A recent Sunday School lesson on the creation hymns found in our hymnal set me thinking about the theme of happiness that seems to run through almost all of our hymns. I am a rather passionate believer that our hymnals are the revealed words of God for our time. With the Bible a closed text, our hymnals provide space where modern day prophets can sing their praises of the Almighty as our ancestors did before us. There is little that separates the lines of Psalm 19’s glorious “The heavens tell out the glory of God” from Timothy Dudley-Smith’s beautiful affirmation that “the stars their Maker’s hand declare.”
The process by which a hymnal is created is surely also a template for how truth revealed to one can become truth revealed to many. A hymn begins with the inspiration of one person typically. There it lingers until set to a suitable tune although one is reminded how song writers would go to Fanny Crosby with their tunes and ask her to add the words. We are told that she would write the words and then tell the composer, “That’s what the music says.” However the words and music manage to come together, they then go into the world side-by-side to be tested for their “truthiness” by small groups and then larger groups. Eventually, after considerable vetting for wider use and once the hymn is seen to express a general truth, it makes its way into a hymnal .
But, if our hymnals are truly to fulfill their role as modern-day sacred texts, then they surely need to cover the gamut of our religious experience, as does the Bible, and not just speak to our happier moments. One thinks of the the “flowing water pure and clear” of St. Francis in his All Creatures of Oour God and King or “the sweet of the wet garden” in Eleanor Farjean’s much later hymn. Stuart Hine sings of the “brook” and the “gentle breeze” in his grand hymn How Great Thou Art. Nowhere is there any sense of polluted streams, destructive typhoon winds, or flooded fields and homes by rivers overwhelming with ice melt.
One sometimes feels that, unlike our Bibles, our hymnals are almost blind to the reality of our lives. Isaac Watts’ wonderful hymn about the power of God claims that “all that borrows life from Thee is ever in Thy care.” For those suffering from the devastation of a flood, an earthquake, a tsunami, a tornado those words can strike a discord. And his suggestion that the “clouds arise, and tempests blow” are “by order from Thy throne” are challenging words to those left destitute by a tempest.
And so it goes. Nowhere in my hymnal is there a single hymn that might be sung by a Florida orange grower whose entire crop and his accompanying living has been blighted by frost. What creation hymn does a farmer in Africa sing when confronted by a drought that has destroyed the local crop and starved the cattle? What hymn does the shrimper sing in Louisiana whose boat has just been driven miles inland by a Katrina? What hymn does one sing at a funeral for 230 earthquake victims in Italy? Does one really get up and sing along with Malthee Babcock that This is My Father’s World?
Our modern hymns have introduced some wonderful sentiments that would have been foreign to earlier generations and have enabled us to express wonder in new and different ways. Catherine Cameron’s lines that “we have conquered worlds undreamed of . . . and probed the secrets of the atom” is delightfully 20th century. And that wonderful chorus that “Our God is a Great God, He is bigger than a submarine” is surely a marvelous product of our times! But they are just another way of singing the praises of Almighty God.
Catherine Camerson does introduce a more somber note with her lines about the city “windows blank, unfeeling stare on cannoned streets below, where the lonely drift unnoticed in the city’s ebb and flow.” Yet it is clear that it is “they” of whom she speaks. It is not “us” who are lonely and lost. “We” are the happy ones called to serve “them.” In short, almost all our hymns are with few exceptions happy hymns. We sing of the goodness of God who has done all things right. We sing of all things that are “bright and beautiful” and of “green hills” far away not of the reality that confronts most of us.
Another interesting omission from our hymnals is any mention of the invisible biological world as opposed to the atoms of our physical world, which have now found their way into hymns. We know that today we are coated in a billion bacteria, more than we have cells in our body. We know that our guts are lined with millions more. Science has told us that these little creatures are responsible for digesting our food and protecting us from the lethal but equally invisible creatures out there that would cause our death. Yet there is no mention of these wonderful creations of the Almighty without whom our lives would not be possible. We sing not just of a quiet, peaceful happy world but one that is visible to the human eye.
It might be hard for us to imagine singing the praises of an Almighty who created bacteria but it surely not that hard for us to imagine singing lamentations to God in times of trouble. We have a book filled with cries to God:
“Lord, see how sorely distressed I am. My bowels writhe in anguish and my heart within me turns over . . . People have heard when I groan with no one to comfort me.”
These are words to which we can turn when like Job we feel that the universe has turned against us:
“Perish the day when I was born, and the night which said, ‘A boy is conceived.’ May that day turn to darkness, may God above not look for it, nor light of dawn shine on it.”
Do we not need words to sing when we are distressed. Words that like Tevye’s enable us for a moment to shake a fist at the heavens when all seems black. Even our Lord cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
The great Johan Sebastian Bach is instructive in this regard. As other musicologists more knowledgeable have noted, most music is written to sound beautiful. Our favorite hymns are without exception the one’s that sound wonderfully grand and inspiring and are singable — singable by us. Bach, on the other hand, believed that much in the world was ugly and that music should reflect this ugliness.
As the musicologist Richard Taruskin puts it magnificently: Bach’s “music was a medium of truth, not beauty, and the truth it served – Luther’s truth – was often bitter. Some of Bach’s most striking works were written to persuade us – no, reveal to us – that the world is filth and horror, that humans are helpless, that life is pain, and that reason is a snare.” To paraphrase: life is ugly, and you need ugly music to express it.
But Bach didn’t just conjure the ugly truth through sophisticated, “wrong” compositional gambits; he also deliberately set his musicians up to fail. Taruskin gives as an example, the aria “Liebster Gott,” from BWV 179, where he pairs a boy soprano with two oboi da caccia (an ancestor of the English horn). Bach pushes his poor performers to the depths of their registers with notes so low that they would have been nearly impossible to sing correctly.
Not that people today would know this. Indeed, this piece is often performed now with modern English horns, which can handle the low stuff with intonational aplomb. The boy soprano of old is replaced in most modern performances with women, who can easily hit all the right notes. In other words, the intended effect of ugliness, struggle, and ultimately failure is lost in most modern performances. Instead, it is rendered prettily.1
One is hard pressed to find one example of Bach’s belief about music in our hymnals. But Bach demonstrates that we could have hymns, if we so chose, that reflect life as much of us find it and not the way we wish it was or imagine it will be like in heaven.
To take one small example, turn back to that great hymn by Cecil Alexander “All things bright and beautiful.” Sadly, not all of us are bright and most of us are beautiful only to our mothers. Consider then the spoof by the Monty Python gang. Their version reads:
All things dull and ugly All creatures short and squat All things rude and nasty The Lord God made the lot
Each little snake that poisons Each little wasp that stings He made their brutish venom He made their horrid wings
All things sick and cancerous All evil great and small All things foul and dangerous The Lord God made them all
Each nasty little hornet Each beastly little squid Who made the spiky urchin? Who made the sharks? He did
All things scabbed and ulcerous All pox both great and small Putrid, foul and gangrenous The Lord God made them all, Amen
Of course, the immediate reaction of many of us is that this is blasphemy. And yet, and yet, once one pauses to think this so-called spoof is a useful reminder that God really did make all of us. He is the God of all creation not just the pretty bits. Not all of us are Robert Redford or Sophia Loren. Some of are pretty short and others of us tend to the dull. We all know people who are rude and nasty and many of us have had a bout with cancer, diabetes or worse. Yet, as this spoof says with great truth: God made us, everyone.
God is present not just at the babbling brook or the dew stained green. He is not just with us in the red glow of the early morning or the golden glow of the setting sun. God is present at all times, in sickness, sorrow, health and disaster. Despite our difficulties in explaining to ourselves the meaning of and God’s relationship to the many horrors that confront us in life along with the great beauties, our Bibles are rich with affirmations of people who wrestled like Jacob with God in their times of need. If our hymnals are really to fulfill the role of sacred texts for our time then we need to look to our hymn writers for inspiring words to sing in times of trouble when we are struck by despair, sickness or depression, when we lose our jobs or a loved one. Can we find more than just happy hymns to fill our hymnals?