Is Nothing Sacred? The Contemporary Practice of Revising Hymns

Is Nothing Sacred? The Contemporary Practice of Revising Hymns January 20, 2020

By Joshua R. Farris and S. Mark Hamilton

We recently finished reading our way through and conversing about an ancient meditation on God’s redemption of humanity. We’ve both read it before, several times in fact. It’s housed in a beautiful, slender volume—the kind that has that great old book smell and can profit the soul just by looking at it on the bookshelf.[1] Its foxed pages contain the kind of soul-food that nourishes ones enjoyment of God and provokes thoughts like, ‘In ancient forests…there are no atheists.’[2] So influential has this ancient work been throughout the centuries whence it first appeared, not to mention its rich influence on our own spiritual and intellectual formation (which are really one and the same thing, by the way), we have come to a recent and settled resolution. We will undertake to compose a chapter of our own—a summary of sorts—that we shall ensure the publisher incorporate into the pages of this great work at its next printing. This alone will ensure that future readers will as ably come to terms with its message as we have. Seriously, what would this work be to the next generation without the inclusion of our own?

Now, in the course of our conversation about this ancient work, we began talking about the twelve articles of the Apostolic tradition (i.e. the Apostles Creed). All told, we’ve either read it or heard it read thousands of times. But it was not until this most recent conversation that we were both struck by the fact that the Creed is missing so much great theological content—it’s been more than a millennia since it first appeared. So, in order that the church might finally and truly benefit from reading the Creed, we have also undertaken several important, albeit minor, revisions that we plan to henceforth incorporate into our teaching and writing. Just think how much the church will benefit from the reappearance of this ancient work with our new updates!

You don’t have to be a bibliophile or antiquarian to think that proposals such as these are singularly and utterly revolting! Even now, as we are editing this piece for publication—pausing to reflect on our own satire—our stomachs churn at the mere suggestion of doing violence to these sacred texts! If you find yourself similarly repulsed, fear not. You’re in good company. This is all a set up—a set up for considering some truly important questions.

Have you ever considered why it is that the intellectual integrity of our theological texts and our catholic symbols are so sacred to us, but the intellectual integrity of our historic Christian hymnody is not? Why is it simply unspeakable to suppose that anyone could justifiably weave his or her own work into the very work of an Edwards or an Anselm, or, far worse, even slightly augment the teaching of the apostles or Nicaea or Chalcedon? Why is this unthinkable, but no one seems to care in the least when a contemporary Christian musical “artist”, like Chris Tomlin, for example, injects their own words in the form of a (not always so) catchy chorus into the midst of hymns like John Newton’s “Amazing Grace?” At the risk of offending a whole bunch of Christians who love Chris Tomlin’s “version” of Newton’s hymn, we readily admit that for our part, it is a big deal; a huge deal, in fact.

Adding a (sometimes) catchy chorus to an ancient hymn is a fairly common evangelical practice these days. But have we honestly thought through the long-term implications of the Church’s continued validation of practices of this sort? Such thoughtlessness brings J. C. Ryle’s warning to mind, ‘Not thinking is one simple reason why thousands of souls are throw away forever into the lake of fire. Men will not consider, will not look ahead, will not look around them, will not reflect on the end of their present course, and the sure consequences of their present days, and wake up to find that they are damned for not thinking.’[3]

The last straw for us was this past Advent season. There we were, enjoying and proclaiming the Christological truths of the apostolic tradition, poetically arranged in Isaac Watt’s “Joy to the World,” (c. 1719) when all of a sudden, in between verses, the music takes an unforeseen (and frankly, pretty bad) turn. Discussing this (and other, similar) musical and lyrical turbulence after the service, we were unsurprised to find we both had quite similar reactions. We had both suddenly found ourselves transported, as it were, from enjoying God through the praise of Watt’s hymn to some sort of campfire sing-along as the congregation repetitively proclaimed the words: ‘and we sing, sing, sing, joy to the world!’ in between Watt’s original verses. Shocked by this sudden, lyric intrusion, we both went quiet until the music stopped. Shaking off the vestiges of frustration for the scandalizing of Watt’s poetic verse, the congregations took up singing Joseph Mohr’s “Silent Night” (c. 1818). All of a sudden, in utter, speechless astonishment, we both promptly stopped singing again as the congregation began to repeat the words (in crescendoing effect), ‘He came to save us, He came to save us, He came to save us, He came to save us.’ A single question henceforth dominated our minds: Is nothing sacred? At what point did all this become okay? Now, before you start thinking, ‘these guys are just over-the-top with their criticism’, we weren’t the only ones in the congregation with such thoughts. Shortly after we conferred with one another, others approached us—that glary-eyed, sucker-punched look on their faces—with questions about the musical violence they had just endured. ‘First, “Amazing Grace?” Now, “Joy to the World?” What’s next?!’ someone said.

Now, it’s easy to throw stones at something you don’t like. But, that’s not what is going on here. So, before you start thinking: ‘these guys have something against Chris Tomlin,’ we don’t. It’s not our fault that he made himself a target for this sort of criticism by choosing to corrupt with his own words what is, without doubt, one of Christendom’s most famous, oft sung, and content-rich hymns ever composed. (It’s worth mentioning that this isn’t the first time Tomlin has been criticized in this way. There are plenty of other Christian musical “artists” who are polluting the past in this way. Tomlin’s “version” of Amazing Grace simply represents one of the most egregious examples.

For those who remain still unaware (if that were even possible), we are criticizing Tomlin’s adaptation of John Newton’s hymn,Amazing Grace”, which Tomlin modernized by injecting it with a chorus that reads: ‘My chains are gone. I’ve been set free. My God, my Savior has ransomed me and like a flood, His mercy reigns. Amazing love. Amazing Grace.’ At this point, you might be asking yourself, “What’s the big deal? Are these words somehow inherently problematic?” The simple answer is: Of course not. All to the contrary, in fact. The imagery of chains being broken off (Psalm 107.13-16) and being set free should be a powerful one for Christians who reckon themselves once enslaved (Galatians 5.1). We should all want to affirm that God is the savior of his people and part of his work to bring about salvation is paying our ransom (Mark 10.45). None should doubt that this savior is a merciful king (Hebrews 4.16). So, if all these words ought to be so happily affirmed, then why not sing them? Here are some questions to help us think through whether we should resist this (sadly) growing trend.

What is this practice doing to our sense of history? Remember the revulsion you felt when we suggested doing the same thing with the Apostle’s Creed? It may not be too bold to say that if we continue to distance ourselves from the moorings of our Christian heritage in this way, there may actually come a day when whole waves of Christians start thinking that the church they go to now is the very first one! When you’ve met Christians who have been around a while and who either have no clue that Newton’s hymn has been co-opted by Tomlin, and still worse, have no clue who Newton even was, you might think we aren’t too far off from a future like that.

If such historical forgetfulness is a consequence of this practice, what will this practice do to our theology? “Amazing Grace” is a poetic masterpiece that communicates a theologically substantive message. Tomlin’s words, while true on their own, disrupt that theological flow of Newton’s authorial intent with a string of common church-speak. You know what we’re talking about. If you think about the works your singing, there seems to be a fairly consistent vocabulary that makes up the lyrical fabric of most Christian worship songs these days; words like ‘Glory,’ ‘Worship,’ ‘Me,’ ‘Love,’ ‘Lord,’ ‘Praise,’ ‘Cross,’ ‘Christ,’ ‘Great’, ‘Goodness’, and ‘Savior’—then there’s ‘reckless,’ but lets not go there.

For far too long now, contemporary Christian musical “artists” and worship leaders have been making withdrawals on the account of Christian hymnody (and making money off of it, of course, which is a whole other problem) without paying it back. Rather than adding a verse in keeping with the form and message of the hymn, building upon the foundation of their predecessor, these “artists” are inserting repetitious lyrical nonsense (not to mention bad music, sometimes) into poetic beauty, vainly thinking their own contribution could somehow improve the work of such original author’s as Newton or Watts. Call it updating, modernizing, or contemporizing, at some point, we must re-think the acceptability of this creative license.

Maybe you are sympathetic to our objection and think that there is some merit to letting sacred hymns (not to mention great masterpieces of theology like that ancient text we spoke about at the beginning of this piece) that have shaped our heritage remain as is. Whatever your disposition, we would ask you to consider: Is nothing sacred? Have you forgetten on whose theological shoulders you stand? If, after reading this, you think it’s fair game to take creative license with our cherished hymns, where does it stop?

[1] British novelist Arnold Bennett speaks at length about the unread value that a beautifully bound volume can provide the soul simply by sitting atop a shelf in Mental Efficiency, and Other Hints to Men and Women (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1913), ch. 3.

[2] Winifred Gallager, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life (New York: Penguin, 2009), p. 88.

[3] J.C. Ryle, Thoughts for Young Men (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2015), p. 18.

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