Good Hymns, Bad Hymns

Two years ago, the USCCB released a document of revised guidelines for liturgical music titled “Sing to the Mountains” — er, “Lord.” In its 88 mostly tepid pages are found a meditation on the scriptural and theological foundations for the use of music in worship, notes particular to the celebration of special rites within the Mass, and handy tips for ordained and lay liturgical ministers, such as the suggestion that cantors “possess the ability for singing and a facility in correct pronunciation and diction.”

And, as with so many products of committee, its prescriptions perform a two-step waltz: leading with hard substance and following with squishy qualification. For instance, in liturgical settings the pipe organ is to be preferred — but cymbals, harps, lutes, and trumpets are good too… unless you want to strum guitars and beat drums, which are also okay, “according to longstanding local usage,” so long as they are “truly apt for sacred use.” Who decides what’s apt? We are not told. Maybe it’s something you only know when you see it.

Anyway, I come neither to praise nor to bury “Sing to the Lord,” but to consider one of the items over which it asserts oversight: that stock component of modern liturgy, the hymn. Specifically, I want to figure out what makes good hymns, and what makes bad.
In this area I’m an avowed moderate. Some Catholics argue strenuously that entire styles of music, or instruments, or languages, are in themselves unsuitable for liturgical use. But I’m not so absolutist. In this I might be mistaken — and I’ll get the emails to prove it — but regardless, right now I want to leave aside broad distinctions and look at hymns themselves. Why is it that some songs, as “Sing to the Lord” put it, add “greater depth to prayer, unity to the assembly, or dignity to the ritual,” whereas others just make you want to jam a key in your ears?
It can’t all be a matter of personal preference, can it? Then we’d all be adrift in a sea of relative tastes, beyond the help even of a USCCB document.
And I don’t think it all boils down to identifiable factors like creeping inclusive language, which can sap even good hymns of their poetry and scriptural fidelity; or to the proliferation of compositions seemingly designed not to be sung, and then artlessly performed using instruments and vocal inflections more suited to Open Mic Night than Holy Mass. So, as an admittedly average man in the pews with no special training, I examined what I thought were good and bad hymns and tried to come up with elements common to each. I found four.

1. Good hymns focus on God; bad hymns focus on the self.
One of my favorite English hymns is the old standby “Holy, Holy, Holy.” It’s both a theocentric and theological song, addressing God and invoking Him as Trinity, Pure Perfection, and First Cause of creation. To sing it is to make beautiful the doctrines of the Faith and, perhaps just as importantly, to put aside the self and dwell for a few moments on the divine nature.
All thy works shall praise thy name in earth and sky and sea.
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty,
God in three persons, blessed Trinity.
Contrast those lines with the insufferably solipsistic “Here I Am, Lord,” which, after first inviting us to sing as God in the first person (“I the Lord of sea and sky”), gets even worse, becoming celebration of the presumptive obedience of the congregation, dripping with mock humility.
Here I am, Lord; Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me
I will hold your people in my heart.
Bad hymns are egocentric, forever occupied with “I” and “we” — and not in a penitential way (“forgive me”) or in a cry of gratitude (“I thank you, Lord”), but rather with a vibe of self-congratulation. Here we are, Lord, doing your thing. Ain’t we special?

2. Good hymns use words and themes from Scripture or Tradition; bad hymns use words and themes from 1960s psychobabble.
Every good hymn doubles as a Bible lesson, or as an encapsulation of some patristic or otherwise traditional theme. Its author looks for inspiration to the Gospels or Psalms, or to the Church’s spiritual legacy. But this quality transcends “traditional” musical styles: One of the more rousing tunes from the folk-oriented Holy Is the Lord catalogue draws directly on Revelation 7 for its signature verse:
Salvation belongs to our God
Who sits upon the throne.
And unto the Lamb
Praise and glory, wisdom and thanks
Honor and power and strength
Be to our God, forever and ever.
In sharp contradistinction to these clear, powerful, God-breathed lyrical phrases are the words of bad hymns, drawn from Hallmark cards and Stuart Smalley skits, trading the real profundity of Christian mysteries for cheap slogans:
We come to share our story
We come to break the bread
We come to know our rising from the dead.
See, in this space, our fears and our dreamings . . .
Give us the courage to enter the song.

3. Good hymns treat transcendent concepts; bad hymns treat immanent concepts.
A good hymn, like good spirituality or theology, is marked by a tension between heaven and earth, by a both/and character that is at once richly temporal and richly eternal. Often it moves thematically from creation to heaven, from earthly to eschatological — as in “How Great Thou Art,” the verses of which begin with praise for the divine presence in the beauty of the world, progress to Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary, and conclude with a joyous anticipation of the Second Coming.
When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart!
Then I shall bow in humble adoration
And there proclaim, my God, how great Thou art!
But a bad hymn is liberation theology set to music: a celebration of the eschaton’s immanence. And guess what? We’re the ones gonna make it happen — whether it’s building the city of God, or bringing peace to the world:

Let peace begin with me,
let this be the moment now.
With every step I take,
Let this be my solemn vow:
To take each moment and live each moment
In peace eternally,
Let there be peace on Earth,
And let it begin with me.

4. Good hymns employ sacred diction; bad hymns employ vulgar diction.
I’m using the words “sacred” and “vulgar” in their root senses here: sacred as in “set apart,” and vulgar as in “popular” or “common.” This distinction is, of course, part and parcel of the wider battle over liturgical language; that is, whether it ought to be distinct from everyday diction, or reflective of it.
Bad hymns have us mouthing the same banal expressions we might use to greet the grocer, plead with our kids, or write a report for the boss. Like “God Made Us One Blood,” which keeps all firmly planted in the world:
We turn to you, God, with our thanks and our tears
For all of the families we’ve known through the years
The intimate networks on whom [sic] we depend
Of parent and partner and roommate and friend.
But good hymns fall into the “set apart” category. They pull us out of the common vocabulary and phraseology of home and work, of the sports pages and the eleven o’clock news, and elevate us to the plane of Thy and Thou,of Cherubim and Seraphim, of tricky-but-satisfying rhymes and anachronistic usages. This, of course, is one argument for using dead languages in liturgy — their very sounds and cadences serve to elevate and transport, independent of the words’ meanings. But English can do it, too. Would such a mouthful as this ever lead our attention to any place but the altar?
Holy Father, Holy Son,
Holy Spirit, Three we name Thee;
While in essence only One,
Undivided God we claim Thee;
And adoring bend the knee,
While we own the mystery.
Perhaps this element of diction is the central one. Documents like “Sing to the Lord” return always to the theme of aiding worshipers’ participation; hymns with sacred diction directly enhance our participation in the Sacrifice of the Mass by reminding us that, for a time, we have left the ordinary world behind, and entered into a holy presence where common words are inadequate.


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Todd M. Aglialoro is the acquisitions editor for Catholic Answers.

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