Earlier today I clicked on a link to a post titled “Ten worst hymns of all time”. Despite the flippant title I expected to read something examining texts, vocalism, needs of communities, and musicality. Unfortunately I found the same list of popular tunes that I’ve read 100 times before, followed by reader comments lamenting the good ol’ days when we sand Gregorian chant and Holy God, We Praise Thy Name (which happens to be one of my favorite hymns, although people taking issue with awkward lyrics in modern songs shouldn’t then turn around and raise up a tune with the line ‘Lo! the apostolic train angel choirs above are raising’). I should be clear my beef here is more with the comments and the idea of picking out the “worst hymns” than it is with the actual list (although the inclusion of Pescador de Hombres offends me).
Judging by their comments most of the readers could be called “traditional” or “conservative” (yes, labels are odious, but sometimes they are necessary) , and it is no surprise that they don’t like the St Louis Jesuits, and they don’t have much use for Marty Haugen and David Haas, either. I have always argued that post-conciliar American liturgical music is a mixed bag, and that it is going to take sometime to separate the wheat from the chaff. But despite picking out a handful of bad couplets as evidence that these pieces are on shaky theological ground, it’s obvious that most of these people just don’t like that particular genre of eighth-notey, hyper-melodic, G or D major, Haugen/Haas style jams.
There are plenty of pieces in that genre for which I don’t care either. My issues with these lists (and I have read plenty, and they are almost always similar) is that rather than addressing particular shortcomings in a way that could be constructive, they self-righteously vent about how much they hate a song or how tired they are of it. It’s worth noting that One Bread, One Body has too many held notes and not enough internal rhythm, that I Am the Bread of Life has as wide a range as the National Anthem, and that We Are Called would be much better in G. Pinpointing challenges in popular hymns helps us to be more prudent about their use (We Are Called only as a closing hymn rather than opening, One Bread One Body with an organist and singers capable of subdivision, I Am the Bread of Life in thick enough orchestration that people can switch octaves and not feel like they’re sticking out). But that’s not as much fun as being snarky.
The elephant in the room when we get kvetching about Here I Am, Lord, is that people really like that song. I know, some people really like smoking, too, even though it’s bad for them. But if something is a legitimate conduit of grace, we need to give some value to that. If we don’t, it means we don’t trust our fellow worshippers’ taste or spirituality. Almost every song on this list is deeply meaningful to many people, and none are so theologically or musically revolting that they are truly unacceptable for worship. Yet there are still scads of liturgists (and armchair liturgists) who see their role as protecting the people from themselves. I literally cannot find words to express how frustrated this makes me. If you do not value or trust your community you have no place leading it.
I often joke to my choirs that they make me like songs I don’t like, and they do this by filling them with life and art and prayer. There are a very few songs that are on my “absolutely not” list, and I’ll admit that it’s often more fun to criticize a piece I don’t like than to open myself to learning why it is meaningful to other people. Just because this is what I do for a living doesn’t mean I get to decide for everyone what their values should be. I can try to influence their taste and offer new examples of meaningful music, and I can make the best of the meaningful music that is not ideal. The people who worship beside me in any setting are my family in Christ, fellow heirs of the Reign of God. To love and listen to a community can be exhausting and aggravating, but I don’t do my job as a minister or a baptized person if I smugly blow off their consensus, experience, and wisdom.