Heavenly Hymns

OK... I indulged my cynical side earlier in the week... And discovered an untapped reservoir of ire on the subject of hymns...

But in a spirit of contrition and in obedience to Paul in Philippians going on about "whatever is good... yada yada..." I thought I should also post a list of my twelve favourite hymns/songs... (Couldn't manage to thin it out to 10... I was actually doing it in my head while ploughing up and down a swimming pool and didn't want to waste any more time on it.) Doubtless some of these will appear on your most hated list, but that's the joy of variety... you can't all have taste (ps. have restricted my choices by a single writer to a maximum of 2):

12) Will you come and follow me (Bell and Maule): looks at discipleship as something challenging and with implications for how we deal with those in need.

11) Beauty for Brokenness (Graham Kendrick): one of the few songs to come out of the 1980s house church movement that genuinely wrestles with the issues of social justice.

10) O for a closer walk with God (William Cowper): a genuine expression of the ups and downs of Christian discipleship from someone who probably had clinical depression. Absent from our current hymnbook... after all, can't have a hymn expressing anything less than an onwards and upwards spirituality.

9) All I once held dear (Graham Kendrick): a straightforward paraphrase of Philippians 3: 7-11, but none the worse for that. Originally written specifically for Spring Harvest, but has outlived all the other ones written for the same event.

8) The Lord's my shepherd, I'll not want (Townend): the newer version, as I sing the version to Crimond far too often at funerals (although it still has a real spiritual resonance apart from that... and the fact that the first line suggests that I don't want to have anything to do with this shepherd God).

7) Christ's is the world in which we move (Bell and Maule): as per their other one, and, as with all their material, coming out of an authentic folk tradition. What other hymn deals with the same issues of raw pain?

6) In heavenly love abiding (Anna Laetitia Waring): Another hymn based on the 23rd Psalm. Although I often use this hymn as an illustration of churches who proudly sing that "nothing changes here" the confident assertion that God and his love for us doesn't change, enables us to face change and chaos in the outside world. (I prefer the newer tune in Let's Praise though).

5) Love Divine all loves excelling (Charles Wesley): Writing as he was at a decidedly unromantic period in British history, this (and other hymns like O love divine how sweet thou art, and Jesu, lover of my soul) was shockingly intimate language to talk about a relationship with God, unlike the pappy, self-absorbed "Jesus wrap your loving arms around me" type nonsense being churned out at the moment. For that reason, and because it is about the Holy Spirit's role in the perfection of holiness within us, this is a particular favourite.

4) Your Hand O God Has Guided (Getty): Prefer Keith's version than Plumptre's original (better tune), though I would prefer (and frequently do) add in some of the original verses rather than just the two that Keith uses. Felt I had to include one of Keith's hymns (although he apparently doesn't like this one)... him being a mate and all that... And would like to have included "In Christ alone", one of the many he has written with Stuart Townend, as that is what keeps him in the manner to which he has become accustomed, but for 2 reasons: 1) It's now overdone. 2) Have problems with the unalloyed buy-in to the substituionary/satisfaction theories of the atonement within it, although Shored fragments wrote an interesting piece on this subject just yesterday.

3) Be thou my Vision (tr. by Mary Byrne, versified by Eleanor Hull): What Irish hymn list would be complete without this. As with my "hated list" there are versions where a little more attention could be paid to scanning! And I prefer battle-shield to breast-plate... partly on a poetic basis, in that it is more evocative, and secondly on a historic basis in that ancient Irish warriors were relatively lightly armoured and didn't have "breastplates" on the whole. Will have to check which is the most accurate translation. Anyone know a good ancient Gaelic specialist?

2) Praise to the Lord the Almighty, the King of Creation (Neander et al): Not just picked because it was one of our wedding hymns, but picked as one of our wedding hymns because it was a favourite. Again have slight preferences re translation, but I won't fall ut with you whatever version you pick.

1) And can it be that I should gain (Charles Wesley): Almost the national anthem of Methodism (were Methodism a nation). I do have problems with the vigorous way we tend to sing the first verse, which should be a genuine expression of wonder that Christ could be bothered with me... Word to those who will outlive me... This MUST be one of my funeral hymns or I will come back to haunt you.

Look forward to reading alternate lists... Or your evisceration of mine...


whynotsmile said…
I was reading this and going 'What about And Can it Be? What about And Can It Be?!!!' and was pleased to find it at number 1. I will do my best to ensure that it's played at your funeral.

Don't know all the songs on the list, but generally good choices. I'm afraid I'm not with you on 'All I Once Held Dear', just because of the dragging tune...

Love Divine and Be Thou My Vision have to be on every list of favourite hymns ever.

Please explain more about your objctions to In Christ Alone? (not about it being overdone, I can see that, I mean your theological objctions).
Good morning... Just a quick dip in over coffee... Which probably means I won't do justice to the "In christ alone" question... But here goes... "The wrath of God was satisfied" is not only an awkward combination of 2 atonement theories (one of which "satisfaction" owes more to medieval chivalric honour than to the Bible), but, when taken on its own, is almost a perfect illustration of the exagerated "cosmic child abuse" mindset that Steve Chalk commented on in his "Lost Message of Jesus". As Shored Frangments suggests the wrath of God needs to be taken seriously (Wesley was insistent that we should flee it) but God deals with it himself... These semantic and theological qualms generally doesn't stop me from singing it lustily... particulalry the last verse! I have similar reservations with Townends other classic "How deep the Father's love" where he says "the Father turns his face away" which is reading more into Jesus' quote of Psalm 22 than I think is sustainable... Is his expression of rejection an objective or subjective reality? The Bible doesn't say, so I prefer not to explore such issues in congregational hymns. They are suitable questions for theological, poetic or dramatic musing but not for public affirmation in song (a lot of this really comes from bad preachiing on the atonement... taking one theory, usually penal substitution and making it the normative one, whereas all atonement theories simply serve to illustrate a particular dimension of God's work of atonement in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.) Anyway... back to work...
whynotsmile said…
This is how you spend your tea breaks? Man, I need to develop my work ethic...

I think I get what you're saying - I'm probably one of those people who doesn't think too deeply about the words, preferring to think that, although they are clearly making some kind of theological point, the writer also had to make sure the line fitted the tune and the beat, and that therefore there is probably not opportunity to explore things in terribly much depth.

Though I know the Wesleys used their hymns as a form of preaching, hence the more 'theological' bent to their songs (rather than the 'let's feel nice and fuzzy inside' approach of some more modern composers).

By the way, are you going to this Belfast District rally on Sunday night? If you are, I might introduce myself. Or I might not. Depends.
Difficulty is that my "tea-breaks" tend to leak into the rest of the morning...
David Powell said…
"The Father turns his face away .."

I do share uncertainties about the atonement language in Townend's famous song/hymn.

But I thought this particular line was quite brilliant, because of its ambiguity. Psalm 22 certainly came to mind; but you can also turn your head at something you can't bear to see. Whether or not it was deliberate, it's the latter image I carry when I hear (or, yes, sing) this. I believe Simon Townend worked very hard on the words to this. It's quite possible that he knew what he was doing here.

(I found your site because of someone else who had quoted a misuse of Waring's line "nothing changes here"!).
You are probably right regarding the ambiguity... The very best poets never tie up the loose ends... It's systematic theologians who try to do that!

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