Last Friday, the worshiptogether.com blog gave away a beautiful re-tuning of the famous Wesley hymn, “And Can it Be.” Worshiptogether is the unifying umbrella-brand under which almost all the major heavy-hitters in mainstream modern worship reside. Besides the fact that this version of “And Can it Be” is very tasteful and inspiring (I’ve heard some that don’t quite hit the mark), there is a bigger story behind this track. It is a part of an entire album called Love Divine, scheduled for US release through EMI CMG on April 19, 2011, whose subtitle reads: “The Songs of Charles Wesley for Today’s Generation.”
Screeeeeeeeeeeeech! What? Folks, this is a big deal. Let me try to paint the picture for you (keep in mind that these are broad-brush generalizations). Contemporary worship, birthed in the 70s, matured in the 80s and 90s, and firmly established in the early 2000s, began as an anti-traditional movement. It emerged out of a youth culture that despised hardened religiosity and sought authentic, meaningful, intimate fellowship and relationship with Jesus. For this generation, the traditional hymns of the church were a chief illustration of the deadness they were reacting against. Contemporary worship was lyrically anti-traditional—texts were simple, not complex; forms were repetitive, not through-composed; subject-matter was intimate, not transcendent. It was musically anti-traditional—classical choirs and organ were out; pop bands were in.
This is not to say that the contemporary worship fully abandoned hymnody. They kept a few hymns. But they kept them on their terms. The evidence of this is found that for every contemporary worship “hymns” album out there, the same twenty or so hymns are being recycled (e.g. “How Great Thou Art,” “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” etc.), with very little awareness that the hundreds of years prior to but especially after the Protestant Reformation yielded a treasure trove of thousands upon thousands of verses of glorious ecclesiastical poetry (see, for example, the comments in my review of the iWorship hymns album). Some have asked me if I was excited to see Passion produce a hymns album (Hymns Ancient and Modern, 2004), and my response was, “a little.” It was encouraging, but it was still a rendering of the more popular hymns that betrayed a lack of true engagement of modern worship with the Christian hymn tradition.
But, in less than a month, the modern worship world will be treated to this track-listing, from these fairly well-known mainstream modern worship artists:
01) I Know That My Redeemer Lives – Tim Hughes (of “Here I Am to Worship”)
02) Rejoice The Lord Is King – John Ellis
03) And Can It Be – Jason Roy (of Building 429)
04) Jesus We Look To Thee – Kim Walker-Smith (of Jesus Culture)
05) Jesus Lover Of My Soul – Chris Eaton
06) Come Thou Long Expected Jesus – Brian Johnson
07) Praise The Lord Who Reigns Above – Leigh Nash (of Sixpence None the Richer)
08) Jesus The Name High Over All – Chris Quilala (of Jesus Culture)
09) O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing – Chris McClarney
10) Love Divine – Jenn Johnson (of Bethel Live)
11) Christ The Lord Is Risen Today – Aaron Keyes
12) Christ Whose Glory Fills The Skies – Mark Roach
13) O For A Heart To Praise my God – Brenton Brown (of “Hallelujah (Your Love is Amazing),” and a lot of others)
What is significant about this track-listing is that the songwriters who pulled these artists together (Chris Eaton and John Hartley) have drilled down deep into hymnody. They did some research. They were aware. They acknowledged that the texts written by Charles Wesley over two hundred years ago have lasting value for modern worship today. This album, from an historical standpoint in church music, is much more significant than Passion’s hymns album.
I have to believe that the influence of the hymns movement is coming of age. Something important has taken place. Modern worship is continuing to turn its head backward as it moves forward. I do not know how closely the tracks on Love Divine will stick to the original texts of Wesley. I do not know whether all the arrangements will be as appealing as the one I heard. But I have high hopes, and I look forward to hearing and reviewing this album, Lord-willing. I hope there will be more like it.
If this album intrigues you, there is a wonderful, lengthy description, with many helpful details, over at emusicwire.com.
Is it OK to disagree with your assessment of "And Can It Be?" I, too, am a huge fan of re-setting hymns (I think this is the term you are using in the posts I've read) and have come to love so many (including yours of "Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending") but I do think that sometimes the original melody shouldn't be improved upon and this is one of them. The original melody suits the lyrics so well that the amazing truths "amazing love, how can it be? that Thou my God shouldst die for me?" or how about I'm guessing new instrumentation could be helpful with all those rolling notes, but the version from Love Divine takes the unique quality of the song and makes it sound like a pretty generic pop worship song. WHY?!?!?
I'll look forward to checking out the rest of the album, though. Thanks for the heads up…
Thanks, Tamara. You can always disagree with me! I'll relate a second-hand story to you, though. Kevin Twit (founder of Indelible Grace) once shared a story in my presence of rubbing shoulders with Hughes Oliphant Old, a major guru in worship in general and reformed liturgics in particular. Dr. Old, as traditionalist as he is, thanks Kevin for re-setting "And Can it Be," not necessarily because the new setting was all that great but because the old setting was cumbersome and hard to sing. I side with Dr. Old on this. I think the melody breaks important normal rubrics for good congregational songwriting. One of those rubrics in my book is "no leaps that aren't intentional." Unfortunately, "And Can it Be" is fraught with leaps, because of its arpeggiations (for example) on "for o– my Go—d it fou—nd out me." A counter-example of an intentional, well-placed leap would be the ending octave leap of the verses to Joy to the World ("and wo–onders wonders of His love").
It's my opinion, though. You're right. "And Can it Be" is generic pop style. But that characterizes the whole genre. I'm just grateful that the genre is attempting to thoughtfully engage hymnody.
Thanks for your thoughts.
Thank you, Zac, for your thoughtful and instructive reply. It was very helpful for me. I join you in gratitude for the work being done (both inside and outside the "CCM industry") to re-set and re-introduce and re-affirm the hymns and anthems of our faith. Thank you for investing in the worship life of Christ's church!