Unholy hymns?


Music Musings

By Dean McIntyre

Contemporary church musicians are experimenting with numerous hymn texts and songs, seeking to update some of the older hymns by “contemporizing” them in a more current musical style for instruments and voices that speak to young people today. This raises a number of questions, including “Is it legal?” and “Is it appropriate?”


Upon hearing some of these attempts at contemporizing, some may be moved to respond, “This is blasphemy!” or “This is sacrilegious!” I want to think more about each of these questions and responses. All of these were part of a recent discussion on MethodistMusicians Listserv, prompted by a music director who asked for opinions on her praise team’s taking the rock song Gimme Some Lovin’ and changing the words to Gimme God’s Lovin’.


Musicians, singers and congregations alter copyrighted lyrics all the time for worship. When the committee that considered Andrae Crouch’s Bless the Lord, O My Soul for The Faith We Sing, it requested permission to change “He has done great things” to “God has done great things.” The request was denied, so the choice was to put it in with the male-dominant language for God or to leave it out of the book. But whenever I lead this song, I encourage the people to sing, “God has done great things.” I do the same for others in The Faith We Sing, such as He (God) Who Began a Good Work in You. Some hymnals even recommend such alternatives at the bottom of the hymn. But in the Gimme God’s Lovin’ example, no changes have been written into the book, and no illegal copies of the change have been made.


I wonder how many copyrighted words were changed by Frank Sinatra in his concerts, recordings and TV specials that never brought even a single protest. I think we should be honest about this question and agree that our deep reverence for the copyright laws of the land are not the main issue here.

It is not enough to say, “This is inappropriate,” or “This is sacrilegious” or “This is blasphemy.” If that’s all you say, you’re not really making the point. You must be specific and clear about what is inappropriate, sacrilegious, or blasphemous about it. In the example, they changed “gimme some lovin’” to “gimme God’s lovin’” and kept the same music. What makes that change inappropriate, sacrilegious, or blasphemous... or whatever other bad quality you want to give it?


The church has always appropriated secular and popular songs for its use (although the Wesleys did not). It has done so throughout its history and in every land where it has gone. It has done so for many reasons, including: to keep worship in the language and culture of the people; to appeal to and to invite non-church people into faith and the life of the church; to forge a connection to young people; to make a connection with indigenous people; and there are others. If we allow these reasons as justification for the practice, how does “gimme God’s lovin’” differ? Or must we disallow the practice? What are the rules? Where is the boundary we must not cross?


Some may argue that changing “gimme some lovin’” to “gimme God’s lovin’” while keeping the same music does not remove the associations in the minds of the singers and hearers with the original secular song. This argument brings up a number of questions:


     While the associations may still be there, doesn’t the effort to redeem the secular by transforming it into explicitly sacred form and use more than make up for any residual associations with the secular?

     What about sacred songs written in a musical style indistinguishable from secular music and love songs — and there are thousands of examples and recordings. Two very tame examples from our hymnal come to mind: Spirit Song (347) and Bill Gaither’s There’s Something About that Name (171) — as well as numerous praise and worship songs and choruses. Does the musical style of these also inevitably cause undesirable associations in the minds of worshippers as they sing them, even though they have never been anything but sacred?

     Before their lives as sacred melodies, the Passion Chorale tune of O Sacred Head Now Wounded (UMH 286) and the Gift Of Love tune of The Gift of Love (UMH 408) were used with numerous love songs, secular lyrics and folk songs. Is there anything sacred or secular in these tunes? Do they retain any of their former associations? What’s the implication of an artist taking either of these tunes today and using it with really graphic love song lyrics?


There are those among us who are not pleased with the rise of contemporary musical styles in United Methodist worship today. It is a change that marks the decline in importance and use of the great, historic, traditional music of the church. The more we use contemporary music and contemporized traditional hymns, the less we use the music of our past. It means the exchange of pipe organs for guitars and drums, choirs for praise teams and soloists, music directors for worship leaders, and printed hymnals for screens. For many, this is a deeply felt and tragic loss. For others, it is a change in music and worship practice that they are unable to make. For some, it is a threat to their positions, livelihoods, and ministry.


It is inevitable that words such as legal, appropriate, sacrilegious, and blasphemous will be thrown about, as they have been for the past thirty years of the “Worship Wars.” The discussion that results is an important one for the church to have, and it will be had with passion. But let it also be had with reason and civility.


McIntyre (dmcintyre@gbod.org) is director of music resources for The United Methodist General Board of Discipleship. Copyright © 2006 Used by permission