But Seriously Chris Tomlin, Good Hymns Don’t Need Your New Choruses

Repackaged hymns aren’t really hymns at all; they are contemporary songs with old words. The words are reworked, and the tunes intended for congregational singing, are made into commercially marketable products.

According to the CCLI database, “The Wonderful Cross” was written by Chris Tomlin, Isaac Watts, J.D. Walt, Jesse Reeves, and Lowell Mason. By doing so, Tomlin, Walt, and Reeves have hijacked Watts’ poetry (Mason composed the tune, HAMBURG), added a very minimal contribution of their own, copyrighted it, and have proceeded to financially benefit from it. Further, as they’re listed, it’s almost as if Tomlin is claiming Newton, Grant, and Watts were consenting partners in these new versions.

 

I’ve wanted to write about this phenomenon for a while, but thanks to a new post from the ubiquitous Babylon Bee, I’ve decided that today’s the day.

Not too many years ago, contemporary worship was constantly being derided a shallow, trite, and vapid. And it was. “Firm Foundation,” “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High,” “Shout to the Lord,” “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” and the like were theologically starving churches. Out of that dearth, the CW movement began to sense the discontented whispers and decided to adjust. One of the ways they did this was to use the riches found in the hymnal, and put their own spin on them.

I want to say that it is always better to sing “Be Thou My Vision” or “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” than commercial worship songs from practically any period. I’m happy that many started singing these words again.

But the problem is that these “rediscovered” hymns aren’t really hymns at all. They are contemporary songs with old words. That’s it. The reworking (“freshening up,” “repackaging,” whatever you’d like to call it) takes words and tunes written for congregational singing and makes them into a commercially marketable product.

The worst offender is the poster boy for saccharine worship, Chris Tomlin. To be fair, many others have committed the same crime, but he has been the most commercially successful hymn-pirate. He has been so successful, in fact, that if you were to ask a contemporary worship native to sing “Amazing Grace” or “O Worship the King,” you would probably hear Tomlin’s commercial version.

Tomlin’s signature is to take a few stanzas of a well-known hymn, and add his own refrain. This is not unheard of in traditional hymnody (think “Come, We that Love the Lord” turned into “We’re Marching to Zion”), but the way Tomlin et al. uses this form, it’s problematic, to say the least. Here are a few reasons why.

It Subverts

The most egregious example from Tomlin’s output is his destruction of Isaac Watts’ “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” He calls it “The Wonderful Cross,” but the three stanzas are completely Watts’.

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