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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.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies 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. []