The Banality of Bad Hymns

The other day, somebody posted the above hymn on the Facebook group “I’m Fed Up With Bad Church Music”.  The posting prompted considerable debate about whether it was, in fact, a bad hymn.  My own initial reaction was, “Wow; that’s bad!”  My second reaction was, “Why am I so sure that this is bad?”

After all, it isn’t bad in the ways that hymns are usually bad.  It has a point.  It doesn’t wander from that point.  It uses consistent rhythm, rhyme, and meter.  Usually, that’s a recipe for a hymn that is at least mediocre.  However, I don’t feel like this one even makes it over the bar of mediocrity.  In fact, the word it brought to mind was “banal”, which the dictionary tells us means, “commonplace, trite”.  It’s simply too inelegant to work well as a hymn.  In particular, I think the problems are:

Its tone is too commonplace.  I’ve said before that I think hymns and poetry are discrete genres.  A hymn doesn’t function like a poem does.  Likewise, I’m not a fan of using “Thee” and “Thou” in modern hymns to “church ‘em up”.  I think archaic pronouns are fine in hymns from the KJV era, but now that modern Bible translations have gone away from them, modern hymns should too.  Otherwise, the hymn will sound unnatural.

However, there’s a Scylla to that Charybdis.  If an overly high tone doesn’t benefit a hymn, neither does an overly low one, and the lyrics above are informal to the point of being slangy.  The problem is first evident in the construction that begins the first three verses.  “Just” used as a synonym for “only” or “merely” makes for unlovely English.  I invest considerable effort in weeding it out from my writing (even in blog posts, which are less formal than hymns), but here it takes center stage.

Similarly, the hymn’s use of “don’t” is jarring.  Yes, “don’t” is perfectly acceptable conversational English, but as this blog post observes, such contractions shouldn’t appear in formal, serious writing.  If hymns don’t demand seriousness, what genre does?  In this case, they keep the hymn in which they appear from being taken seriously.

Its subject is too political.  “Thoughts and prayers” in the first line gives the game away.  It tells us that the author comes from the progressive end of the political spectrum, and that she writes to criticize the stereotypical conservative thoughts-and-prayers response to school shootings, at least in the first verse, maybe throughout.  This is an overtly political hymn.

I have massive problems with that.  First, it’s divisive.  If your church is one of the vanishingly small number of wholly progressive congregations, you can get away with singing this.  If I tried leading it in my congregation, it would produce a firestorm of outrage.  Some would agree; an awful lot wouldn’t.  In order for a hymn to be a good hymn, it must unite rather than divide.  It must speak for each worshiper in the assembly.  This one, by contrast, works to divide rather than to unite.

Second, I object to the passive-aggressive self-righteousness with which the hymn is written.  When the author says “we”, she doesn’t really mean “we”.  She doesn’t think she herself is guilty of this at all.  Instead, she means “you conservatives”, and people who criticize by saying “we” when they mean “you” remind me of Dolores Umbridge.  Likewise, a church that sings a hymn about other people’s spiritual problems reminds me of the Pharisee in Luke 18.

Third, it’s so political that its focus is necessarily unbiblical.  Certainly, there’s a list of Scriptures at the bottom that teach that we need to be doers of the word and not hearers only, but the author’s applications of the principle are foreign to the Bible.

Building community?  As far as I can tell, the authors of the New Testament cared about the community of the church, but they weren’t particularly concerned about the welfare of the secular communities in which they lived.  In fact, they spilled a lot of ink condemning those communities and predicting their imminent destruction.

Likewise, the line in the third verse about how we need to walk through our neighborhoods to learn their hopes and ease their pains is simply goofy.  I walk through my own neighborhood several times a week, and at most it produces surface interaction with decent, orderly people who want to be left alone.  Nobody has ever given me the opportunity to become a catalyst for social change, the fond imaginings of the author notwithstanding.

Generally, I’m a big fan of Christians putting their faith to work, but this ain’t it.

Its content is too diffuse.  It’s pretty clear what the author wants to say here.  It’s striking, however, how much time she spends failing to say it.   I think the problem is that although the hymn is moderately ambitious in a technical sense (even in long meter, rhyming every line requires some skill), the writer isn’t quite up to the task.

Exhibit A here is found in verse 1, line 2.  “Thoughts and prayers” is the keystone phrase of the hymn, but to hit the rhyme with “prayers”, she turns to “a faith that dares”.  That’s a four-word Rorschach blot of a line.  It sounds good, but it can mean whatever you want it to.  The rhyme is relatively smooth, but the content is nonexistent.

There are other similarly empty lines throughout the hymn, particularly “dream of what could be” in 2.1 and “seek to change our ways” in 2.3, and I think problems with rhyme are at work there too.  I suspect that in 2.2, the author was really determined to use “community” and hit it with the easiest rhyme she could, to the detriment of the rhyming line.  Also, “false displays” in 2.4 is clunky.  It’s not a phrase that occurs naturally in English.  I detect unhappiness with both sides of the rhyming pair there.

Overall, the piece generally lacks the vigor and forcefulness that are evident in a good hymn.  In every line of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, for instance, Isaac Watts uses his allotment of syllables to say something meaningful.  Its ideas remain fresh even after 300 years (I suppose that the writers of great hymns don’t have to worry too much about imitation).

This, by contrast, reminds me of the content of many contemporary praise songs.  Their authors are people who don’t know the Bible well enough to use it and who haven’t done a whole lot of deep independent thinking, so they naturally express themselves in Generic Contemporary Christian.  Throw in some oceans, some storms, and some teenage-crush imagery, and you’re good.

Here, though, the author isn’t writing in Generic Contemporary Christian.  She’s writing in Generic Contemporary Liberal (“peace and justice”, but not the peace of John 14:27 nor the justice of Ecclesiastes 12:14).  She’s using a different library of clichés, but the result is no less trite.  Is this trendy?  Sure.  The problem, though, is that a hymn based on current political discourse rather than the truths of Scripture won’t have any greater literary merit than the discourse does.

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