I’m not much for praise songs. I have a friend who calls them ‘7-11’ songs: seven words you sing 11 times. I prefer the old hymns, so if it were up to me, we’d go to the early morning traditional service.
But it’s not up to me.
I was glad to see a couple old favorites in the program on Palm Sunday, and my daughter up front in the praise group, not realizing the history in the words she sang.
I know all four verses to “How Great Thou Art.” At times in my life when I’ve been afraid, I’ve sung that song aloud and found comfort. (I wonder what the other bums under the bridge were thinking.)
When we hit the chorus on Sunday — “Then sings my soul, my savior God to thee” — the words caught in my throat and my eyes grew cloudy.
But when we got to the end, the guitar player hit an unfamiliar chord, and the praise group repeated the last line in a praise-song kind of crescendo.
I don’t think Carl Gustav Bober, who penned the lyric, would have been impressed, nor the unknown author of the melody, a Swedish folk tune.
Later in the service it was Isaac Watts’ turn to have his hymn improved upon.
I was struck by the poetry of the original words: “When I survey the wondrous cross, On which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride.”
Isaac Watts wrote some 750 hymns, including “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed” and a little Christmas ditty you may know called “Joy to the World.”
Charles Wesley, no slouch at hymnody himself, said he would give up all his other hymns to have written “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”
I wasn’t as familiar with the next verse, which brought back the throat-catch and eye-fog: “See from His head, His hands, His feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down! Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, Or thorns compose so rich a crown?”
Unfortunately, they skipped the other verses so they could insert a chorus Isaac never wrote, with words far more pedestrian: “Oh the wonderful cross, Oh the wonderful cross, Bids me come and die and find, That I may truly live. Oh the wonderful cross, Oh the wonderful cross, All who gather here by grace. Draw near and bless your name.”
Michael W. Smith, a beloved and best-selling contemporary Christian musician, apparently thought he could make the song more accessible to the younger generation. Add a drum track, a synthesizer, some vocal riffs, and you’ve got a pop Christian hit, baby.
I’m sure he meant well, but intentions aside, messing with a masterpiece is the opposite of pouring contempt on one’s pride. It’s vanity unrestrained, like clearing up the mystery of Mona Lisa’s smile, or sprucing up the Golden Gate with a lime green coat of paint.
It’s also an insult to the kids. If you and I can appreciate the untainted original, why can’t they?
It seems to me that nothing we can say about that strange old Easter story wasn’t said with more conviction, poetry, and depth a hundred or a thousand years ago.
Easter is a mystery that the ancients’ words seem better suited to than ours. I don’t know if it ever happened, but I do believe there’s truth in that wondrous story of the cross — something about the way we treat what’s good and innocent, by stepping on it and grinding it into the ground with our heel.
We just can’t help ourselves, whether it’s a song or a soft drink. We always think we can improve upon the best.Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.