Remix, hymns, and theology

The songs we sing as we worship matter.

Photo by Alexander Wark on Unsplash

Sunday morning music can be uplifting, moving, theological, inspiring, and introspective. Music can set the mood, prepare the heart and mind for the sermon, and connect the singers to the practice and experience of worship.

Sunday morning services have a predictable rhythm: a song with an endless chorus followed by another. Most people sing along with the contemporary worship songs; the repetition sets their mind in a new space. The ones who don’t sing usually stand and read the words on the screen. Some raise their arms. Some dance. All good. Then there is a break for announcements and a prayer. Then another song – usually. Now and then, there is a song familiar to the older congregants. One Sunday not long ago, this happened in the church I attend. Mature voices began to sing louder at the familiar strains of a hymn, an old-school hymn rich in theology and nostalgia. The singers filled the room with their voices raised, anticipating the lessons within the original verses.

Suddenly, the congregation stopped singing, confused by words they didn’t recognize. Words devoid of depth centered experience on self instead of the Savior. In an attempt to remix the old, the arrangers changed more than lyrics; they changed the whole purpose of the song. The end result was disappointment for nearly everyone: the young because they did not know the hymn, and the mature because the hymn was stripped of its theology.

Contemporary worship music continues to evolve. From the pithy refrains of the 1970s Christian music has branched out, sometimes successfully capturing an essence of theology, must mostly falling back to familiar patterns of three chords, two verses, one bridge, and a chorus repeat that seems to go on endlessly. There are some excellent worship choruses out there and there are some terrible ones. Hymns represent another time and place in the history of the church, and like current choruses, some are magnificent and some are awful. Time has winnowed away the worst of them, and I suspect the same will happen to choruses eventually.

Some church goers complain that traditional hymns are too old fashioned for a modern congregation made up of millennial and Gen Z church goers. The prevailing thought seems to be that the under 40 demographic is not interested in the theological depth of the songs they sing, as long as they clap along or dance as they feel something in themselves, so the lyricists focus on emotional connection rather than the practice of proclaiming the gospel. I don’t agree with that mentality. I think nearly everyone is looking for both authenticity and spiritual depth as they worship.

Some writers try to remix the old hymns with new material to bridge the desires of generations. Sometimes it works. When Christ Tomlin added “my chains are gone” to “Amazing Grace,” he maintained the spirit of the original and honored its genesis. He was able to update the song without losing the power of the original text. Most often, however, the remix fails because the arrangers doesn’t pay sufficient attention to how the hymn came to be, what theological lesson it contains, or why the original lyrics have stood the test of time.

The Sunday when the congregation stopped singing, the confusion was clear. The hymn was “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” a hymn that was first published in a hymnal in 1758. The swell in voices surged as the congregation recognized this powerful song that looks to the Father, the source of all good things (James 1–every good and perfect gift), whose great love calls out to the wanderer with an invitation to an eternal home. The first verse complete, the congregation in unison breathed to begin the second, “Here I raise my Ebenezer…” But the on screen lyrics were changed.

And not just changed, but centered the attention of worship on the singer, not the Savior. No longer was the song about the mercy of a Holy God, but on how the blessings belonged to the self and how the self experienced God, not how the congregation worshiped Him with one voice. Consider the lyrics side-by-side:

In the notes about how the writer of the new sections came to remix the song, he explains that he was looking for some kind of transition from one song to the next. All well and good, but hardly takes into consideration the theology of the hymn. People have been writing transitions since song writing began, but they key to a successful transition is maintaining the integrity of the original. Not only did the transition ignore the purposeful theology of the original author’s words, but he turned the theology upside down and made it about the feelings of the fallen instead honoring the Holy one. I love a good remix; my dissertation promoted remix as a teaching tool. And Robinson’s lyrics have been altered many times. He originally wrote five verses, but most hymnals only contain three. But any other revision I found maintained the integrity of Robinson’s purpose. This version, however, cheapens the theology of Robinson’s words.

For example, “Here I raise my Ebenezer, here by they great help I’ve come.”

The reference comes from 1 Samuel 7, when God routed the Philistines after Samuel’s prayer. Twenty years before this battle, the Philistines had defeated the Israelites who had fallen from the Lord under the ungodly leadership of Eli. Eli’s sons were among the 4,000 Israelites who died in that attack. Worse still, the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philistines and carried away. Eli himself died when he heard of the loss: the battle, his sons, but mostly the Ark. The Philistines didn’t keep the Ark long. 1 Samuel 6 describes all the trouble that came upon them while they had it and they returned it in seven months, where it was sent to Abinadab’s house for safe keeping. For the next 20 years, the Israelites assumed that they had the Ark, so they had God. They, as humans are prone to do, began to follow their own wisdom and sought cultural gods.

There’s no reason why given in Scripture, but after 2 years, the people began to long for the Lord. They went to Samuel who told them to purify themselves, throw away the gods they had collected, and to gather at Mizpah for judgment. They followed his instructions. When the Philistines heard the Israelites were all in one place, they set out to destroy them. The people looked to Samuel and begged him to intercede. Samuel offered a lamb as sacrifice and prayed that the Lord would prevail. Both the ESV and the CSB translations of 1 Samuel 7:10 say that the Lord THUNDERED with a mighty sound that confused the Philistines so that they were defeated.

It is after this battle, where the people had repented, obeyed, sacrificed, and prayed before the battle even began that Samuel set up a large stone, calling it “אֶבֶן אֶבֶן הָעֶזֶר,” (‘eben ha’ezer), literally “stone of the help” so that the people might remember what happened there.

Robinson’s lyrics are those of praise to the abundant and overflowing grace and mercy of God. Like the Israelites of old, he recognized that anything of value, including his own life, was only by the help of God, and it is to God alone that he draws attention for the sake of praising Him, His sovereign grace, and His goodness. There is nothing self-centered beyond the desire to be sealed for heaven and bound to God’s goodness through the precious blood of Jesus.

When we diminish the old hymns to make them more palatable or easy to understand by a generation that hasn’t been taught the whole Word of God, we miss an opportunity to draw them deeper into relationship with Christ. How? By showing them Christ in the Old Testament stories as described in the hymns.

This particular verse is a good example of how to do just that. The story of battles with the Philistines repeat themselves again and again. Like sin in our lives, the Philistines kept showing up. When the Israelites got complacent, that’s when the Philistines came to war. When we in our own lives get distracted, that when we are more prone to fall into sinful patterns we thought we had defeated. Samuel sacrificed a lamb on behalf of the Israelites once they declared their longing for the Lord. Jesus, the perfect Lamb, sacrificed Himself, even before we could express our longing for him. How much more should be rejoice that God not only saved us by the perfect Lamb, but that he sought us, not waiting for us to see our need for him as the Israelites had to do.

And that’s just one verse.

I understand that musical tastes change. I understand the desire to reach new generations by modernizing services. I understand the desire to update the old songs in an attempt to bridge the generation gap. So add guitar and drums. Add a new bridge or transition to blend the old with the new. But be careful to keep the depth of theology. Consider the context of the composition. Look at the Scriptural implications. Learn the story behind the words and connect the meaning to Jesus first.

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