Joe Daniell, executive vice president of Vinings Bank, invited me to dine with him, Dr. Gerald Harris, former pastor of Eastside Baptist Church in Marietta and current editor of “The Christian Index,” and Roger Hines, a retired educator, a former legislator and a man with whom I am honored to share the editorial pages of the Marietta Daily Journal.
Over lunch, we discussed the current state of church music and the fear that our beloved old hymns may be going the way of the circuit-riding preacher as houses of worship struggle with how to be relevant with the MTV crowd of today.
It is a matter that bothers Dr. Harris a great deal. Needless to say, the respected theologian is not impressed with “modern” church music, featuring drums and guitars and repetitious phrases, which he likens to “chants.” He says, “Hymns have a theology. The words do matter.”
I admit that I enjoy the old hymns. Some of my fondest memories are the Sunday Night singings at the First Methodist Church in East Point as a lad when I was courting the future Woman Who Shares My Name. Willis Callaway was our song leader. He would ask for requests from the congregation and then we would all sing up a storm. In case you are wondering, Methodist can sing up a storm — or at least they could when Mr. Callaway was leading the singing.
Dr. Harris gave me a copy of an interview from the Christian Index with former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. Preserving the old hymns is a passion with him, too.
Incidentally, before being named attorney general in the George W. Bush Administration, Ashcroft served as U.S. senator from Missouri. While in the Senate, he was part of a barbershop quartet made up of Republican senators Trent Lott of Mississippi, Larry Craig of Idaho and a Democratic-leaning independent from Vermont, Jim Jeffords. They were known as “The Singing Senators.”
Maybe if we could get the current crowd to sing a little more and posture a little less, we could get something done in Washington. (“Hey, Sen. Cruz. This is Harry Reid. Patrick Leahy and I were wondering if you and Rand Paul would like to join us around the piano? We can sing a few hymns and then kick around some ideas on how to save the country, which is headed down the tubes.”)
Ashcroft says hymns “are full of significant theological content. They are beautifully worded in ways that somehow have been lost to modernity.” I agree. It is hard to hum the boom-boom stuff I hear coming out of modern worship services today. “Beautifully worded,” it is not. Loud, it is.
In an earlier time, Daniell was minister of music at the Powder Springs Baptist Church and had the wonderful idea of writing eight prominent political figures and asking them to tell him their favorite hymn — and why. All eight — Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, as well as Gov. Joe Frank Harris, then-Lt. Gov. Zell Miller, Georgia State Sen. and later Gov. Roy Barnes, and U.S. Sens. Sam Nunn and Mack Mattingly –— responded to his request.
Daniell showed me copies of the notes he had received. Not a form letter in the bunch. In fact, Carter’s comments were hand-written. To Reagan and Barnes, their hymn of choice was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”; for Bush, “The Navy Hymn.” Harris and Mattingly picked “Amazing Grace.” Nunn chose “The Church’s One Foundation”; Jimmy Carter, “Bless Be the Tie” and Zell Miller, “Faith of Our Fathers.”
Clearly, Mr. Daniell had touched something deep and meaningful in the lives of a group of powerful men who didn’t always agree politically but were unanimous in the impact a particular hymn had on their life.
I’m all for getting people into church and out into the world walking their talk any way possible. If it takes boom-boom music, so be it. However, may there always be a time and a place in the church for the beautiful old hymns.
Roger Hines, for one, is optimistic. He says, “If we hang on long enough, one day our traditional hymns may be considered ‘avant garde.’” That’s a good thought.
I left the luncheon humming “Beneath the Cross,” which happens to be my favorite hymn and grateful to have spent the time with these three men. Who knew Baptists could be so much fun? I need to get out more often.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org; at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139; online at dickyarbrough.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dickyarb