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The custom and culture of praise

October 1995 | by Geoff Thomas

Contemporary evangelicalism is an infant phenomenon. It comes out of the charismatic renewal of the late sixties. It is scenic, proselytising, and in earnest. It believes the professing church’s ailment to be mild, basically caused by a number of bad attitudes. So it prescribes modest remedies -discovering positive feelings towards oneself, others and God.

It is strong in felt needs but weak in its grasp of the being of God because of theological ignorance. It is liberal rather than conservative. It looks at the churches and it judges that they must lack the Holy Spirit because of their insufficient organization, antiquated music, a one man ministry and inadequate techniques of communication. Its own services reflect its convictions-‘anything may happen, and usually does’. Their popularity has created a censorship of worship.

Those who argued for the viability of the old worship structures and hymns of faith were isolated and discounted. But modern evangelicalism is also inconsistent, and so cannot help displaying better scriptural attitudes and an awareness of the vitality of earlier praise.

This year 8,500 people responded to a request by BBC Radio 4 to send in their favourite hymns. The top ten were:

  1. Dear Lord and Father of mankind
  2. The Day Thou gavest Lord is ended
  3. How great thou art
  4. Abide with me
  5. Guide me O Thou great Jehovah
  6. Great is Thy faithfulness
  7. Praise my soul the King of heaven
  8. Love divine all loves excelling
  9. When I survey the wondrous cross
  10. Shine Jesus shine.

The old hymns live on because of their biblical realism. Their obituary notices have been written too soon.

John Fischer is a lecturer and musician who has a monthly column in an American trade publication called Contemporary Christian Music Magazine. In one of his columns during the past year he has written: ‘I’ve been spending some time with some of the grand old hymns of the faith lately. After a diet of more popular contemporary worship music, walking into one of these great hymns is like boarding the Queen Mary and setting out to sea after rowing around the harbour for some time in a one-man kayak.

“Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?”
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‘One sentiment in particular that I keep encountering in the old hymns (that has all but dropped out of the current scene) is the shock and gratitude of the guilty undeserving sinner who surprisingly finds himself a most unlikely recipient of the gift of God’s grace. As part of this revealing self-portrait, there seems to be no difficulty at all in his describing himself in the most incriminating way possible: “Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?” … That saved a wretch like me” … “Foul I to the fountain fly” … “The wonders of his glorious love And my own worthlessness” … “Depth of mercy! Can there be Mercy still reserved for me?” … “Out of my bondage sorrow and night” … “Show pity Lord; O Lord forgive, Let a repenting rebel live!”

‘You don’t hear much of that sinner-talk today from our music – or from our pulpits for that matter… Jesus dying for me these days is more like God getting a good deal rather than a sinner being redeemed. The cross is often used as proof of our worth, that is, God saw us as being so valuable that he sent Christ to die for us and considered the blood of his Son a reasonable price for what he was getting. We would indeed be hard-pressed to get an Isaac Watts or a Charles Wesley to swallow this perception.

‘When we write about loving God and being loved by him (which we do a lot of), our messages need to be bathed in the gospel. They need to echo the perspective of many of those age old hymns as theme songs of the undeserving, forgiven sinner. Otherwise the gospel will sound to this culture no different from any other love affair. We’ve merely fallen in love one more time, only this time it’s with Jesus. And to the person who finds nothing planning in that last sentence, I would suggest that perhaps it’s time to consider a nice long cruise on that gospel ship.’ On that vessel alone you will find spiritual songs about suffering, creation and a trembling hope, notably absent from those who paddle their one-man kayaks.

Cultural traditions deconstructed

Wall-projected music is especially popular with students; words are sung from a screen at the front of the audience. The rhythmic tunes, inevitably accompanied by guitars and drums, have uncomplicated harmonies. Why should this form of ‘Praise and Worship’ music have become popular in the last two decades? Dr Daryl Hart, the biographer of Dr Gresham Machen, and lecturer in church history at Westminster Seminary, has recently pinpointed its connection with the philosophy of deconstructionism. What is that system?

What meaning could the Civil War have for a child today?
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Every branch of education has been affected by an accusation that ‘Dead White European Males’ (DWEMs) – have dominated those particular disciplines. British history and English literature are considered of no special value to a child who happens to be growing up in these islands. In history why should children not learn skills rather than dead facts? In literature, the case is made for ‘relevance’: why force an inner-city child to appreciate Milton when East Enders more accurately describes his condition? Gone is the idea that children might be liberated by learning about things’ outside their own experience. What does Shakespeare have to offer a child on a housing estate with no job prospects? What meaning could the Battle of Hastings or the Civil War have for an Afro-Caribbean child in Brixton? Yet affluent ethnic minority families are sending their children to private schools to escape the patronizing State system.

All of the justifications for doing away with knowledge relied on one basic Marxist premise: that the passing on of culture was a kind of political coercion. By some perverse logic, we must incorporate new and alien cultures in their entirety, but could not be permitted to preserve our own.

‘Four words, three chords, two hours’

So Dr Daryl Hart has written this paper published on a number of electronic bulletin boards on the Internet. He comments on the disappearance of the hymn-book (an archetypal DWEM production): ‘Gone are the hymnals which keep the faithful in touch with previous generations of saints. They have been abandoned, in many cases, because they are filled with music and texts considered too boring, too doctrinal, too restrained’ and too male. So a generation of children has been disinherited. Once conservative evangelical churches adopted a set of assumptions about how God was to be praised, worship services were transformed overnight. We have unraveled in a moment what it had taken centuries to acquire: the body of praise from men and women filled with the Holy Spirit which enabled every Christian to participate in the life of the story of the people of God.

It is, of all people, evangelical Christians, championing the biblical beliefs of family life, male headship, the sinfulness of homosexual practice and absolute standards of truth and morality, who have succumbed to this kind of antiintellectualism and low view of history. It is they who are laying the axe to the church’s roots of praise. Loosened musical worship styles (‘four words, three chords and two hours’, Daryl Hart dubs them) are encouraged by an anti-elitism that questions whether anyone has a call from God to lead a congregation’s worship, and whether there are distinctions between good and bad, or what is appropriate and inappropriate.

Worship, we are told, is simply a reflection of socioeconomic status and culture. Gone is any conviction that one form of worship is better than another because it conforms to revealed truth, or the nature of the God to whom sinners are drawing near. Worship, like food or clothes, is thought to be merely a matter of taste.

The value of restraint, habit and form

These are Dr Hart’s observations: ‘This is remarkable for a Christian tradition which once found its identity in avoiding all forms of worldliness and which continues to rail against the products of Hollywood and the excesses of the popular music industry. What those evangelicals (who enjoy Praise and Worship more than the old hymns) share with academics (who prefer popular culture to Shakespeare) is an inability to see the value of restraint, habit and form. Those evangelicals and the academic left both believe that we need to be liberated from the past, from formalism and from existing structures, in order to come into a more intimate relationship with life or with the divine.’

Professor Hart concludes, ‘The triumph of Praise and Worship, like the ascendancy of Marxism in academy, is firmly rooted in our therapeutic culture. The most widely used reason for contemporary worship is that it is what the people want and what makes them feel good. Yet while evangelicals may have a large market share, their consumer satisfaction may also be low, especially if they deceive people into thinking they have “really worshipped God” when actually they have been worshipping their emotions.’

One can become too gloomy about this. The mid-1990s have been characterized by more individuals ditching that unstructured worship style. The sight of chaos can drive those who have the Spirit to find order. The spread of the Toronto Blessing has deflated the confidence of wiser worshippers who had been told, ‘Lo, he is here.’ Sooner or later the elect want the God who is not like themselves, a Messiah who does not want to appear on television chat shows. One is glad to read, ‘Cliff Richard says he is a Christian not because he thinks Christianity is “exciting” or “relevant” or “challenging”-or any of the touchy-feely reasons given for embracing “spirituality”-but because he believes it to be true’ (Telegraph, 18 June 1995).

The traditions of historic Christianity may have more appeal than we realize, especially to a generation that lacks traditions, but yearns for them