Calvin Symposium Reflections, Part 1

Zac HicksUncategorized3 Comments

RESPONSE TO DAN SCHUTTE ON SONGWRITING

Last week, I attended one of the best worship conferences that is offered in the United States—the Calvin Symposium on Christian Worship.  It’s a multi-faceted, biblical, and ecumenical gathering, well-rounded with learning from the pragmatic to philosophical.

One of the great breakout sessions I was able to attend was “Modern Songs for Worship: Conversations with Five Composers.”  Each composer had something different to bring to the table, and I benefited from their insights and perspectives.  I especially appreciated the presence of Dan Schutte (author of many songs, including the now classic “Here I Am, Lord”), because he’s from outside the evangelical fold yet has much to speak into it (like Matt Maher, he’s a Roman Catholic contemporary songwriter).  I want to respond to one thing Schutte said, which touches on and challenges my passionate enterprise—the hymns movement.  The moderator posed the question to Schutte:

“What’s your perspective on taking old historical texts and setting them to new music?”

This was given in the context of Schutte’s presentation of one of his songs, which was an adaptation of a prayer of Ignatius of Loyola.  One would have expected a favorable response from Schutte.  However, he replied that one should be reticent and cautious in the employment of ancient texts for modern generations.  He believed that antiquated language would be a barrier to one’s understanding.  He commented, “They’re too abstract to us…What does it mean anymore?”

Point well-taken.  My thoughtful worship leader friend Mark Kodak and I have been perpetually ruminating on the missional impact of antiquated language and King James-ian English.  For instance, here’s an odd line from an old hymn by Thomas Haweis, reset by Indelible Grace and titled “Come and Welcome”:

Spread for thee the festal board
See with richest dainties stored
To thy Father’s bosom pressed
Yet again a child confessed
Never from His house to roam
Come and welcome, sinner, come

What in the world is a “festal board?”  Who sings about “dainties” anymore?  I don’t know about how I feel about singing the word “bosom.”  How do non-Christians feel about such lines?  Are they utterly repelled?  Are they prompted to investigate?  How do our Jesus-following worshippers connect with this language? 

I don’t know that I can answer these questions with hard evidence in a way that convinces.  But I’ll share my experiences in worship leading with such material.  I’ve noticed that when I’ve slammed KJV-song after KJV-song upon a congregation, it’s a bit overwhelming and they eventually seem to shut down because it’s too hard to keep the brain processors firing on such a high level.  So this is what I do:

  • I balance a worship service (or a series of services), making sure that there are some songs which have immediately apprehendable language
  • I attempt to creatively explain antiquated language in a song (a note/asterisk in the worship bulletin, or a verbal explanation), being sensitive to the “flow” of worship
  • I do the song repeatedly over the course of several weeks if it is new, giving it time to sink in, and giving people time to investigate toward deeper understanding

Schutte would probably claim that it’s just not worth it.  Why fight that battle?  I can think of a few reasons:

  • Christians need to remember that the Church universal is not only the Church across space but the church across time.  When we engage in older texts, we join hands with the saints of old, singing the songs they sang.
  • Christians need to perpetually challenge the “dumbing down” of cultural standards.  God calls us to integrity and beauty.  There is a strong pull in culture to slide off the hill of high standards, and that includes linguistic standards.  In an age when English-speakers are losing the breadth of the English language, it’s worth gently challenging culture to think differently.
  • I believe that using antiquated language, in our current context, is a missional enterprise.  In our postmodern, rootless milieu, I believe the trends are growing in favor of a desire for historical connectivity and tradition.  Many have waxed eloquent on this subject.  It seems that, because of the vacuum in culture, there is a longing in a person’s heart for something “older than me.”  The church can provide that.

As a final note, I can understand Schutte’s comments, especially when I think about the vantage point he’s coming from.  He’s encouraging Roman Catholicism to contemporize what has been perhaps stubbornly old.  He’s looking at it from an extremely “traditional” context, seeking to bring in ideas and expressions which are fresh.  While Roman Catholicism did go through a “contemporary worship” renewal in the 60s and 70s, the fresh wind did not utterly transform worship practice as it did for evangelical Protestantism.  So, for Schutte, perhaps antiquation is the missional problem rather than the missional solution, as it is for us evangelicals.    

3 Comments on “Calvin Symposium Reflections, Part 1”

  1. Zac, I kept seeing you on twitter at the symposium; sorry not to meet you in person!

    I appreciate your post above and think it is the right response… whether dense, theological texts or simple, repetitious texts, it’s not that we should do all of one or the other, but offer folks various means to connect with text or music.

    One thing I have done (that I didn’t hear suggested) is to take classic hymn texts with KJV-like English and paraphrase or contemporize them somewhat. I know that could be a dicey thing, but if we can do it with scripture, surely hymns aren’t off limits. I can see not doing that with the Lord’s Prayer or one of the ancient creeds – we want to say them the same wherever we go… but a hymn text might be more fair game.

    I’ve only done this once – paraphrased hymn text and contemporized the music… but I think it worked out well. I was trying to do a contemporized version of "And Can it Be" for youth group. At the time it was more of a teaching point than a musical effort, but I paraphrased the verses and simplified the melody somewhat… then left the chorus pretty much alone. It’s ended up working pretty well, so I’ve continued to use it. Here’s the first verse, as an example:

    v. 1 original
    And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?
    Died he for me, who caused his pain – for me, who caused his bitter death.

    v. 1 paraphrased
    How can it be that I would take interest in Jesus’ death?
    …even when he died for me – the one who put him there to die.

  2. Thanks, Robert. I agree with you that updating hymn language is a viable option and a worthy endeavor. With a beautiful and loose freedom, I’ve seen that done very well by Sojourn Music (http://www.sojournmusic.com), where they’ve re-fitted hymns by Isaac Watts on their latest album, Over the Grave.

    Sorry we didn’t get a chance to meet at the symposium. I’ve checked out your site already and will check out your post!

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