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A potential danger in writing hymns in an age of mass media

nettletonhymns02There seem to be a lot of hymns being written today, and a lot of them are really pretty good. One of the reasons for that seems to be that pastors are beginning again to write hymn texts instead of just musicians or publishers.

There is one relevant potential pitfall into which hymn writers today could easily fall that I’d like to explore for a moment.

Before mass media, bad hymns died well. In other words, while certainly thousands upon thousands of hymns were written, only relatively few of the best survived. Those that were really not very good, well, died.

This is a strength of folk culture. By its very nature, folk culture is self-pruning; only that which is good endures. This is because folk culture, which existed before there was such a thing as mass media, was perpetuated either aurally or by hand. There was no such thing as printing presses, recording devices, broadcasting media, or the internet. Something that wasn’t very good didn’t last because no one wanted to take the time to copy something by hand or transmit it aurally if it wasn’t very good. This means that before mass media, things lasted because they were good. Even after the invention of the printing press, there was still a natural pruning for hymns since publishing a text in a book didn’t necessarily secure its eternal life.

Isaac Watts wrote something like 500+ hymn texts, and Charles Wesley reportedly wrote over 3, 500! Yet today we sing only a dozen or so of these men’s hymns. Is that because not all of them were really that good? Absolutely! I remember the first time I flipped through Isaac Watts’ The Psalms of David Imitated. There are some really awkward texts in there!

This all changes, though, now that we do have ways to distribute and store on a massive scale. A hymn writer can write texts, post them online, have them recorded, etc., and they live forever whether or not they are worthy. As I said, it wasn’t so much the printing press that changed things. But with audio recordings and especially the internet, it seams like everything lives forever!

With mass media today, there is no natural pruning process. Everything lives on. And what’s worse, as hymnologist Eric Routley notes, Christians for some reason seem to want to preserve everything they produce:

But the church has a disastrous
squirrel-like propensity for hoarding. Everything that has been put to sacred use must be
preserved; to throw it away seems to be sacrilege. So music whose proper office is to be
here today and gone tomorrow . . . is hoarded and subjected to constant use for which its
strength is simply unequal.

But the church has a disastrous squirrel-like propensity for hoarding. Everything that has been put to sacred use must be preserved; to throw it away seems to be sacrilege. So music whose proper office is to be here today and gone tomorrow . . . is hoarded and subjected to constant use for which its strength is simply unequal.1

I think Routley is right. For some reason we Christians think that everything sacred we produce must be preserved forever. Perhaps the commercial nature of today’s Christian publishing has something to do with this, but there are certainly other factors involved.

So here’s the danger: hymn writers naturally want to promote every hymn they write. Watts and Wesley did the same thing; they published all of their texts in collections. So these modern hymn writers post their texts online or record them on albums. But then there is an assumption that everything that hymn writer produces is worthy, just because it’s been published, posted, or recorded.

The point is this: since with mass media there is no longer a natural pruning process, it is largely up to the hymn writers themselves to prune themselves.

Let’s use Watts as a rule of thumb (using Wesley would be unreasonable!). In an exceptional hymnal there are probably going to be 30-60 Watts hymns, so lets be generous and go with 60. If Watts wrote 500 hymns during his life, that means that (liberally) about 1 hymns in 8 might still be sung today by the most conservative of churches.

So here’s a challenge to hymn-writers since there is no longer a natural pruning process: for every 8 hymn texts that you write, you should only publish, promote, record, or post 1 of them. I don’t mean you shouldn’t put a hymn text online to get some feedback or whatever; that could very well be part of the pruning process. But for every 8 hymns that you think is a finished product, I would suggest that you should only publish 1. This goes for writers of tunes as well.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Routley, Twentieth Century Church Music, (New York: Oxford, 1971), p. 201. []

8 Responses to A potential danger in writing hymns in an age of mass media

  1. Not sure I agree with you here. Even if someone takes it upon themselves to release every hymn they write on the internet, that isn't all that different than Watts publishing his plethora of hymns in his own compiled book. As those who compiled hymnals subsequently aided in winnowing down which hymns were "good enough" to be sung, there are mechanisms developing even today to single out which hymns being written today will actually stand the test of time- and it generally has little to do with how much the author has made his work available or promoted himself. A congregation other than the authors may sing it, or it might be performed on a recording by someone other than the author. Perhaps the song is introduced at a conference and disseminated from there, or someone else highlights a specific offering on a blog or email.

    I guess I don't see the downside of releasing as much as one would feel comfortable- any more than authors of the past felt comfortable publishing their prose in collections.The pruning process may not look quite the same as it once did, but I don't think that means there isn't a similar effect out there.

  2. You mention Watts and Wesley. What about Fanny Crosby (Blessed Assurance) and Father Faber (Faith of Our Fathers)?

  3. Greg, I do think that recording and internet has changed the game quite a bit. For something to be published in a collection doesn't necessarily ensure its endurance. But when something gets on a recording, for instance, and people are listening to it over and over in their homes and cars, they're going to get "hooked" on it whether or not it is really good. The same is true to a lesser extent with the internet.

    Bruce, I was just using Watts and Wesley as example of prolific hymn writers.

  4. But if you're talking publishing hymn texts online, few are going to be "hooked" as they might with a recording. And even there, the fact that something is recorded doesn't mean people are necessarily going to be "hooked"- or that if they are, that necessarily means that the hymn or song is good.

    You seem to be equating "availability" with endurance. But let's face it- you can access the plethora of (unfamiliar) hymns of Watts and Wesley in a number of internet locations. The fact that they are available doesn't mean that every song endured the same way "Joy To The World" or "And Can It Be" have. The fact that someone blogs every detail of their life online- which (we seem to presume) will "endure" long after that person dies doesn't mean that those words will endure the same way Calvin's Institutes have. There is still more to "enduring" than ongoing availability.

  5. One way to help winnow the not so good hymns out is to train our pastor's, music directors, choir members and musicians to read the "new" music critically. Are the hymns doctrinally sound and doctrinally strong? or is it "fluff?" I try to listen to a piece many times before making the decision to use it for special music, choir, or congregational singing.

  6. Scott,
    I admire your desire for getting better hymns pushed out into the churches. But, the same distributive forces which often enable broader and faster introduction of music into the world and the church are part of the same family of forces which help remove some of them. Repetition, through broad distribution, or increased periodicity does not guarantee mindless (or otherwise) acceptance.

    Case in point, I know of you, and of your thoughts through some of the same distribution means which you describe above–I have "heard" you many times, because of these modern distribution systems, and yet I still disagree with so much of what you write… :D


  7. I appreciate and agree with most of the comments above, but want to add another thought: I assume that Watts and the Wesleys, etc. published ALL their better songs knowing than only a few would endure, but greatly desiring that the Christian PUBLIC–rather than themselves– would do the final winnowing. I have hundreds of my "better" songs in file folders (thereby weeding out the ones that I believe will not endure) but am in the process of hopefully putting at least my best 100-200 on a website so that others can do the judging by the methods mentioned in the other posts. I'm afraid I disagree with the article's closing point, in that if Watts, the Wesleys, Fanny Crosby, P.P.Bliss, etc. had only submitted 1 out of 8 of their completed songs, we would probably be lacking some of our favorites today. It's all too subjective, and I suppose the Holy Spirit works in ways we wouldn't think of even in areas such as translations, adaptations, a song becoming popular with later generations, etc.

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