Choruses of Angels

I have a friend who’s a church organist. The other day she posted an article on Facebook listing 20 Hymns Your Kids Should Know, which suggested that certain religious classics aren’t heard all that much anymore, and which inspired this post.

As a practical matter, religious belief is useless to me. Religion still holds some interest as a cultural expression, however, and that’s a subject I have written about before. Modern translations of the Bible, which are intended to be truer to the original texts and more relevant to modern readers, have removed the poetry, the mystery—the very artistry—that used to be intrinsic to the Bible. Thus, a great deal of the Bible’s appeal is removed, too.

Church music been rendered similarly modern. Dragged to church one Sunday, I heard a band made up of church members clatter through their repertoire of Christian rock covers so poorly that it barely qualified as a joyful noise. But church music doesn’t just sound different than it used to—its depiction of the relationship between God and man is different, too. In a world where we can customize and personalize everything exactly the way we want it, religious belief and religious custom are not exempt. In a more democratic age, less comfortable with arbitrary authority, people want God to be less imposing: not so much the Lord Most High but a Kindly Sky Grandpa. And it’s not just that. Lots of modern religious music is concerned with how you fit God into your plans. More traditional music, especially the old hymns that are falling out of fashion, is concerned with the opposite: about how you fit into God’s plans.

The church I grew up in (which still stands today) was built in 1916, with three floors and a million steps—concrete ones outside and creaky wooden ones inside—and two tiny bathrooms for a congregation of over 1200. It was probably the first public place I ever visited, as a babe in arms. I was baptized there and confirmed there. It was, until I became a teenager and could extricate myself from the requirement of regular churchgoing, a significant site of my social life, second only to school. And it occurs to me that a number of my memories of the place have to do with those old hymns.

The church had a gigantic organ. If there were pipes, I never knew where they were, but whatever and wherever it was, the thing was loud. The organist, Mrs. Seaton, was a virtuoso, and way into playing it. Sometimes, when we reached the final verse of a particularly powerful closing hymn, she’d jump an octave as if she were summoning up a chorus of angels, thus bringing the service to a rousing conclusion. I knew enough about music to know I loved the way that sounded, although certain members of the congregation were not so impressed. “She plays like we’re in a rented cathedral,” one of them groused, although it’s not clear to me precisely what he meant.

When I was very little, we were EUBs (Evangelical United Brethren), but we became Methodists after the EUBs and the Methodists merged in 1968. And in church, we sang Old Hundred after the offertory, all the great carols at Christmas, and Protestantism’s greatest hits the rest of the year: “Come Thou Almighty King,” “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” “The Church’s One Foundation,” “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” “All Creatures of Our God and King,” “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and “Holy Holy Holy.” Writers of traditional hymnody intended their works to be an offering suitable to the Lord Most High. Such inspiration is where the melodies get their power and the lyrics get their punch: “Father all glorious / O’er all victorious / Come and reign over us / Ancient of days” or “Let every kind and every tribe / On this terrestrial ball / To Him all majesty ascribe / And crown Him Lord of all.”

Nobody writes like that anymore, and a lot of churches don’t sing like that anymore. Theological considerations aside, it seems like a net loss to the culture, when some of the most powerful and inventive music of the last 300 years is replaced by something more appealing to the palate but less nutritious to the soul.

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