It’s my take on the old saying: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (a description of Voltaire’s principle, often wrongly ascribed to Voltaire himself)
With a book I’m working through now, my attitude is: “I approve of what you say, but I regret like death the way you say it.”
This particular biography and appreciation of Isaac Watts is a strangely articulated celebration of the father of English hymnody. The author asserts – and I agree with him – that the church of the 21st century would be richer for knowing the hymns of Isaac Watts, and for writing new songs along the same principles. Amen! But I’m afraid the tone of critique, expressed in short tangents and off-hand comments, must surely put off the audience this author would most like to reach? Of what value is my appreciation for Isaac Watts if the way I present my case puts you on the defensive? For whom is the book actually written?
Far better, it seems to me, would be to present the case simply and forthrightly:
· Watts’s hymns are colorful, expressive, clear, and simple
· He wrote lyrics to be sung to tunes congregations could easily and heartily sing together
· He wrote directly out of his engagement with Holy Scripture, and the hymns are rich in biblical and theological references, allusions, and themes
· 300 years after his death, we are still singing many of his psalm settings and hymns; and we still have to reckon with Isaac Watts.
Therefore, we might go on to suggest, modern writers and composers of congregational songs would do well to study Watts—his work, his principles—and make them our own in appropriate and disciplined ways.
And may I learn, from this helpful but flawed book, how not to press my own concerns—in private and in public.