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Volume 13, Issue 5: Musica

No Dead Wood

The Schulers

C.S. Lewis didn't like hymns. In a letter to the great hymnologist Eric Routley, Lewis said, "I know many of the congregation like singing hymns: but am not yet convinced that their enjoyment is of a spiritual kind. It may be: I don't know. To the minority, of whom I am one, the hymns are mostly the dead wood of the service."

In a later letter to Routley he said, "In modern England however, we can't sing—as the Welsh and Germans can. Also (a great pity, but a fact) the art of poetry has developed for two centuries in a private and subjective direction. That is why I find hymns `dead wood'. But I spoke only for myself and a few others. If an improved hymnody—or even the present hymnody—does edify other people, of course it is an elementary duty of charity and humility for me to submit. I have never spoken in public against the use of hymns: on the contrary I have often told `highbrow' converts that a humble acquiescence in anything that may edify their uneducated brethren (however frightful it seems to the educated `natural man') is the first lesson they must learn. The door is low and one must stoop to enter."1
Even Lewis' informal letters are so loaded that it will take me four separate articles to respond, and because Lewis is such a profound thinker, even when I think he is wrong on a particular subject, I am forced to consider his position, especially because there often is a good reason why he took that position. My foundational principle is that the Holy Spirit has not left the church comfortless. The Church has the best music ever written. Is it possible that in this particular area Lewis didn't know much? He said so himself in a discussion about hymns, "It is not for me to lay down laws, as I am only a layman, and I don't know much."
Why wouldn't he know much? I might suggest several possible reasons:(1) He wasn't interested in learning or didn't want to take the time;2 (2) He didn't find his local church musicians sufficiently trained to offer much direction; (3) He thought that church music was doomed to be a perpetual struggle between high-brow and low-brow interests and that the low-brows had to win. In response I would like to address three corresponding topics in my next three articles:(1) the responsibility of each layman to get himself educated; (2) the responsibility of the music director to educate him; and (3) the responsibility of the Church to establish a liturgical culture that flows out into all of society.
The foundation for analyzing these various topics is based on a biblical understanding of them. In biblical thinking, theology has a profound effect in sanctifying each area of life. Music should be no exception. I see a day when God will raise up a host of the best musicians, the people who could be on the concert stage or teaching in a university or conservatory. But these young musicians will have opportunities for full-time employment provided by the local churches. They will see as their life goal, not the self-glorification that musical performance sometimes provides, but the preservation and cultivation of the rich musical heritage God has given His church. Imagine having a local musician who could teach you how to sing to the best of your ability, who could teach the young people in the church how to sing and read music, who could provide you with the best hymns ever written from the whole history of the Church, not from one small window in it. Imagine people telling the soccer team coach that their children won't be able to make practice until music instruction is over for the day, instead of the other way around. Imagine children devoting as much attention to the musical praise of God as they do to learning math. It has happened before. It happened in the time of Martin Luther's children. That's the reason so many of the great musicians of the Church were German.
Imagine a worship service in which the congregation receives a newly composed hymn by their church's director of musical composition and everyone sings their part easily because they have been trained to read music with the same ease that they read the words of Scripture. This same congregation might have a hymnal with a thousand hymns and all the hymns would be sung, not the usual one or two hundred (or less) sung by most congregations, because the music didn't need to be learned by rote. They might even have several hymnals because a thousand hymns were not enough. It would only take one generation of covenantally minded Christians to change the Church musically. If everyone in a church taught their children to read music with the same passion that they teach other academic disciplines, this could happen in our churches.

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