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On hymns and the perils of tinkering with them

Gary Parrett, professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has written a helpful piece on worship music.  Parrett begins by lamenting the loss of “Ebenezer” from many contemporary versions of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”  The Robert Robinson hymn states, “Here I raise my Ebenezer…”  Recently, this line has been replaced by lines like “Hitherto thy love has blest me,” “Here by grace your love has brought me,” and “Here I raise to thee an altar.”  Why is Parrett bothered by these edits?  Parrett provides four reasons; here are two:

1) I protest on biblical grounds. Robinson’s choice of Ebenezer (which means “stone of help”) is a reference to 1 Samuel 7:12. After the Lord had given a great victory to Israel, “Samuel took a stone and … named it Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far has the Lord helped us.’ ”

This single word ushers the worshiper into both the biblical episode and the greater narrative of God’s redemptive dealings with his people. It points us, also, to Robinson’s dramatic conversion three years before he penned the hymn, inviting us to reflect upon our own stories and to remember God’s faithful dealings with us. By removing the word from the hymn, we likely remove it from believers’ vocabularies and from our treasury of spiritual resources.

2) I protest as a Christian educator. What we have in such revisions is the worst sort of accommodation, even contribution, to biblical illiteracy. Our faith is filled with names and terms that were unfamiliar to us when we joined the family—atonement, propitiation, Sabbath, Passover, Melchizedek. What are we to do with such terms? We teach! How difficult would it be to simply explain the reference to Ebenezer?

Parrett concludes by saying that we are for the most part “misguided” in our efforts to improve hymns (unless the line likens God’s loving action to a “wet sloppy kiss”—my thought, not Parrett’s).  This is not to say that the older hymns (and hymnists) were more spiritual than we are.  It is to suggest, however, that the old hymn writers (and this may sting a bit) knew their Bibles better than we do, believes Parrett.

What do you think? Is Parrett correct?

If interested, there are some great things happening with older, almost entirely forgotten hymns.  Consider what these groups are doing:

Indelible Grace Music-This group has sought to make the old hymns culturally attuned by rewriting the music.  Read more about them here.

Here is an example:

Red Mountain Music-Like Indelible Grace, they are reviving and reworking the music for older hymns.  You can read some of their philosophy here.

Sojourn Music-Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY has a similar ministry.  I have especially enjoyed their compilation of Isaac Watts hymns, Over the Grave.

Also, Stuart Townend is writing hymns that engage both the mind and heart. This gifted hymn writer’s hymns include “In Christ Alone,” “How Deep the Father’s Love,” and “The Power of the Cross.”

Author: Casey Shutt

View more articles by Casey Shutt.

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  • Sarah Montgomery

    Amen!
    I am teaching old hymns to a group of children at church on Sunday evenings. I recently shared “Come Thou Fount” with them. It was a wonderful opportunity to read the passage in I Samuel to them and to talk about the “Ebenezer.” I have spent a great deal of time meditating on this since then…considering what are the stones of remembering in my own redeemed life. One conclusion has been that the old hymns themselves are the stones…the best ones point to the Lord, my Help. These strong, serious words about the Great God – Creator, Father, Saviour, Comforter, just and mighty Judge – were poured over me for all the safe, happy years of my childhood. Today, they pop into my head at random moments when the lines are relevant…long after I have forgotten so many of the books I have read and sermons I have heard and the exact references for all those verses memorized. I would argue that the two most important things we could do for our children is to return to catechesis and to the singing of theologically sound hymns. It is not that the lyrics being written today are teaching things that are not true. (We had that with the flowery, sappy revivalist-period hymns.) It is that the hymns of today aren’t teaching anything at all. They focus on US, and how much He loves US, and how that makes US feel. Sometimes they are so vague that I stop and think about the artsy words on our screen, and they sound really nice, but I have absolutely no idea what they are really trying to say. We often sing them over and over again like some pagan mantra. Or when we do sing a good one, we leave out some of the richest verses. If we are singing worship and praise to our God, then I think perhaps our view of God is too small. Like catechesis, sound hymns can indoctrinate us as we “sing the faith into our hearts.” (I don’t know who first said this.) Then as we grow, perhaps we will come to know our Bibles better, too. A whole new era of great hymnody could be just around the corner!

  • http://www.jasonmdurham.com Jason Durham

    I am working on my first EP of reworking the old hymns with new music. I have heard hymns called “Theology on Fire”. I agree. I maintain lyrical integrity and consistency, but I do have fun with the melody line and music. Hey, it’s the artist in me!
    Blessings!

  • http://baptistmessenger.com/category/insight-network/insight-blog/ Casey Shutt

    Thanks for the comment Sarah. These older hymns (18th century, not “I have decided to follow Jesus” old) sweep the singer into a linear (not circular or aimless; in other words, there is a progression) narrative of God’s saving action upon the world. Like you say, they are God-centered, centering upon the work of God, first, and then grappling with the individual’s response. As for catechesis, Parrett has written some books that you may find of help: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Teaching-the-Faith-Forming-the-Faithful/Gary-A-Parrett/e/9780830825875; And there is the forthcoming book co-authored by J.I. Packer: http://www.amazon.com/Grounded-Gospel-Building-Believers-Old-Fashioned/dp/080106838X.

    Finally, there is this interview with Parrett and Packer that I linked a few weeks ago (http://baptistmessenger.com/catechesis-needed/).

  • http://baptistmessenger.com/category/insight-network/insight-blog/ Casey Shutt

    Jason, When some hear that these old hymns are being rewritten it sometimes causes unease. It is easy to forget that many of these hymns (Luther’s A Might Fortress, for example) were pegged to bar tunes. The same melodies that were aiding drunkenness were appropriated and made into worship songs. The music itself was redeemed!

    Is your music available online?

  • Paula Hayes

    I appreciate the old hymns and their stories, some of which I learned while a member of a church that took the time to teach what an ebenezer was before we sang the song. I also appreciate any of the newer songs that contain more than one verse with a chorus/refrain that is well-written and engages my mind more than my emotions. I feel cheated by the “feel good” songs and choruses that are so popular today. I need to sing songs that cause me to think about the words, to gain understanding about my relationship with God, and that don’t necessarily give me a “warm fuzzy” feeling while I sing it.

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