I once heard David Gungor (of The Brilliance…fabulous) talk about his charismatic past meeting his liturgical present as coalescing around a “ninja liturgy”–a stealth liturgical narrative quietly creeping into and taking over the modern worship song set. I’ve been thinking more about this kind of subversion (especially as I’ve been writing The Worship Pastor), maybe arriving at the conclusion that it’s less subversion and more just great contextualization… re-gifting in the best possible light.
When it comes to worship songwriting, I’m grateful for our generation’s hymn-writers (I really believe something exciting is going on) who seem to be exhibiting a daring and risky backbone as they venture into some uncharted (or not recently charted) waters. I’m thinking of the Gungors, John Mark McMillan, David Crowder, Audrey Assad, etc., who are pressing beyond the (not all bad) standard fare of conventional modern worship songwriting.
Reimagining Latin Hymns
One songwriter, though, that may be flying more under our radar is John Mason Neale. We may not recognize his name, not because he hasn’t done great work for the church, but because we’re one year shy of his death-date 150 years ago (August 6, 1866). Neale was a 19th century hymn writer probably most famous for “O Come O Come, Emmanuel.” He was controversial and subversive as a songwriter because he was trying to re-give to the Church some old, forgotten, historic songs of her past. He dug up old Latin hymns and translated them into English. In fact in 1851, he published a collection of Medieval hymns, including “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (can you imagine Advent/Christmas without THAT?!?), whose Latin original is from the 12th century.
During Neale’s day, the Church of England was going through its “Anglo-Catholic” awakening. Many don’t realize this, but the fact that large swaths of the Anglican/Episcopal church “feel Catholic” is largely due to what happened in the 19th century in England in Neale’s day. The Anglican tradition didn’t always mirror Rome in its worship appearances/practices (at least it certainly did not begin that way under Thomas Cranmer). The 1800s saw a groundswell of folks desirous to get back to more “ancient” roots. There was a rediscovery of early church figures and writers and an unearthing of forgotten Medieval liturgies. And, for folks like Neale, there was a dusting off of forgotten hymnals as a handful of subversive songwriters dug up the Church’s old songs.
I really think I know what Neale felt like. In college, I remember being exposed for the first time to the Church’s rich hymn tradition. I was taken aback by how different these worship songs sounded from what I was used to. I started collecting old hymnals and pouring over what were for me “forgotten texts.” It was exhillarating. And it wasn’t before long that a compulsion developed in me to want to re-give these forgotten songs to the Church. (Hence, my albums…especially the first two.)
Songwriters: Keep the Dialogue Alive
Whatever we might say about the merits or demerits of the Anglo-Catholic movement, I think it was a great win for the Church that this time period saw a renaissance of regifting old hymns for new generations. Neale took all his training in Latin and, like a good missionary, translated and contextualized some long-forgotten hymns for his day and age.
Every generation of worship songwriting needs similar subversion–a bucking of trends, a shaking up of the status quo. My hope is that as songwriting becomes more central to the M.O. of the modern worship leader (a shift I’m grateful for), we will always stir the pot, mixing old with new. My dream is that worship songwriters will be in dialogue with old songs. Even if their call is not to re-gift old hymns to new generations, there is still something incredibly healthy about having hymns as conversation partners. They, like all thoughtful historical inquiry, expose blind spots and stir our creative and theological imaginations.
(If this is new to you, a great place to start would be to get your hands on a good [FREE] hymn collection like Gadsby’s Hymns, the hymns of Isaac Watts, or the hymns of Joseph Hart. I go back to these collections again and again, astounded at their wisdom and beauty.)