Friday, January 30, 2009

Whose gate is it anyway?

I was thinking about hymns on the back of an irritating discussion t'other day. A rummage in Google - because I was thinking first about the deeply unsuitable words of some Victorian hymns - produced the above which may amuse (though you may have to click on it for it to be legible). All things bright and beautiful may indeed be a pleasant thought, but the absurd social references of the rest of it can either make us laugh or squirm. And Mr B apparently spent many a tortured hour in his youth wondering why the poor man was waiting at his gate because he thought it was his own gate that he was standing at. Waiting for the Lord, perhaps? or for a handout? or for the post? You see, hymn words can trouble the young. Dangerous stuff.

But I digress. The loudest bee in my bunnet tonight is caused by those who turn up their noses at anything written in the last 100 years - or maybe the last 75 years - as "Radio Two" hymns, or "happy clappy" hymns, or simply "rubbish". My especial hornet is reserved for people who say this and are themselves indifferent church musicians, or who think only of the tunes of hymns, or simply cannot deal with the demands of modern tunes because actually they can't play them. In fact, such people tend to make such a hash of any they do play that the piece sounds as awful as they claim, and we're going round in circles.

Where am I going with this? A happy land far, far away? Not sure, really. Maybe I should stick to words for now. Because many modern religious songs actually have much more acceptable words because the authors have been freed from the demands or rhyme and/or regular metre, so they don't have to wrestle with unpleasant poetic diction to fit in, nor seize on tried and trusted rhymes - spirit and merit spring to mind, for some reason: must be the way you say it. So can I make a plea for a more critical look at words, a more honest appraisal of abilities, and a more open mind among those who would choose and perform hymns?

And maybe a thought for the punters who are trying to achieve a prayerful frame of mind?


  1. Re: "tried and trusted rhymes"

    "Calvary" and "tree" always disturbs me.

    I don't think the age of a hymn is a good indication of its worth. Old rubbish is just as bad as new rubbish. :-) Perhaps some new hymns are a bit too man-centred but then, some old hymns are rendered almost meaningless by the archaic language.

    The bee in my bonnet is the excessively short hymns that are sung umpteen times in a row.

    ...Not sure where this reply is going, so I think I'll stop before I generate even more nonsense!

  2. Anonymous1:04 AM

    My! Your cage has been well and truly rattled! Come on! Let's get the bees out of our bunnets, open the can of segmented invertebrates, and be specific - about words and music, of course; the people can take care of themselves.

    Do you mean, on the one hand, the kind of thing that says that there's a home for little children by cool Siloam's shady rill where the deer and the antelope play? And, on the other, the clap your hands, all you people and Amen siyakudume sa school of hymnody? (Amen to that, ba the wo.)

    Scattering my shots at random, I confess to being a tunes person - always was, always will be. I can sing the most arrant nonsense to a good tune, for the tune does something that mere words cannot. On Sunday I shall be belting out St George's Edinburgh, all the while wondering about the ability of gates to lift their heads (their heads??!!) on high, and perpetrating the kind of tortured syntax that only a Scottish paraphrase can achieve ("But who of glory is the King?" - parse.). It is a price I am prepared to pay for the satisfaction of bellowing a cracker of a tune.

    At my funeral, the congregation (however few) will sing Belmont and Glasgow to words unsuited to my exequies. If they do not, I shall haunt them with the unremitting venom of a psalmist pursuing his enemies. They will be my wash-pot, as the coy euphemism has it!

    As an absorbent rather than reflective child, I remember the tub-thumpers of the Bandy Hope: "I will make you fishers of men", "Deep, deep as the ocean", "Yield not to temptation", "The wise man built his house upon a rock"; as well as the Sunday school's "Jesus bids us shine" and "When he cometh, when he cometh".

    It was the music that got to me. I gave not a thought to "men" as a shibboleth for "exclusion" or to the wild incongruity of exhorting ten-year-olds to subdue their "dark passions" (a sentiment which has more relevance today, when I encounter some in the street!). I speculated only occasionally, as to why a green hill should have a city wall in the first place: all would be revealed in due course, I reasoned dimly. But I bridled - and still do - at poetasters who rhyme "love" with "move" and "Lord" with "word" (I'm with you all the way on the spirit/merit thing). Visual rhymes are no excuse for sloppiness!

    As with all hymnody, some of the modern stuff is like the girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead: when it is good, it is very,very good; and when it is bad it is horrid - not to mention execrable, patronising, effete, wishy-washy and inexcusably banal. The same goes for the music: some is simple and affecting, some is complicated and effective; some is drivel, saying "You can't cope with anything more demanding, so here's a sop to your inadequacy."

    The worst crime in my book is to take the pith out of old hymns and replace it with bland pieties. By all means dispense with verses implying predestination (castle/gate) and the like. Just omit the verses you don't like, instead of lobotomising them.

    Oh dear... I'm ranting, and I've just looked at my Google gadget and seen the time. And I'd only just begun.

  3. I do wonder why you don't have your own blog, abf!
    David: I agree age is not an indicator of worth - some of my fave hymns are plainsong, in Latin. What I can't be doing with are sweeping generalisations which are based on prejudice.
    As for repeating short hymns: do you not find something like "Jesus, remember me" helpful as an aid to meditation/prayer when repeated?

  4. Hello Chris

    I think I'm complaining more about the worship leader who tries to manufacture an atmosphere by the endless repetition (often too slowly) of something that was barely worth singing once. :-)