Doug Wilson, What Music Cannot Say

Doug Wilson has a little book entitled Church Music and the Other Kinds: A Musical Manifesto of Sorts. Classic Wilson in style, it makes a number of good points on church music. I thought the following was helpful in thinking about musical meaning.

In Psalm 22:3, we are told that God is holy, and that He
inhabits the praises of Israel. What does that mean?
We are the people of God, and when we sing, when we
praise God, we are constructing a dwelling place for Him.
So what kind of place should we build? How should
it be furnished and decorated? The Bible tells us that our
praise of God should overflow as a function of the Word
of God dwelling in us richly.
A common misconception in our day says that music
is content-neutral, as though it were a universal sauce
that can go with any meal. This idea arises from the fact
that music is not as capable as language in communicating
specific meanings. But just because it cannot communicate
in as focused a way does not mean that it is not
communicating at all. Music adorns words, and music
must adorn words in ways that are consistent. Music is
more general than the words, but they both still have to
line up. The words cannot be specific—Des Moines—and
the music the wrong kind of general—Wyoming, say.
Music cannot tell you the temperature at the airport,
or that Washington crossed the Delaware, or that
Jesus rose from the dead. But when words are expressed
in poetry, and set to music, it must be music that communicates
something general that is consistent with
the specific meaning. Music can be exultant, romantic,
goofy, melancholic, and so forth. So one of the central
principles of church music is this—since we are building
a habitation for the Lord in our praises, and He will condescend
to live in what we sing, the way we adorn the
house must be consistent with what we are saying the
house is. If our words are to be reverent, holy, jubilant,
loud, and grateful, then so must the music be.

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Edwards: Sing or sin

From a sermon by Jonathan Edwards on “Self-Examination”:

Examine yourselves, whether you do not live in some way of sin with respect to the institutions of God’s house. Here I shall mention several instances. . . .

(2) Do you not live in sin, in living in the neglect of singing God’s praises? If singing praises to God be an ordinance of God’s public worship, as doubtless it is, then it ought to be attended and performed by the whole worshipping assembly. If it be a command that we should worship God in this way, then all ought to obey this command, not only by joining with others in singing, but in singing themselves. For if we suppose it answers the command of God for us only to join in our hearts with others, it will run us into this absurdity, that all may do so; and then there would be none to sing, none for others to join with.

If it be an appointment of God, that Christian congregations should sing praises to him, then doubtless it is the duty of all; if there be no exception in the rule, then all ought to comply with it, unless they be incapable of it, or unless it would be a hindrance to the other work of God’s house. . . . But if persons be now not capable, because they know not how to sing, that doth not excuse them, unless they have been incapable of learning. As it is the command of God, that all should sing, so all should make conscience of learning to sing, as it is a thing which cannot be decently performed at all without learning. Those, therefore, who neglect to learn to sing, live in sin, as they neglect what is necessary in order to their attending one of the ordinances of God’s worship.

Not only should persons make conscience of learning to sing themselves, but parents should conscientiously see to it, that their children are taught this among other things, as their education and instruction belong to them.

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Methodist Hymn Histories and Studies

And a lot of them! See here.

Here’s an example of one of their “hymn studies”:

“Jesus Paid It All”

Hymn Study

by Dean McIntyre

TITLE: “Jesus Paid It All”
AUTHOR: Elvina M. Hall
COMPOSER: John T. Grape
SOURCES: Worship & Song, no. 3100
SCRIPTURE: Ezekiel 11:19; Psalm 51:7; Isaiah 1:16-18; John 1:29; Romans 5:6-8; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 2:1-9; 1 Peter 2:24; Revelation 5:11-14
TOPICS: assurance; Calvary; cleanse; blood of Christ; cross; justifying grace; Passion & death; Lamb of God; pardon; power & might; prayer; redemption; salvation; sinfulness; throne; weakness

The circumstances surrounding the composition of a hymn’s text and tune and then the joining of the two are often serendipitous, or if you prefer, Spirit-led.

John T. Grape was born in Baltimore, Maryland, May 6, 1835, and died in Baltimore November 2, 1915. He was a successful coal merchant and member of the Monument Street Methodist Church in Baltimore. He also played the organ, directed the choir, and was active in the Sunday school. He later directed the choir at the Hartford Avenue Methodist Church. He composed this tune independently of the text and called it ALL TO CHRIST I OWE. He gave a copy to his pastor, who was unimpressed with it and set it aside.

Elvina Mable Hall (June 4, 1822, Alexandria, Virginia-July 18, 1889, Ocean Grove, New Jersey) married Richard Hall of Virginia. After his death, she married the Rev. Thomas Meyers, a Methodist pastor in the Baltimore Conference. She was also a 40-year member of the Monument Street Methodist Church in Baltimore and a member of the choir. She composed these words in 1865, sitting in the choir loft during the pastor’s sermon. Not having any paper, she wrote them inside the cover of her hymnal. She composed the four stanzas and titled them “Jesus Paid It All,” and gave a copy to the pastor.

The Rev. George W. Schreck, pastor of the Monument Street Methodist Church, upon reading Hall’s hymn, remembered the tune he had been given by John Grape. The meter of the text and tune were agreeable, except that Grape’s tune had a refrain. Hall then added the words of the refrain to fit and the hymn was complete. At Schreck’s urging, they sent the hymn to Professor Theodore Perkins, publisher of the Sabbath Carols periodical, where it received its first publication. It has been a favorite of many American Christians ever since.

The notes of both melody and harmony are, with one exception, completely diatonic, and with three exceptions, pentatonic. The tune consists of tonic and dominant harmonies except for the internal cadence on the subdominant at the third measure from the end, a point at which many congregations will place a fermata (“stain”). Musically, the tune is structured AA’BB’ and is contained entirely within an octave.

This hymn is appropriately placed in the PARDON division of the JUSTIFYING GRACE section of Worship & Song. Perhaps resulting from the fact that the four stanzas were composed first as a unit and the refrain text added later, there is a division between content of stanza and refrain. The four stanzas speak of our human weakness and failure, our need for salvation and the power and grace we receive through Jesus Christ. The refrain centers on the debt we owe to God as a result of our sin and the fact that that debt was paid through Jesus’ death on the cross.

  • Stanza One: Jesus says that we are weak and through watching and prayer, we will find all that we need.
  • Stanza Two: It is in Jesus that we find the power to change our lives and our hearts.
  • Stanza Three: We are meritless to claim God’s grace. It is Jesus’ shed blood that saves us.
  • Stanza Four: When we are finally judged by God, we shall proclaim our salvation through Jesus’ death.
  • Refrain: The debt of our sin was paid by Jesus.



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“Amen” at the end of hymns

Now that’s interesting. I’ve seen many, many hymns that end with an “Amen” — and I’ve seen the same hymns end with an “Amen” in some instances, but not when printed elsewhere. I’ve never thought about where that practice originated. Tonight, I came across a brief article by David Eicher which succinctly traces the practice and is well worth reading:

David Eicher, “Why Don’t Hymns End with ‘Amen’?”

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“In Thy arms I rest me; Foes who would…”

Johann Franck published “Jesu, meine Freude” in 1653; Catherine Winkworth served the English-speaking world by translating it as “Jesu, priceless treasure” in her 1863 The Chorale Book for EnglandIn this translation, she rendered the second verse as:

In Thine arm I rest me,
Foes who would molest me
Cannot reach me here;
Though the earth be shaking,
Every heart be quaking,
Jesus calms my fear;
Sin and hell in conflict fell
With their bitter storms assail me,
Jesus will not fail me.

Over the century and a half since Winkworth’s translation was published, the word “molest” has shifted from communicating something general along the lines of “to trouble, to disturb; to render uneasy” (Webster, 1828) to its more specialized contemporary meaning of “to make indecent sexual advances to.” I don’t mind using archaic language in hymns, but in this case, I fear that the present denotation of “molest” might distract or misinform the singer.

Others have apparently had similar thoughts. reports the following variation:

“Let your arms enfold me:
those who try to wound me
cannot reach me here.”
The New Century Hymnal (1995)

My friend David Barnhart is familiar with this variation:

In Your arms I’m resting,
all my foes are fleeing-
None can touch me here.”

Neither of these versions commends itself to me. However, also attests to the following rendering from the Presbyterian Hymnal (1990):

“In Thine arms I rest me;
Foes who would oppress me
Cannot reach me here.”

The happy substitution of “oppress” for “molest” is simple, elegant, and satisfactory. The rhyme is only approximate, but is sufficient; the meaning is not appreciably different from the original denotation of “molest”; and the minimum possible alteration is achieved. But what about its correspondence with Franck’s original text? Are we shortchanging Franck in some way by altering Winkworth’s translation?

As it turns out, no. As is so common in translated poetry, Catherine Winkworth maintained the thrust of the poetry while using imagery which is somewhat different. Franck’s original German for these three lines is:

Unter deinem Schirmen
Bin ich für dem Sturmen
Aller Feinde frei.

My friend David Barnhart tells me that this would run rather literally in translation as: “Under your protection I am safe from the storms of all enemies.” While Winkworth has in these lines added the imagery of God’s protective “arm”, she has removed the “storm” imagery (which is revisited later in the original German stanza with “Ob es itzt gleich kracht und blitzt” [“Even if there is thunder and lightning”]). So even in Winkworth’s original translation, the memorable storm imagery Franck used in conjunction with the Christian’s enemies is made less vivid with the idea of “foes molesting me.” Substituting “oppress” for “molest,” then, is at least not any farther away from Franck’s original imagery than Winkworth’s original translation.

Thus, if and when I teach “Jesus, Priceless Treasure” to my congregation, I plan to make that simple substitution: “oppress” for “molest”.


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McCracken, “Why the medium of cool isn’t a neutral vehicle for the gospel”

I recently picked up Brett McCracken’s Hipster Christianity (2010) to see what he had to say about the notion of “cool” in conjunction with following Christ. I’ve never been able to join those two together, myself (as I understand “cool”). I’m still working through the book and must reserve judgment at this point, but I found a followup post that McCracken put up a couple of years back that engages the categories of media ecology in connection with his topic, and he gets a lot of things right. Some excerpts:

 I think it’s naive for Christians to suggest that medium is something separate from message; they are intertwined. The architects of the great cathedrals in Christian history understood it; composers of sacred music like Handel and Berlioz and Tavener understood it. And yet contemporary evangelical Christians seem to have lost the inextricable connection between form and content.

Because most Protestant evangelicals don’t recognize a meaningful connection between form and content (e.g. “the medium may change but the message remains the same!”), the church can only throw up its hands in surrender to the postmodern standard of “individual preference” or “whatever works” pragmatism.

How can we simultaneously embrace a sacred view of time, and a valuing of tradition, when we’re so compelled by the ever-changing contours of cool and disposability of trendiness?

The perpetuation of strict separation between form and content will only exacerbate evangelical Christianity’s current identity crisis.

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Praise to the Lord, the Almighty

It’s tough to nail down a “favorite hymn” — but always toward the top of my list is “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” invariably sung to LOBE DEN HERREN. For some odd reason, though, I had always thought it only had four verses (as it has been presented in every hymnal in which I can recall seeing it!). But, lo and behold, there are more. From

1. Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!
O my soul, praise Him, for He is thy health and salvation!
All ye who hear, now to His temple draw near;
Praise Him in glad adoration.

2. Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth,
Shelters thee under His wings, yea, so gently sustaineth!
Hast thou not seen how thy desires e’er have been
Granted in what He ordaineth?

3. Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy work and defend thee;
Surely His goodness and mercy here daily attend thee;
Ponder anew what the Almighty can do,
If with His love He befriend thee.

4. Praise to the Lord, who, when tempests their warfare are waging,
Who, when the elements madly around thee are raging,
Biddeth them cease, turneth their fury to peace,
Whirlwinds and waters assuaging.

5. Praise to the Lord, who, when darkness of sin is abounding,
Who, when the godless do triumph, all virtue confounding,
Sheddeth His light, chaseth the horrors of night,
Saints with His mercy surrounding.

6. Praise to the Lord, O let all that is in me adore Him!
All that hath life and breath, come now with praises before Him;
Let the Amen sound from His people again,
Gladly for aye we adore Him.

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