Ashes to Ashes: Um, Praise Music

I hear from my young friends that there is a song abroad now, apparently widely sung, in which God is hailed as being “awesome.” Which of course He is. But a tussle in my own imagination presents itself upon hearing this title. On the one hand, I can only extol the ardor that marks the piety of the thousands of young Catholics and evangelicals who sing this song and others in this vein. Who will carp? In this epoch when great cumulonimbus clouds of hatred appear to be gathering against the Lord and His anointed, what Christian will decry wholehearted Christian devotion, no matter from what quarter? Great zeal for God arising from a generation that has grown up in the present decades is a phenomenon that should bring solace to the stuffiest of us.

On the other hand (readers will have seen this demurral coming), one finds oneself asking about the immense treasury of Christian hymnody, going back at least to A.D. 110, which appears to have been lost altogether to the Church. The great thing to be said about the current genre of “praise music,” we would be fervently assured, is that it expresses in popular language how contemporary believers feel about their experience of God. Perhaps feel and experience are the operative words there. And again, who will carp?

The word “awesome” is, I suppose, the fly in the ointment for the stuffy crowd (e.g., me): Everything is awesome now—Madonna, rappers, the TV series 24, Tommy Hilfiger, Tom Cruise, and so forth.

But of course Christian believers of every stripe owe everything—the Church, Sacred Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Faith itself—to the apostles, the Fathers, the doctors, and the whole train of the faithful who have passed it all along. Hymnody is part of that patrimony. To be sure, the “awesome” troops will correctly point out that this patrimony has never been ossified. Every century has added to it (I speak now of hymnody) in the language of that century.

Yes. But a highly qualified yes, surely? And perhaps we come to the point here. St. Joseph the Hymnographer (ninth century), Venantius Fortunatus (sixth century), Bernard of Cluny (twelfth century), and Peter Abelard (twelfth century), for example, all wrote hymns for their contemporaries. So did Martin Luther, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and William Cowper—all Protestants whose hymns are finally trickling into Catholic use. But the language of these hymns was never drawn from slang; and the sentiments adduced tended to draw us all away from the precincts of chit-chat into the courts where the seraphim sing.

Put it another way: There is something at work in worthy hymnody, if we consult the first 19 centuries, that arises neither from my current feelings about God nor from my daily chat. And beyond this, any era in the Church that has jettisoned the patrimony of hymnody that comes to it from its forebears has been impoverished.

This is a most difficult point to urge in our own time, when the breathless notion of “Now!” rules everyone’s sensibilities. If the touchstone of praise is to be how my generation feels, where does this locate us all in those courts? Is there nothing to be gained by my setting on one side my own language, priorities, agenda, fancies, and impulses, and approaching the courts of the Most High seeking all the assistance I can get from the venerable throng of the faithful who have offered worship to Him for eons? Have I nothing to learn? Is there nothing which might be ganz andere (wholly other) from my imagination, fed as it has been by very loud, ebullient, and contemporary music and texts?

We might, for a start, join the second-century Christians in singing, “Father, we thank thee who hast planted / Thy holy word within our hearts.”


  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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