Friday, December 12, 2014

Book Review: The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts

If you peruse any of the hymbooks in use today, or glance at the author's name as you sing soild traditional hymns in church, one of the names you'll notice popping up regularly is Isaac Watts. Not knowing anything about him beyond his famous hymns, this little book appeared on Kindle for free back in the summer, so I bought it to discover more about the hymnwriter.

As the foreword puts it, in Christian history there are 'followers worthy to be followed' - godly men and women who should be imitated. The author, Douglas Bond, contends that Isaac Watts is such a follower, as they portray his life, his influences, and focus in on his hymnwriting. This is the focus because 'in a day where there is much shallowness in corporate worship, the church must recapture a high view of God that leads to transcendent worship. In the final analysis, it is theology that inevitably produces doxology.'

So why look at Isaac Watts? 'First, we need Watts' poetry in our lives... Second, we need Watts' voice in our worship... and Third, we need Watts' example as we live in our frailty.'

There was much that I learned about Watts. I had never realised he was a nonconformist, his father the pastor of Above Bar Church in Southampton (where David Jackman was pastor much more recently), refusing to take a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge in order to 'take his lot among the dissenters.' He began hymnwriting at the age of 16, when walking home from church one Sunday in 1690, referring to the 'ugly hymns' they had sung, and challenged by his father to 'give us something better.' What a challenge, and what a result!

The rest of the book takes the themes of some of the hymns he has written, including When I survey the wondrous cross; Joy to the world; Jesus shall reign where'er the sun; and O God our help in ages past.

Watts based many of his hymns on the Psalms, some of which we still sing. Yet there was always something I couldn't quite understand when we sung them in church. He seemed to introduce Jesus/the cross into the otherwise faithful Psalm paraphrase. Why did he do it? The author quotes Watts in his own words:

His defence of his method indicates that Watts wanted the Old Testament to be understood in light of its fulfillment in Christ: Where the Psalmist... speaks of the pardon of sin through the mercies of God, I have added the merits of a Saviour. Where he talks of sacrificing goats or bullocks, I rather choose to mention the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God. Where he promises abundance of wealth, honour, and long life, I have changed some of these typical blessings for grace, glory, and life eternal, which are brought to light by the Gospel, and promised in the New Testament. And I am fully satisfied, that more honour is done to our blessed Saviour by speaking his name, his graces, his actions, in his own language, according to the brighter discoveries he hath now made, than by going back again to the Jewish forms of worship, and the language of types and figures.

An interesting idea, which needs more thought, I reckon, and not entirely positively.

There was one little bit I didn't quite understand. The author appeared in one chapter to show that Watts refused to go up to Oxford and Cambridge, but in another chapter, reflecting on the irony that a textbook he wrote became the standard text at those institutions, 'institutions that refused to admit a Nonconformist such as Watts.' Both can't be the case!

Overall, this is a really good book. His life is detailed, and his hymns are explained with stories from his life. Those who enjoy hymns, theology or church history will particularly enjoy it. At times, though, there is a slight American bias to the writing and focus - in addressing his legacy in the 'New World' more than in his native England. It's also slightly disappointing to see great English compositions and diary entries rendered in American English!

The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts by Douglas Bond is available from Amazon for Kindle.

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