But hymn writers need to be more than musicians. I would even say it is possible that one does not necessarily even need to be musically talented to be a good hymn writer. Though musicality is beneficial, I would argue that hymn writers need to be poetical rather than musical (though some would argue they are one in the same to some degree). But the point is that a hymn writer doesn't need to play piano or guitar or even sing well to write a good hymn.
Not only does one need to be poetical, but also vastly knowledgeable about God. This means that an understanding of sound theology and doctrine is crucial for the hymn writer. It is no surprise to me to see that almost every master hymn writer in the past was a pastor. Wesley, Watts, Newton, Doddridge, etc. Their main business was mining the depths of the gospel each week. To do so they had to be intimate with the Scriptures. As a result, not only were these men pastors worthy of emulation, they became the greatest hymn writers of the English language. Where are our pastor-hymn writers of today? There are exceptions to this however, in that there are many great hymn writers who were laymen. Anne Steele and William Cowper, for example. But only skim through their hymns and you will find that they are dripping with theology like honey from the comb.
The key is that a hymn writer needs to strive to become masterful in joining together truth with beauty. (A love for the people of God, I believe is quite necessary as well.) I like how Kevin Twit describes this melding of truth and beauty in hymns: "theology on fire". And it's in the church's best intrest to invest time, energy, and resources into developing and assisting her hymn writers.
Most of these thoughts were fueled by the following three articles. I happened to read them all within about a day of each other and I became greatly encouraged how each one seeks to support the hymn writer.
- First, Fernado Ortega recently wrote an excellent piece for the Rabbit Room called Avoiding Convenience: A Word to Hymn Writers.
"Let this be an encouragement to modern hymn writers—a cause for inspiration to those who are suffering from writer’s block. There are so many Biblical scenes to choose from that would make for beautiful songs: the transfiguration of Christ, the feeding of the five thousand, the woman at the well, the stoning of Stephen, water baptism, washing of the disciple’s feet, the betrayal of Judas. If just a few good modern hymn writers tackled some of these subjects, the anguish that untold thousands of music ministers suffer weekly could be greatly diminished.
It’s easy to write a chorus that says:
God, you are a Holy GodI absolutely love what he has to say. Though this kind of thing has been said before, it can never be said enough. Encouragement and advice like this needs to become as strong and steady as a pounding drum.
I need your grace to see me through
I need your mercy to make me new
Let me live each day for you.
I just made that up in two minutes and there’s nothing wrong with it. It might fit easily and competitively among the hundreds of worship songs that are available to choose from. But compare those lines to the third stanza from the above hymn:
Let holy charity mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing;
True lowliness of heart, which takes the humbler part,
And o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.
It took some real thought to craft those lines. They’re timeless. They set a standard for all of us who write music for the church. I didn’t set out to write a didactic piece. I’m reminding myself, too. Be specific when you write songs about God. Avoid cliché. Avoid convenience. Avoid an obsession with the consumer. Avoid the temptation to make commercial success your central goal. Write with intelligence, employing all the craft, skill, and experience with which God has endowed you."
- The second article that caught my eye is over at Cardiphonia. Bruce Benedict has been kind enough to share what he's been learning in his "Songwriting and Theology" class at Duke. I hope he takes good notes because I'm stealing them...
Songwriting and Theology Week 2 Paradoxes
These posts are great in and of themselves and Bruce links to some great thought provoking articles, but what really grabbed my attention was something his teacher said:
"The Church has no theological expectations of her musicians."This such a sad statement that at first I had a hard time agreeing with it. But after thinking about it and pondering the putrid wasteland of music that has been produced (and peddled, and packaged, and sold) by the American Church, I have to agree for the most part. It is certainly true that this is an accurate reflection of the status quo.
I would also take that expression and turn it on it's head a bit and say that, "The Church has no poetical or musical expectations of her pastors and theologians."
- Third, I came across this new blog by Sojourn Music songwriters Bobby and Kristen Gilles called My Song in the Night. It looks as if this entire blog will be highly beneficial the hymn writer.
"Helping you express words of worship and testimony through songs and stories."The article I specifically want to direct your attention to is one in their Songwriting section called Modern Hymns. They do an excellent job at laying out a very basic outline of the ins and outs of hymn writing. Just reading through this made me want to stop and find a pen and paper.
- Lastly, though I didn't just run across this, I do want to direct your attention to a post I put up a few years back called Towards a Better Hymnody. I link to a pamphlet that I think will continue to help us think soundly about our hymnody and our hymn writers. Also, as it was written more than 50 years ago, it lends to the idea that the church is always looking for better hymns and hymn writers.
I hope that these articles have motivated you like they have me. Let's keep the drum pounding. Let's keep spreading the word that the church is in great need of hymn writers.