Ain't It A Shame

I made a mistake the other day. It was while we were singing the hymn “In evil long I took delight…” by John Newton, the one with the chorus that begins “Oh, the Lamb!” I was just beginning to pick up the tune, with which I was unfamiliar, when I got to line three of the second verse. I stopped short, and didn’t start singing again until the third verse.

I saw One hanging on a tree

In agonies and blood,

Who fixed His languid eyes on me,

As near His cross I stood.

His what? His languid eyes? “Lacking in spirit or interest, listless, indifferent”? Surely not! Shades of Swinburne’s obnoxious “O pale Galilean”, or Holman Hunt’s regrettable portrait of our Lord with the doleful appearance and downcast gaze of a failed insurance salesman. Why would Newton write that?

However, when I got home and looked up the word “languid”, I found that there is - of course - a secondary, somewhat archaic, meaning: “faint from weakness or fatigue” - which is entirely appropriate in this context. Why did I doubt him?

Perhaps it was simply force of habit.

There are a number of modern hymns and choruses that make me fall silent while the rest of the congregation carry on regardless. They are so poor that I wonder why anyone in their right mind would choose them for inclusion in a hymn book. I won’t give you a list, since there are bound to be readers who will be mortally offended if they find one of their favourites in there.

Older hymns and choruses have had to stand the test of time, and so are less likely to be deserving of our displeasure. A hymn writer may have produced much that was mediocre, even if it was admired in its day - but now only his or her best efforts are remembered and given a place in collections of sacred songs. We can but hope that a good portion of Mission Praise will eventually be consigned to the dustbin of history - along with the Charismaniac elements in and the Preface to the otherwise admirable Redemption Hymnal.

Why, I wonder, do we put up with poor hymn writing? Is it because we read so little poetry for pleasure nowadays that our critical faculties are underdeveloped due to lack of exercise? Or is it because our theology is merely what we’ve managed to pick up on the fly from a bible study here and a sermon or two there? Or perhaps we’re just on autopilot when we’re singing, cruising through the verses, enjoying the contemporary feel of the melody and ignoring the foolishness of the words?

It seems to me that we often make unwarranted assumptions.

- That speaker was lively and engaging, and what he said seemed all right to me, and anyway, he wouldn’t have been invited to speak if he hadn’t been a fine fellow - and on first-name terms with that famous preacher, too...

- That hymn is just so encouragingly upbeat, it reminds me that everything is going to turn out all right, and we’re in it to win it… “an army bold, whose battlecry is love,/ reaching out to those in darkness…” Good ending, as well: “when with Christ WE stand in glory!” That’s us, eh? It’s like that David Bowie song, isn’t it? “We can be heroes…”

- That chorus about the “Refiner’s fire” certainly gives me a warm glow inside. How does it go? “Refiner’s fire, my heart’s one desire/ is to be holy,/ set apart for You, Lord;/ I choose to be holy…” How true those words are, even today, eh?

Oops, I seem to have suddenly alienated a good half of those reading this post.

Let’s hope they’ve calmed down in time for Part Two, when I will tell you of an interesting experiment that I carried out a number of years ago.

Meanwhile, if you are at all agitated, please fix your gaze on the photograph below, which will transform your mood in a matter of moments, leaving you in “calm of mind, all passion spent”, as the poet puts it.


Well, no, it won’t - but it’s a nice picture, though, isn’t it?

To be continued.