I listened to a number of CCM artists recently for an article I was writing for The Hymn, and what surprised me was how often they quoted the words of well-known hymns. Jars of Clay, Kirk Franklin, Selah, DC Talk, Newsboys, all slip easily from pop vernacular into the heightened language taken directly from Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley or Fanny Crosby.
At first, I found it odd, even though I knew the work of some of them. Where does this come from? Isn't the idea of “contemporary” music to be, well, contemporary? Aren't contemporary artists supposed to be exploring a contemporary language of worship along with the contemporary musical idiom they are exploring?
There's a cynical take on this. CCM artists are putting out hymn “product” In the same way that any commercial act will produce a Christmas album. Let's face it: Christmas piety sells. A Christian audience responds, at least in part, to the familiar cadences of traditional hymnody.
But the cynical take will only take us so far. For one thing, there is a huge segment of the Christian church for whom hymns have no nostalgic connection. They were raised on contemporary pop music on their car radio, CCM on their CD players, with praise and worship music forming a large part of their worship.
It could be partly the depth and resonance that history brings. The words of historic hymn writers have survived the test of time. If you want a quick lesson on what that test means, look at an old hymnal at the hundreds of hymns. They are full of words that you could never sing today without wincing, groaning or laughing out loud. The hymns that have survived this test offer more than re-assurance and stability. In fact they are as full of the recognition of uncertainty, struggle and pain as they are of steadfast assurance. What they do is to give us perspective on our own agonies, and let us know that others have faced them before us. The cloud of witnesses still bears witness.
But I think there remains a hunger that, successful as it is, contemporary music has not been able to satisfy. That is the hunger for common song - for lack of a better word, congregational song.
At the time I was listening to CCM artists, I watched the documentary “Bob Dylan: No Direction Home.” I was amazed to watch everyone singing. And not doing live karaoke during a concert, when the lead singer pointed the mike at the audience, but sitting around actually singing a song from beginning to end. It felt very much like a worship service, secular perhaps, but still able to inspire, encourage and offer vision for that generation.
And how strange it seemed, how anachronistic. I have little nostalgia for the supposed good-old days of the sixties, but I found it interesting that the generation noted for its activism on the public front was also active in its group singing. Could it be that the two are connected. Could it be that if we are spectators in our worship, we might be also be spectators in our lives?
Hymns continue to attract us with great power, whether we are ordinary singers, or performers. Even when the sound system has been switched off, and the spotlights packed away, we can still sing a hymn together. Hymn (like folk songs) depend, not on the personalities of performers, but on our ordinary voices to bring them to life. But once we do, they offer a unique power to transform.
What do you think?