Religious music has long ago fallen victim to this weak and twisted philosophy of godliness. Good hymnody has been betrayed and subverted by noisy, uncouth persons who have too long operated under the immunity afforded them by the timidity of the saints. The tragic result is that for one entire generation we have been rearing Christians who are in complete ignorance of the golden treasury of songs and hymns left us by the ages. The tin horn has been substituted for the silver trumpet, and our religious leaders have been afraid to protest. It is ironic that the modernistic churches which deny the theology of the great hymns nevertheless sing them, and regenerated Christians who believe them are yet not singing them; in their stead are songs without theological content set to music without beauty. – A.W. Tozer, The Size of the Soul
Tozer wrote those words sometime in the 1950s. Sixty years later, things are not better. The trend has continued, carving a deeper groove into the valley of Tradition, till the ugly, atheological songs he spoke of now flow down into our liturgies unquestioned, as if from the mountains of the apostles themselves. Such shallow songs are now part of the approved canon of “good ol’ fashioned hymns” in evangelical and fundamentalist circles, while the truly great hymns are becoming relics, known by only a few.
How shocked some would be if they realised Tozer was condemning the hymns they cherish.
What are the “great hymns”, “the treasure of songs left us by the ages” Tozer speaks of? Judging by Tozer’s own anthology, The Christian Book of Mystical Verse, they are hymns such as “Ride on! Ride On In Majesty”; “Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts”; “Jesus, I Am Resting”; “Not All the Blood of Beasts”; “O Love Divine”; “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”; “Sweet The Moments, Rich in Blessing”; “I Sing the Mighty Power of God”, to mention a few. As he states elsewhere, the qualities of a good hymn are “sound theology, smooth structure, lyric beauty, high compression of profound ideas and a full charge of lofty religious feeling.”
In contrast, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Gospel-song era produced songs of shallow theology, unimaginative structure, limerick-style rhythms, clichéd lyrics and sentimentalised emotion. These are what Tozer calls “songs without theological content set to music without beauty”. While not all Gospel songs are useless to devout Christians, probably a large portion of them are. Where did these imposter hymns come from?
After Charles Finney, revivalistic Protestantism increasingly attached itself to the pop culture of the time, so as to draw in the crowds. Popular culture grew out of Enlightenment secularisation, riding on the wings of technology. To embrace popular culture, the church was embracing secularism. As it happened, the popular culture during Finney’s era was a particular brand of Victorian romanticism and this influenced the ‘contemporary Christian music’ of the 19th century. The hymns of Watts, Wesley, Montgomery and Tersteegen faded from prominence, the songs by people like William Doane, Philip P. Bliss, Ira Sankey, Fanny Crosby, and Charles Gabriel were brought in.
The Gospel song is easy to recognise: 1) a proliferation of religious clichés – “echoes of mercy, whispers of love”, “heavenly sunlight”, “footprints of Jesus”, “gather at the river” ; 2) hackneyed rhymes – love/above, story/glory, face/grace etc. ; 3) merry-go-round, fun-fair, nursery-rhyme melodies (think of the popular tunes to “Jesus is Coming Again”, “Praise Him! Praise Him!” and ; and 4) sentimentalised affections -“I Come to the Garden Alone”, “Since Jesus Came Into My Heart”, “Haven of Rest”, “Isn’t the Love of Jesus Something Wonderful?”. The popular hymnody reflected what Victorian sentimentalism stood for: the dreamy, clichéd, syrupy emotions and passions it lusted after were made to sound like Christian experience. The self-centredness of romanticism was made to pass for Christian devotion. It was really no different to what modern Christian rockers and rappers are doing today.
Unfortunately, the success of revivalists such as D.L. Moody and Billy Sunday, who used and further popularised the Gospel song, made sure that these sadly shallow hymns found a place in evangelical hymnody. Hymnbook editors, under pressure to include the massively popular Gospel songs, produced eclectic collections containing revivalist Gospel-song shanties alongside vastly superior hymns like “Holy, Holy, Holy”, “Come Thou Almighty King”, and “O For a Thousand Tongues To Sing”. The trend continues to this day. The results: the flattening out of quality, the blunting of the Christian public’s musical discernment and the demeaning of a once-lofty view of God.
But a century later, evangelicals and fundamentalists descended from revivalism have a hard time identifying some of their favourite “Great Hymns of the Faith” as being the target of Tozer’s criticism. Such hymns have become part of the movements’ identities. Such is the power of tradition. Fundamentalists criticise the worldliness of evangelicals who chase the latest popular musical styles (and rightly so); however, theirs is simply an older secularisation.
Unless we become reflective over quality and repudiate some of the shallow hymnody in our liturgy today, the inconsistency of our musical critiques will drown out any truth they might have. To denounce secularisation in Christian music today when the smell of the world is still very much lingering in our own liturgies all but robs us of authority to speak. Instead of merely nodding sagely at Tozer’s words, we need to understand they refer to us, and we need to repent.