“Everything old is new again.”
Like most familiar clichés, the notion that “what goes around, comes around” has the ring of truth. “The past is echoed in the future.” “We stand on the shoulders of giants.” “Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.” They all speak to the same principle. We are part of a vast continuum, rediscovering and reinterpreting the wisdom of the ages, making it new again for each generation and passing it along to the next.
Nowhere is that more true than in worship music. In an era of restless and relentless innovation, the songs we offer in praise to God have a way of returning to the tried and true, the style, and substance that has sustained the church since its inception. Jesus himself spoke to this reality in one his most familiar parables. New wine, he admonished, must be put in new wineskins. But less often quoted is the last verse of that passage, which reminds us “No man who drinks old wine desires the new. For he says, ‘the old is better’” (Luke 5:39).
Old and New
The dynamic balance between old and new has been brilliantly captured on Hymns for the Christian Life, the eagerly awaited new album from Keith and Kristyn Getty, the Irish husband and wife team of modern hymn writers and worship leaders. Drawing deeply from their Celtic musical heritage, with resonant echoes of American country traditions from their adopted home in Nashville, the dozen tracks of this remarkable collection showcase some of the most appealing and accessible music in the contemporary worship realm.
In partnership with their longtime collaborator Stuart Townend, Keith and Kristyn Getty bring to their endeavor a wealth of artistry and experience. They have been writing and performing on both sides of the Atlantic for well over a decade and are perhaps best known for their 2007 composition “In Christ Alone” (given a memorable new rendition on Hymns for the Christian Life courtesy of guest vocalist Alison Kraus). The soaring hymn is regularly performed in churches, cathedrals and concert halls around the world, and covered by artists ranging from the Newsboys to Ricky Skaggs; renowned Irish group Anuna to the electronic ensemble Owl City and beyond. “In Christ Alone,” has also been listed in CCLI’s Top Ten and been honored by, among others, the British Hymn Society.
Eschewing the conventional record label route, the couple have formed their own recording company, Getty Music, on which they have released a trio of acclaimed albums: In Christ Alone (2007), Awaken The Dawn (2009), and Joy: An Irish Christmas (2011). They have also toured extensively throughout Europe and America. Along the way, they have introduced resonant traditional elements to modern worship, creating what has been described as “singable theology.”
But it is more than simply the exuberant spirit of celebration and an emphasis on doctrinal depth that sets the music of the Getty’s apart. Simply put, they have succeeded in creating hymns that sound at once timely and timeless, bridging the divide between Gutenberg and Google and infusing the immediacy of the digital age with the meaning and majesty of hymnography’s rich legacy.
It’s hardly accidental that Keith and Kristyn Getty consider themselves first and foremost as writers of hymns. “I grew up in a Presbyterian church in the North of Ireland,” Keith explains, “where we sang more formal historical hymnody on Sunday mornings and more contemporary worship on Sunday evening. Later I became an Anglican for a few years and learned the beauty of the liturgy. If Steve Jobs was correct and creativity is a combination of our experiences, then mine was historic hymnody, contemporary worship, liturgy and Irish folk music.”
The cumulative effect of that experience led Getty to explore and evaluate the essential elements of worship, leading him to conclusions outside the conventional practice of much modern church music. One of the most surprising of those conclusions was the role that lyrics play in hymnody. “The approach we use is the story form,” he continues. “The gospel is primarily story. The challenge is how to take people who want a four-line worship song and get them to sing thirty-two lines. You do that by structuring a narrative.”
To accomplish this goal, the Gettys hearken back to ancient precedents. “The patterns of the hymns of the Old Testament, the Psalms, historic hymnody and liturgy are more substantial in their breadth and complexity. The quality of these lyrics is, for the most part, both richer in poetry and theological context, which naturally makes the effect deeper and more meaningful.”
The Deep Need
Part of the depth and meaning comes, of course, in the message itself. Here again, Getty has taken an approach based on enduring tradition. “It’s important to directly address the harrowing aspects of life, the things that don’t necessarily make us feel happy,” he asserts. “The core of Christian faith is not about happiness. It’s about acknowledging our need for a redeemer. The reason we worship is to meet God through the central story of the Cross. By the same token, we need laments. But it’s important to remember that a successful lament resolves, not into some happily-ever-after ending, but by acknowledging that God is God.”
This is an excerpt from the feature in Worship Leader’s October, 2012 issue. Subscribe today to read more articles like this one.