Watch Your Mouth

I love old hymns. I love old hymn texts. I love traditional tunes. I love new tunes with old hymn texts.

New-Old hymns is one of our church plant’s Zags.

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Photo by Sara McAllister

But New-Old is part of our overall missional strategy. It’s not just about music. We want to be crusty-fresh. We aim for ancient-future. We want to be so traditional that it’s cutting edge. We want to be so different that you have to go back at least a couple hundred years to trace our vintage.

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When Matthew Smith posted his query to Facebook, he immediately got tons of curmudgeon-ified responses. They went something like this:

  • Let’s throw away Shakespeare, Chaucer, and the Holy Scripture, then, too, since no one talks like that anymore.
  • Why don’t we just swap out the thees and thous with emoticons?
  • Not singing things in ways that nobody talks anymore is chronological snobbery.
  • Unless something has stood the test of time, it’s not worth singing.

I think Mr Lewis should probably set us straight here.

[The New Testament] is sort of ‘basic’ Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language.

Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other. The Incarnation is in that sense, an incurably irreverent doctrine: Christianity, in that sense, an incurably irreverent religion.

In my reckoning, it is a good thing to pull confessions of faith from the 4th, 15th, and 16th centuries. It’s salutary to have a thick crust of thees and thous in our 18th- and 19-th Century hymns. It’s instructive to sprinkle our sermons with insights from people with names like Chrysostom and Basil. It’s a good kind of awkward to trace the work of God’s grace in the life of a polygamist from several millennia ago. These things remind us that we’re not making things up. They keep us cognizant of the fact that the gospel is vintage awesomeness.

BUT.

For every nod to the past, we need to give a super-obvious wink to the present.

For every tongue twister from the 17th Century, we ought to entangle our liturgy with some 21st-Century street slang.

For every carefully chosen archaism, we need to speak the truth in today’s vulgar.

Go ahead and sing some thees and thous. But never, NEVER plant a church in order to become a worship connoisseur or an archivist. Draw on ancient and early-modern sources to draw out the faith once delivered to the saints, never to draw our eyes from the object of our faith to the media that transmits it.

Watch your motives.

And watch your mouth.

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3 thoughts on “Watch Your Mouth

  1. I’m not averse to modernizing the texts if the archaic language gets in the way, provided it’s a song not many people know. It wouldn’t do, for example, to modernize “Amazing Grace” or a well-known Christmas carol, because the modernized language would be a distraction rather than a help. But if no one knows “If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee,” it might be better to use the modernized “If You Will Only Let God Guide You.” It’s a translation from the German, anyway: why not translate it into modern English?

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