songwriting error almost immediately. And then it happened again. And again. The hymn didn’t seem, in my mind, to merit the label of a “classic” hymn. We should be very hesitant to label something as timeless when, well, it hasn’t had much time to prove it yet.

What was the problem? The writer(s) inverted sentence structures repeatedly without discretion. It’s called “Yoda speak.” Here’s a short poem that illustrates what I’m talking about.

‪Poor sentence structure‬
‪In a song‬
‪Is proof the writer ‬
‪Got it wrong.‬
‪Improper grammar ‬
‪Should be canned;‬
‪If you are Yoda,‬
‪Cheat, you can.‬

The poem flows naturally, the way we would speak, until the very last line. Then, inverting the sentence structure, I pull the word “cheat” from its natural place at the end of the sentence and place it at the beginning, just like Master Yoda.

In my songwriting experience, sentence inversion is rarely necessary. This is especially true in hymn writing. Why? Because sentence inversion in our modern, English-speaking world tends to cause snickers and laughs. It sounds funny to modern English speakers, as illustrated above. That’s why it works so well in my “critical” poem. As far as I remember, I have yet to use sentence inversion in any hymns. There has always been a different and better way to say what I wanted to say.

But, but…

You may be thinking of some major objections to what I just said. And I want to deal with them honestly, critically, and fairly. First objection…

The old hymn writers inverted sentences.

That is true. In Hark, the Herald Angels Sing Charles Wesley gives us inversion gems such as “Late in time behold Him come” and “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.” So yes, sentence inversion is a part of our hymn tradition.

But Charles Wesley lived in the 18th century. The English language has undergone gradual but vast changes over the last two centuries. We use different vocabulary and are losing large swaths of our vocabulary (like the word “swath”). Written poetry is not popular (maybe you can name a living, famous poet, but I can’t). The average American has very little ability to process advanced sentence structures. In light of those changes, consider another of Charles Wesley’s famous hymns, And Can It Be.

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain,
For me, who Him, to death pursued?

The sentence structure in this stanza is vastly different from how we speak. A modern translation would be, “How is it possible that I get credited with righteousness through the blood of Jesus?” Wesley uses the phrase “gain an interest,” which could be a monetary analogy. But is he using a monetary analogy? Or is he simply saying I benefit from the blood of Jesus? I’m not sure. That will take some more digging to find out. Moving on to the next two lines, “He died for me, even though I caused Him pain and death.”

Critically evaluating those words makes me realize I’m not 100% sure I understand everything he is talking about. But Wesley wrote a long time ago, so I can give him a break. And I do get the overarching message. I can then explain it in laymen’s terms. Not everyone in our churches can do thatI have far more theological, musical, and lyric training.

If I sing a hymn that is not 100% clear to me, I’m sure other people do it. And they’ll do it with our modern hymns, too, if we tell them to. Are they really learning anything if they don’t understand the words? The church deserves better. It deserves the greatest clarity we can give.

But sentence inversion elevates the style of the hymn.

Maybe, maybe not. I fear we may be guilty of imitating the style, but not the genius of the great hymn writers. Alexander Pope addresses this issue, once again, in An Essay on Criticism,

Some by Old Words to Fame have made Pretence;
Ancients in Phrase, meer Moderns in their Sense!
Such labour’d Nothings, in so strange a Style,
Amaze th’ unlearn’d, and make the Learned Smile. (lines 327-330)

Do we “make the Learned Smile” (aka snicker) at our hymns? I hope not. Just because Watts, or Wesley, or Luther inverted sentences then doesn’t mean we should do it now. And I’ll give you a biblical reason why in a minute. But let’s first think about Luther; he brings up another point I rarely hear mentioned.

Many of our classic hymns are translations into English.

zack-smith-1491008-unsplashLuther spoke and wrote in German, so songs like A Mighty Fortress is Our God have been translated into English. I’ve only worked on a few projects that required translating from another language into English, but I can tell you it’s very, very tricky. You want to remain faithful to the author’s original intent while also maintaining as much of the rhyme scheme and sentence structure as possible. Sometimes it’s nearly impossible. So whenever you sing a hymn translation, you may sing rhymes and sentence structures that do not and cannot flow as well as in the original language. They’re just awkward.

Add to the translation struggle the fact that the translation itself may be centuries old, and you can see why we inherited “Yoda speak” in our hymns. I gladly sing Watts, Wesley, and Luther. In spite of the change in language, their work has proven timeless. And I’ll gladly explain the meaning of the old hymn texts to the average layperson. But that was hymn writing then, this is now.

A Professional Opinion

In case you don’t believe me, please believe the professionals. Robert Sterling is a well-known and accomplished Christian songwriter who has taught me a lot. In his book, “The Craft of Christian Songwriting,” he says this,

Rhyme naturally. A classic problem of novice writers is inverting words in a phrase to force a rhyme. I call this “Yoda speak,” named after the little green character in the Star Wars movies, who spoke in awkward, sometimes backward, phrases (“With you the force is, Luke”). Better to write the words the way people actually speak, and look for a new rhyme. Also related to this problem among Christian songwriters is what I call “hymn talk,” which refers to the use of using archaic language to make a rhyme work. For example, if you use the word “thou” to rhyme with “now,” you have committed the sin of hymn talk. That might have worked for 19th-century hymnwriter Fanny J. Crosby (1820-1915), but it won’t work for you (pg. 63).

The most common reason for inverting sentences in modern hymns is the attempt to make a rhyme work. But we should, instead, work hard to ensure our lyrics flow naturally. Notice he says this is “a classic problem of novice writers” (my emphasis). Yikes.

Yet here’s the crazy part—in the new hymn I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, the songwriters weren’t even using inversion to force a rhyme. The hymn had almost no rhyme scheme (save one couplet), so the writers had absolutely no reason to employ sentence inversion! They just inverted sentences to make the song sound “hymnish.” But in reality they obscured the message of the hymn itself.

Paul S. Jones makes an argument for authenticity in church music in his book Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today. His point in chapter 7 is that, as much as possible, our music should be authentic. It should be sung by real believers with real instruments in real praise to God. I would add that our lyrics should be authentic, crafted intentionally to drive to the heart and mind of the listener. I’m not accusing anyone of intentionally being fake, but our lyrics should flow naturally, like our native tongue. If your modern hymn is not comprehensible at the first hearing or reading, then you should rewrite. If it is awkward or unnatural sounding, then you should rewrite.

Jeff Lippencott points out, along with the other authors I just mentioned, that we need to craft excellent hymns. “From their writing to their recording, whether in concert halls or worship services, psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs should be crafted and performed to the highest level.” (read his short Tabletalk article here: What Lyrics, Melody, and Harmony Teach Us)

So I don’t think I am alone on this observation. I’m standing on solid professional ground. We’ve been told not to do what we’ve been doing. So why are we still doing it?

Growing Pains

The modern hymn movement needs to grow to the next level. My request for fellow hymn writers is this: let’s grow together. We have enjoyed a fresh influx of modern hymns from all corners of conservative Christianity. In some ways, it’s starting to become a “cool” thing to write new hymns. With that new wave comes the inherent danger of diluting the quality of our hymns. We can do better. We need to stop hymn shopping at American Eagle and start hymn shopping at North Face.

Isn’t this the challenge for every songwriter? We write, then re-write, then re-write, and re-write. We have lots of talented, well-intentioned writers. But if we want this generation of hymn writers to grow from good into great, and from great into excellent, we have to grow into a more mature, informed view of hymn writing. We need to expect and strive for the very best (1 Corinthians 10:31).

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I think we have a solid biblical basis for writing with clarity. In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul makes the point, using several musical analogies, that our communication of truth should be as clear and intelligible as possible. Watts, Wesley, and Luther did a great job; but who’s to say we can’t do better? Indeed, we bear the responsibility to improve hymnody, not weaken it. At stake is the clarity and effectiveness of the theology we seek to teach in song.

Besides avoiding “Yoda speak” and “hymn talk,” here are a few suggestions (there are many others) that may help modern hymn writers mature in their abilities.

  1. Basic lyric-crafting tools and systems. I don’t have much time to talk about this, nor is this blog the place, but I trust you will put in the effort to develop yourself as as writer. Don’t settle for sub-par tools. Just as a personal example, I once was at a conference where a lead editor of a children’s music publishing company recommended rhymezone.com to all the songwriters. That is, for sure, a great place for beginners to start. It’s free, after all. But serious lyricists need to consider purchasing and learning to use a solid rhyming dictionary. We have a plethora of words available to us. Use them! The only way a rhyming dictionary will become useful, however, is if you learn to use it in your songwriting system. Which begs the question, do you have a writing system? Writing well takes time, effort, discipline, practice, and a willingness to be criticized and adjust accordingly.

    Do our tools and writing systems hurt the quality of our hymns? I hope not.

  2. Avoid tired rhymes. This is one of our biggest challenges, isn’t it? We want to articulate the unchanging truths of Christianity. The truths of Christianity do not change, for God never changes; but our expressions of truth ought to be fresh, insightful, theologically sound, aware of hymn history, yet tailored to our own generation. Even our rhyming should build up our hymnody, not dilute or weaken it. Once again, Alexander Pope nails it by illustrating the use of tired rhymes.Where-e’er you find the cooling Western Breeze,
    In the next Line, it whispers thro’ the Trees;
    If Chrystal Streams with pleasing Murmurs creep,
    The Reader’s threaten’d (not in vain) with Sleep. (lines 353-356)

    Do our predictable rhymes (and poetic devices) prompt a collective yawn? I hope not.

  3. Marry ministry with artistry. We hymn writers (artists) sometimes write against all sound advice. One hymn I recently discovered included a drop of a seventh in the chorus. The author defended his “artistic” decision as text painting. But in congregational singing, a drop of a seventh is unhelpful and unfair. The author himself agreed it was a questionable decision, yet still held to his “artistic” taste. And it ruined an otherwise good hymn. If we want to minister to average church congregations, we need to write with them in mind. Some modern hymn settings begin with unrealistically low notes. Some cover a vocal range that is simply inaccessible. But we do it anyway.

    Does our artistic pride hinder our ministry? I hope not.

There is a better way. And we have the opportunity to mature in our hymn writing. When this generation’s renovation is done on our “Notre Dame” of hymnody, we’ll step back and say Soli Deo Gloria. The only question is, will we grow up? I hope so. I definitely hope so.

CP

6 thoughts on “Hymn Writing for the Ages

  1. Wow! You have given me much to think about. I never realized all that goes into developing a hymn. Thanks for the lesson!

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    1. It is definitely a process. Glad you appreciated it.

      Like

  2. Andrew Goodwill April 17, 2019 — 9:02 am

    I really appreciate the time and thoughtfulness you put into this. Although I do not write hymns, I interact regularly with church members who aspire to write hymns. You have also given me much to consider in evaluating what modern hymns are worthy to be set before the congregation. Thanks!

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    1. I’m glad it was a help to you, Andrew!

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  3. So well stated, Cameron! God has incredible things in store for you in multiple areas of ministry, I’m guessing. His glory shines through your openness to His leading in your life. 🙂

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    1. Thank you, Vicki, for the encouraging words!

      Like

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