Although some may see efforts to critique both old and new church music as elitist or judgmental, we have an excellent example of this sort of thing done by J. Gresham Machen. In Christianity & Liberalism he distinguishes between three different hymns, explaining how the text in each either fails or succeeds at describing well the marvellous atonement in the Cross of Christ:
“The Christian doctrine of the atonement, therefore, is altogether rooted in the Christian doctrine of the diety of Christ. The reality of an atonement for sin depends altogether upon the New Testament presentation of the Person of Christ. And even the hymns dealing with the Cross which we sing in Church can be placed in an ascending scale according as they are based upon a lower or higher view of Jesus’ Person. At the very bottom of the scale is that familiar hymn:
Nearer, my God, to thee,
Nearer to thee!
E’en though it be a cross
That raiseth me.
That is a perfectly good hymn. It means that our trials may be a discipline to bring us nearer to God. The thought is not opposed to Christianity; it is found in the New Testament. But many persons have the impression, because the word ‘cross’ is found in the hymn, that there is something specifically Christian about it, and that it has something to do with the gospel. This impression is entirely false. In reality, the cross that is spoken of is not the Cross of Christ, but our own cross; the verse simple means that our own crosses or trials may be a means to bring us nearer to God. It is a perfectly good thought, but certainly it is not the gospel. One can only be sorry that the people on the Titanic could not find a better hymn to use in the last solemn hour of their lives.
“But there is another hymn in the hymn-book:
In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.
That is certainly better. It is here not our own crosses but the cross of Christ, the actual event that took place on Calvary, that is spoken of, and that event is celebrated as the centre of all history. Certainly the Christian man can sing that hymn. But one misses even there the full Christian sense of the meaning of the Cross; the Cross is celebrated, but it is not understood.
“It is well, therefore, that there is another hymn in our hymn-book:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
There at length are heard the accents of true Christian feeling–‘the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died.’ When we come to see that it was no mere man who suffered Calvary but the Lord of Glory, then we shall be willing to say that one drop of the precious blood of Jesus is of more value, for our salvation and for the hope of society, than all the rivers of blood that have flowed upon the battlefields of history” (126-128).