In 2009, former dean of Wheaton College Harold Best (Unceasing Worship) led a workshop at our church, Sojourn, in which he said,
“Art must serve the liturgy. This is a special calling in which art humbles itself and washes the feet of the savior and congregants to the extent that it becomes lost and the Word triumphs. This kind of art has to be simple, accessible. I used to cower at those words. I thought ‘Art can’t function that way — it’s crass; it’s commercialism.’ But I’ve learned to burn those idols.”
Although we admire the poetic skill of our greatest hymn writers, these writers modeled the restraint of which Best speaks. In the introduction to The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, Donald Davie writes,
“Watts and Wesley and Cowper, and others among the great hymn-writers, were themselves subtle and sophisticated men who applied themselves to perfect for their hymns a style that should not be subtle but plain – and this for the good reason that they wanted to speak plainly to plain men and women, to the unlettered but devout worshipers in the pews.”
Davie goes on to say “Indeed, one reason we know William Cowper to be such a great poet is that in other poems he himself achieves Miltonic and other splendors such as he denied himself when he was writing his Olney Hymns …. For these he chose to use the plain style …”
In an 1871 letter to a friend, Cowper himself writes, “I always write as smoothly as I can, but that I never did, never will, sacrifice the spirit or sense of a passage to the sound of it.” (taken from William Cowper: The Man of God’s Stamp, by George M. Ella).
- Heart Check: Do you care more about being seen as a skillful poet than about writing songs that people of many different levels of education, intelligence and background can all understand?
Thank you for reading our post. You can download our 4-song worship album “The Whole Big Story” for free in the top-right sidebar of this website. We’ve also heard from many churches who have enjoyed leading these songs in worship services. If you’d like to do so, download free chord sheets from the “Gilles Music” tab at the top of this page. And you can subscribe to this blog for free by clicking the RSS icon or signing up via email in the right-hand sidebar.
– Bobby & Kristen
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