1970’s Hymnody

“Oh sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth!”
Psalm 96:1 (ESV)

In a moment of weakness during a worship service yesterday, my mind began to wonder, “were there any good hymns written in the 1960’s and 70’s?”  I’ve yet to find one.  Either the music conjures memories of a slightly out of tune six string, played real mellow while the people sang around a campfire, or the lyrics could have come from cutting room floor of a Simon and Garfunkel recording session.

I realize that broad, sweeping statements about an entire generation are unfair, and I try to avoid them.  Still, when it comes to the 60’s and 70’s, it’s too easy to get caught up in a love/hate attitude toward whatever might have come from that time period.

Sure, there were some good things that came from that period, but right now I am struggling to name one.  Images of polyester pant suits, wide ties, floral shirts, bell bottom pants, and disco haunt my recollections.  The cars of the seventies were, for the most part, forgettable – but they even managed to ruin the Mustang for an entire decade – yeesh.  The automobile and fashion industry seem to have rebounded, but our church music is still trying to recover from the damage done.

Just for example, here are a couple of songs to help illustrate my point.

There is the song, “We are God’s Children” which seems to start strong.  It’s Trinitarian.  The song presents a fairly well stated, and rhyming, understanding of ecclesiology. And while it falls into the trap of many contemporary hymns in trying to preach a sermon through song, it is not too heavy handed and overbearing.  But the song falls apart at the end.  The final stanza closes with, “we die alone, for on its own each ember loses fire: yet joined in one the flame burns on to give warmth and light, and to inspire.”  Erm, uh, what?!  Talk about getting blindsided.  Forget about Psalm 23 and the whole, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” stuff, apparently, “we die alone,” but our flame goes on…

Then consider the old campfire favorite, “They Will Know We are Christians by our Love.”  I don’t think this song was ever intended to be sung by Presbyterians, at a Presbytery Meeting, with Organ accompaniment.  That would be like asking Metallica to do a cover of the theme song to “Dora the Explorer;” it really doesn’t work.  Still, we all know and love the song, so let’s sing it, right.  But have you ever thought about the words.  In the third verse the song has us commit to “guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride.  Now, I have nothing against guarding the dignity of those around me, that is a praiseworthy cause.  We are created in the image of God, that image bearing comes with great dignity, and we should strive to honor our neighbor.  But don’t  ask me to save your pride.  Isn’t pride what got us into this fallen mess in the first place?  When we labor to build up our pride, our ego, our self-confidence, that’s when we begin to say, “I don’t really need God after all, I think I will manage just fine on my own.”  No, I don’t think I’ll be singing that one again.

Could it be that the music wars we struggle with in the church today are a result of really bad hymnody from 40 years ago?  I’m sure there will be those of you who disagree with me (that’s what the comment box is for), but give me an Ira Sankey, Fanny Crosby, or Horatio Spafford hymn any day.  If we sing our faith, then we must be very careful when we pick up our hymnals and sing along.  The words you sing will become ingrained into your theology, whether or not you recognize it.  So keep singing your praise to the Lord, and let me know if you find any good 1970’s hymns – I’d love to be proven wrong on this one.


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