Clarity and Rich Dignity

Christ Driving the Money Changers out of the Temple. Valentin de Boulogne, c. 1618.

Christ Driving the Money Changers out of the Temple. Valentin de Boulogne, c. 1618.

Shane Lems argues that some contemporary Christian songs, being ambiguous and unclear, are unfit for public worship. He mentions ‘Draw Me Close’ as one. Just as I thought.

Those who belittle older hymns for being hard to understand and then effusively praise such contemporary hymns as ‘Draw Me Close’ have planks in their eyes. Those others who speak of consumer preferences, wrong-headed as they are (for God forbid that his temple, the praise of his people, be a house of merchandise!), and vigorously as I try to fight their philosophy, prove more honest as to their reasons for favouring one over the other: appetite, not reason, is the key to their support.

Irreverence is a thing to ponder with care, as John Calvin tells us (Institutes 3.20.31–32, qtd. by Coburn Freer, Music for a King: George Herbert’s Style and the Metrical Psalms (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972), 27):

It is fully evident that unless voice and song, if interposed in prayer, spring from deep feeling of heart, neither has any value or profit in the least with God. But they arouse his wrath against us if they come only from the tip of the lips and from the throat, seeing that this is to abuse his most holy name and to hold his majesty in derision. […] If the singing be tempered to that gravity which is fitting in the sight of God and the angels, it lends dignity and grace to sacred actions and has the greatest value in kindling our hearts to a true zeal and an eagerness to pray. Yet we should be very careful that our ears be not more attentive to the melody than our minds to the spiritual meaning of the words […] when this moderation is maintained, it is without any doubt a most holy and salutary practice. On the other hand, such songs as have been composed only for sweetness and delight of the ear are unbecoming to the majesty of the church and cannot but displease God to the highest degree.

The tickling and delight of the ear are often confused with the kindling of the heart, but the latter requires the mind to be attentive to meaning. The point of singing, moreover, is to inspire reverence, ‘[lending] dignity and grace to sacred actions’. To arouse enthusiasm without reverence is a vain exercise, to be abhorred by all worshippers. And what is it but God’s word alone, the truth of the gospel, that can inspire men to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth? No vain repetitions of ‘oh, how he loves us’ will do that.

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