One of the more popular games in social media invites you to list and share the top 10 songs on your phone or listening device. Not surprisingly, a person’s playlist is usually predictive and reflective of their age, a snapshot of an era and season frozen in time by the chords and melodies of its music.
I’ve never played along, but only because I think people would laugh at my list – and at me.
My three brothers all had stereos and were drawn to various genres of rock – the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and Huey Lewis and the News, to name just a few favorite bands and artists. My sister’s bedroom wall was plastered with Duran Duran posters.
I loved hymns – but I was too embarrassed to admit it.
When a grade school music teacher asked us to bring in our favorite album, in an effort to save face, I appealed to my brother John for help, hoping I could fake my way through it.
I was quickly called up to the front of the classroom, and Mr. Kupferman asked me to tell the remarkable story of the upstart band Boston, the group whose vinyl record I was holding in my hands. The jig was up. I knew nothing about them – other than the fact my brother had practically worn out their first album listening to it. My fraud had been exposed. Choking back tears, I confessed my transgression.
Truth be told, I listened to more talk radio than hymns as a teenager. The advent of WFAN, the nation’s first all-sports station, was the emotional equivalent to me winning the lottery. It’s hard for today’s young people to believe this, but in the pre-Internet and pre-cable days, you had to wait to find out scores until the evening news or top of the hour radio reports. Stan Martin’s “20/20” sports updates delivered everything you needed to know every 20 minutes.
But the music that moved me back then – and still stirs my soul today – were the great hymns of the faith. As a boy, I loved to sing the popular favorites, including “Amazing Grace,” “All Creatures of Our God and King,” and a parochial school standard, “Hail Holy, Joseph Hail!” – a popular piece in our parish since we were taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph and pastored by a monsignor named Joseph Lawlor.
Why we’re drawn to different music is a subject that’s long fascinated me. It seems obvious that it’s partly attributable to an emotional component – memories and moments, maybe a certain summer at the beach or a first or second – or third – romantic crush.
Science suggests that listening to music results in the release of dopamine, the natural chemical that elicits emotional pleasure and feelings of satisfaction. So, the more the music satisfies, the more of it we want to hear.
Yet, it has to be more than the pleasure derived from a chemical bath of the brain that draws and feeds the $51.5 billion music industry in the U.S.
Why were all my friends drawn to Van Halen and Depeche Mode, while I gravitated to several hundred-year-old hymns?
To me, hymns have always cut the fog and confusion and provided answers to life’s most important questions. They tell a grand story, not only of what has been and what is – but what is coming someday soon. It’s the Bible set to music, often elegantly, creatively and in rhyme. I challenge anyone to top the lyrical heights of Matthew Bridges and Godfrey Thring, when they penned the words in the 1851 classic, 'Crown Him With Many Crowns': “Crown Him the Lord of years, the Potentate of time. Creator of the rolling spheres, Ineffably sublime.”
Like the words of both the Old and New Testaments, hymns remind me of what is possible today, despite all the seeming impossibilities of this very imperfect world.
My wife, Julie, on the other hand, finds hymns a bit too staid and static. When it comes to church music, she prefers more contemporary pieces and a steady rhythm of change. The differences in our musical tastes have been the source of some tension in our marriage, though usually in good fun.
Where I would be happy singing, “Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer,” week in and week out, she would probably lose her mind by the time the month was half up.
A classically trained oboist and someone who enjoys a broad spectrum of music, Julie once played in a concert with Rod Stewart at the LSU Assembly Center and has performed with numerous symphonies across the South. When it comes to music, I consider her a renaissance woman, a person who loves the bluegrass lilt of Allison Krauss as much as the colorful orchestral works of Claude Debussy.
Jim DeJarnette, a dear friend and our church’s minister of music, is a maestro of a million gifts. As director of “Big Blue,” our sanctuary choir, he’s composed over 500 hymns in his 35 plus years of music ministry. He says the rigor of the process to compose has constituted the most fulfilling Bible study of his life. That’s because each line is footnoted in order to make sure the lyrics are supported by the certainty of the scriptures. Even then, he’s not an absolutist when it comes to hymns and helped the church transition to a blended style of worship in the 1980s.
Musical taste is a subjective thing, of course, and differences of opinion over style have always existed, especially within the Christian Church. Sadly, the “worship wars” have split entire congregations, as members argue over the place of hymns versus praise choruses. But traditionalists like me who are drawn to the majesty of hymnology would be wise to remember the organ wasn’t even used in worship for the first thousand years after Jesus’ Resurrection and other instruments deemed standard today were once considered heretical.
It was the business guru Stephen Covey who once observed that “strength lies in differences, not in similarities,” and nowhere is this truer than in music, especially in Christian worship.
My friend Matt Holtzman, another minister at our church and a wildly talented musician, warns that “if we spend more time thinking about the way we worship than Who we worship, our hearts will be hijacked to a place they’re not meant to go.”
I think he’s right.
As a young boy, our church’s choir director was a diminutive Vietnamese refugee named Fr. Peter Van Nguyen. He was passionate about music and once showed up at our house at 10 p.m., banging on the door, and pleaded with my dad to join the church choir.
“You sing, Jim. You sing!” he said. “The world needs your voice!”
In fact, the world needs all our voices, young to old, high to low and everywhere in between.