I have a troubled relationship with hymns. Growing up outside of the church, I never really had a positive perspective of what I perceived to be the church culture.
According to me, of course, church culture was defined by very few experiences with a very traditional, ‘stand up, sit down, kneel on the fold out knee rest, solemnly proceed to the front to receive your wine and cracker even if you have no idea who Jesus is or why you’re eating his blood and body’ type church.
This isn’t to say that the Spirit of God isn’t present in that kind of church, but to me, as an outsider, I certainly didn’t feel it or perceive it at all.
There would be a lot of songs interspersed throughout the service, which usually required us to stand. We always would have to stand for much longer than was comfortable – a threshold that was probably determined by me not caring much about what we were doing – and solemnly sing along with the two women in the balcony belting the hymns in a very unique key signature. It was, unfortunately, very rote and very lifeless. I understood nothing, and it didn’t lead me to any understanding.
In High School, the choir I was a member of would sing Christmas songs during the month of December (something that, in our society, mildly surprises me now that I know the meaning of the songs). Usually we did the Christmas classics, like Gloria In Excelsis Deo, Silent Night, and Angels We Have Heard On High. The fact that we were singing the songs with all the emphasis on the inflection, the dynamics, and the shape of our vowels, and no focus whatsoever on the meaning of the lyrics (whether they were in Latin or English) left the songs as a mechanical vocal display of skill.
That’s not the point of worship. But I suppose this wasn’t worship.
Hence, even when I hear “modern” renditions of classic Christmas songs and hymns, I hearken back to those memories. Most times it feels as though someone has taken that same uninspired performance of what was once a beautiful and meaningful song and added an electric guitar and some drums. I really don’t like it.
That is the exact reason why I fell in love with Page CXVI.
Tifah Phillips of Page CXVI talks in the video below about how members of an older congregation responded to their reinventions of classic hymns.
“What was really lovely was that these people at this church just came up to us and said how excited they were that the songs had been changed in a way that made them see them in a different light, or sing them in a different way, maybe got them to look at the lyrics in a new way.”
Our society likes to sing “Christmas Songs” out of cultural obligation, if we sing them at all. I remember seeing the Disney Sing Along Christmas Carols video as a child. I specifically remember the scene for Joy To The World, in which a bunch of dandelion-seed-looking things and a fairy go about adding ice to everything and then skating on it.
I literally did not understand that Joy To The World was about Jesus until this morning, when we sang it at church. I always remember the part about rocks, hills, and plains and thought it was about how the cold weather and the ice are really joyous because it’s pretty and snowy outside, and for some reason everyone is really happy about it.
We can sing the hymns all we want, but if we don’t actually explain to our children what they mean, you might find that a son or daughter thinks Silent Night is about sleeping in bed waiting for Santa to come. I am thankful for Page CXVI for intentionally and meaningfully approaching the hymns to make them into beautiful new creations, while thoughtfully pondering the words behind them.
Tifah Philips offers another perspective on hymns that I really enjoyed hearing.
Check out Page CXVI’s album Hymns on Spotify below.
Thanks for reading, and Merry Christmas!