A somewhat odd little pamphlet produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, called “For the Strength of the Youth,” gives guidelines on topics such as language, media, dating sexual purity and music. In its advice on music it warns,
Music can, by its tempo, beat, intensity and lyrics, dull your spiritual sensitivity.
If only this recording presented such a threat. True, it consists of “30 Great Hymns”; however, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir manages to denude the hymns of all spiritual passion. The result lacks intensity and, surely a relief to the pamphlet’s writers, doesn’t dull spirituality, only the mind. Sure, the choir is on key. They sing the parts, but they sound over-rehearsed and emotionally vacant. Only the organist, who plays on the grand Tabernacle organ, sounds infused with fervor. The Choir follows the church’s advice on music too well. Rock of Ages is God’s elevator music.
And this is not the perception of a critic who knows little about the Mormon faith, but of a fourth generation Mormon who has only recently exited the Church. The reasons I left are many (and not in the scope of this review), and for the most part, I’ve never regretted my decision. I have never missed the phony fellowship or the control members try to exercise over other members. But I do miss the hymns. I have fond memories of the hymns sung at our meetings. They expressed the agony of the atonement, the passion of striving for God’s love, the conviction of being God’s chosen people in these latter days, the love conferred on our founding prophet Joseph Smith. The hymns taught me of God and Jesus Christ and our Heavenly Mother.
Nonetheless, I don’t miss many of the hymns on Rock of Ages. Granted, it contains a few notable Mormon hymns, such as the pioneer hymn “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” “How Firm the Foundation,” (a song that recently underwent a lyric change because the general authorities felt it was being sung irreverently), St. Francis of Assisi’s “All Creatures of Our God and King,” and the tender song, “I Need Thee Every Hour,” which pleads with God:
I need thee every hour, Most holy One; Come quickly and abide, or life is vain.
But, for the most, this recording is straight PR. Half of the songs are standard hymns, which appeal to most God-fearing, church-going folks, “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” “Abide with Me,” “Bringing in the Sheaves,” “Rock of Ages,” etc. None of these hymns are sung in Mormon Church services or, if they are, it is rare. The other half are Mormon hymns with strong crossover appeal. They are not hymns about the church’s odder belief systems, such as the violence of Christ’s atonement or the proclamation that Utah is Zion.
Ultimately, Rock of Ages is sadly indicative of the philosophical changes occurring in the Mormon church. As the church grows ever more aware of its position and image, it seeks to downplay its past and, instead, assimilate into the larger Christian culture. In doing so, the church gives up much of what is good and maybe even true in Mormonism.