Jumble sales of the apocalypse: Baffling hymns
Simon Jenkins on baffling hymns
This Christmas just gone, in the middle of singing one of the season’s best-loved carols, right in the middle of the line: ‘Lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb,’ I found myself wondering why we were all happily singing that God didn’t bear any grudges against the innards of a first-century Palestinian person who hadn’t had sex. I mean, I’m sure the womb in question was jolly relieved God didn’t abhor it (although possibly a bit puzzled about what it had done wrong) but it just seemed rather ding-dong-merrily-on-high for us all to be singing about it.
How do hymns get away with making us sing such baffling material on a Sunday morning, with hardly a murmur of protest over the post-service coffee? As we rise to sing, we seem to sleepwalk into a kind of hymn hypnosis, where ‘the things of earth grow strangely dim,’ as the old gospel chorus has it, and the sensible circuits of our brains are simply switched off.
Take ‘the Dracula hymn’, which is so Gothic and Transylvanian it’s easy to imagine a burst of hideous laughter at the end of verse one: ‘There is a fountain filled with blood, Drawn from Immanuel’s veins, And sinners plunged beneath that flood, Lose all their guilty stains.’ Just look around at your fellow worshippers as they cheerfully wade through this grisly scene, and amazingly no one is doing the equivalent of hiding behind the sofa as Christopher Lee emerges from a creaking coffin.
Theologians agree that hymn hypnosis can only be broken if someone makes a howling error. This happened rather spectacularly when David, a dear friend who is now in glory, announced the next hymn at a Baptist evening service. ‘We stand to sing,’ he intoned. ‘Break thou the Bread of Life, Dear Lord, to me; As Thou didst break the loaves, Beside the pee.’ It was such a lovely comedy moment, made all the sweeter because David had let himself down on the very final word of the announcement.
Some of my best-loved hymns ask questions to which the answer can only be a flat ‘no’. ‘And did those feet in ancient time, Walk upon England’s pastures green?’ No, they didn’t, because Jesus didn’t take his summer hols in Kent. ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’ Sorry, but no. It was a bit before my time. Other hymns ask questions which wouldn’t be out of place in a pub quiz. ‘How far is it to Bethlehem?’ asks the Christmas carol. ‘Um, try Google?’ is the answer that springs to mind. With just a few seconds of online research, the carol would discover that Bethlehem is about 2,249 miles from Piccadilly Circus.
An easy riposte to all of the above is that these hymns were written by Victorians, and before them, Georgians, who thought and spoke differently from us, and are now safely tucked up in their graves. Which is a fair point, until you remember the efforts of modern songwriters who are still with us. You only have to flip a few pages of today’s praise-u-tainment songbooks – such as Sounds of Flushing Waters, or Songs of Considerable Ghastliness – before you reach the ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ section. This includes songs which don’t need someone to mistakenly say, ‘beside the pee’, to reduce congregations to pant-wetting laughter, because reading out the actual lyrics do that on their own.
‘Jesus, take me as I am, I can come no other way,’ is just the beginning of a song which then gets worse. It could have had Mary Whitehouse taking out an injunction against the songwriter. Then there’s the alarming song which starts: ‘Lord you put a tongue in my mouth.’ It continues: ‘And I want to sing to you. Lord, You put some hands on my arms, Which I want to raise to You.’ Furtively looking around, you can see people anxiously scanning the remaining verses to check which other body parts might be singled out. Another modern song, ‘How He Loves’, has the once-heard-never-forgotten line: ‘So heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss’. Delightfully, the churches which most love getting men to sing ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ songs are the same ones which are most vocally anti-gay.
Hymns, ancient or modern, pious or peculiar, saccharine or seductive, often leave me asking questions, or else struggling to answer the strange questions they ask me. ‘Where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds?’ asks a revivalist hymn. If someone could supply me with a definite date for the apocalypse, I’ll get back to you on my expected location at that blessed time.
Simon Jenkins is Editor of shipoffools.com. His book, Jumble Sales of the Apocalypse, was published in 2017 by SPCK, priced £9.99
This article was published in the February 2018 edition of Reform