A Window into Life in the Suburbs

"Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these." Luke 12:27 (NIV)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Justin Who? The Lost Art of Singing Hymns

It's probably a sign of impending old age setting in that I don't care much for contemporary pop music. Much of it I find dull, bland and soulless. And after a while your eyes start to bleed from all the latest perky young things doing their best to be more risque than their rivals. I realise that it's fashionable to make fun of the eighties but at least many of those who dominated the music scene at the time were actually talented. Even the 80s icon Michael Jackson had talent although I think he is rather overrated by his worshippers. So you can probably imagine how much I wanted to roll my eyes when the 9 year old told me a couple of weeks ago that she was officially into Justin Bieber and starts regurgitating... "Baby, baby..." in low tones.

Instead I remarked sagely that I hoped that she would learn to love other kinds of music.

I'd never even heard of Justin Bieber until about six months ago. And while I don't object to Justin Bieber's so-called squeaky clean image, I object to the commercialism driving his popularity that masquerades as musical talent. The girls think he's something of a heartthrob and I kind of get that. I went through a similar phase in my adolescence with a whole host of vocalists and bands. But one of the benefits of having piano lessons as a child is that you learn to appreciate all kinds of music, especially western classical music.

Throughout the years I've come to embrace the great truth that there is music and there is Music. In my twenties I took the egalitarian view of music. That somehow Michael Jackson, the musician, exists on the same plain as Beethoven. I was indoctrinted with the crazy tired post-modern mantra that there's no "better" just "different".
Is it possible to say with a straight face that Mozart is not better but just different from Justin Bieber? I am seriously doubtful that anyone in their right mind can make that argument without torturing the English language or any language for that better.

I don't doubt that there's a place for the Justin Biebers of this world and I suppose it may help some teenage girls get through the inevitable growing angst. Maybe it's just a phase that they go through and outgrow at some point in their lives. But it doesn't mean we have to be satisfied with mediocrity.

I've been reading a rather provocative book called Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns. Personally I can't see why it's provocative as the author makes a number of valid points. More than anything, it's helped me understand why kids today have trouble singing hymns. In just two generations, hymn singing has been relegated to the province of the geriatric, which is odd considering that I grew up singing hymns as a child and a mini-adult. I am not an Anglican like T. David Gordon so we're not of one mind as to what constitutes appropriate church music or how services should be conducted. But I have to agree that children today are so attached to their iPods, CD players, MP3 players that they don't really listen to or have to listen to anything outside of what they have on their iPod playlists.

When you and I were growing up we were exposed to a whole range of musical genres. In my case, I had piano lessons up to Grade 3 and was exposed to classical music by default. There were at least four people in the household I grew up in who played classical piano. My aunt, who lived with us loved Air Supply, Simon and Garfunkel and Johnny English. In the school bus I was exposed to the Bee Gees, Abba, and later Michael Jackson, Madonna, Aha, Wham, Duran Duran, Bananarama and other misc Stock, Aiken and Waterman pop hits. During our school music sessions, we sang folk songs from around the world and songs from musicals like The Sound of Music. School chapel sessions saw us singing "To God Be the Glory" and "What a Friend We Have in Jesus". My father liked his classical records, his Mantovani stuff, and his gospel music. I grew up watching Hollywood musicals which I love to this day. As I got older, I discovered Nat King Cole, Sinatra, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. On Sundays, I learnt to sing "Jesus Love Me", "Amazing Grace" and "He Lives".
With my particular upbringing, I learn to listen to a wide range of musical genres and so for me to switch from 18th century music to 80s pop music was fairly seamless as I was doing it as a matter of course. Although I will confess that I don't think of heavy metal as music.

The problem with the church is that we have allowed ourselves to buy into the notion that hymns are boring or outdated. We exacerbate the problem by having different types of services catering to different age groups and different "tastes". The good hymns are never outdated but what has changed is our general music literacy. Our children suffer from a lack of exposure to a wide variety of musical genres from a young age. If all that our children listen to are the Justin Biebers, Lady Gagas and what's number 1 on the billboard charts, that is all that they are going to know.

So why should we care about hymns?
I am not one of those who think that just because some thing is over a hundred years old that it is necessarily better. However, there are compelling reasons why certain hymns have stood the test of time. Those that have are better. Hymns are part of our Christian tradition... written by men and women who understood the great truths of the Christian faith and have written songs to celebrate them.
I think we lose something when we ignore some of these great songs of faith. Hymns aren't just about the music but words also. When we sing in church we are not singing to ourselves or even to each other, we are singing to God. Shouldn't we be singing the best words, the most accurate truths to the God of all creation?
I don't have a wholesale dislike of contemporary worship songs in fact, there are a number I'm particularly fond of. Nonetheless I don't want to sing them exclusively to the detriment of other good stuff.

If children can be trained to memorize Bible verses, they can definitely to be trained to sing hymns.
Starting in the home.

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