Sunday, May 2, 2010

The State of Hymns

We face a strange thread of concerns when it comes to hymns.  Some believe that the age of hymnody is over and that contemporary song with its repeated refrains or praise choruses with their infinitely repeated and adaptable phrases have replace hymns except for the few.  Some decry the ruination of wonderful old poetry in the name of inclusiveness or modernization as the hymns of old are recast in new language to fit the prevailing mood.  Some complain about the explosion of new hymnody since the 1970s and the fact that the common core of well known hymns that once united various denominational traditions is slowly being eroded.  Some lament that lack of good doctrinal hymns that actually say something as opposed to the growing number of hymns that seem trivial and even shallow in their theological perspective.  Some are up in arms over the way hymns must toe the line for political correctness both in erasing military imagery, promoting the green cause and environmentalism, and social justice themes exclusively.  Some are frustrated by the rejection of once laudable and familiar images of God because they are thought to be too masculine to suit the feminist or too outmoded for people to understand them, or hopelessly tied to the language and syntax of the past.

What are we to do with the state of hymns today -- thinking beyond our local Missouri purview and seeing across the wide aisle of the Christian landscape?  I for one am happy that LSB (the Missouri hymnal of 2006) has seen the wisdom of letting the ancient hymns stand without trying to update or modernize or make them fit contemporary cultural values.  We can sing a thee or thou without passing back in time to another era.  We are not completely stupid and can figure out what words like Ebenezer mean.  But the press of contemporary Christian music, the use of Gospel music heard on the radio, and the slow diminishing of congregational song in favor of performance music are a challenge we will inevitably face for a long time.  We may not have always sung the same words to A Mighty Fortress as has the rest of Christendom but as time goes on the whole hymn may be foreign enough to a significant number of folks in every tradition.

It reminds me of the older awful movie, Blue Lagoon, when the shipwrecked children tried to celebrate Christmas but could only remember the first few words to nearly every carol... and in time of distress could recall only the first petition or so of the Our Father... is this what it will come to?  Yes, unless we do something to stop it...

5 comments:

Kent said...

Very good post and I appreciate your insight as to the value of rich hymnody that not only confess the faith but also teach and remind us of the faith as well. One question I do have though is this: What does one do if they have inherited a parish that has contemporary worship and this contemporary worship is firmly rooted? I know the ultimate goal would be to teach and move away from such a practice, but as a pastor how long does one, for lack of better terms, "put up with it"? Added to this is the question of should pastors, who are more confessionally minded in doctrine/practice etc..,.be more open and willing to going into such places that have contemporary worship to bring about right changes? I have a church with wonderful sung liturgy, great hymnody etc..but have also had calls to places that do not have such practices and I have often wondered if I should be more open to taking on such challenges at different places, or taking what I have and relishing in it. Just some thoughts and questions. Thanks for the great post!

Pastor Peters said...

Hymns can be taught as texts unfold from Scripture... I remember in my first parish comparing their beloved Gospel hymns (In the Garden) with the great hymns of the faith for content -- what do they say -- as opposed to music or feeling... and eventually they got it even if it was not the favorite... Good hymns read like good poetry and texts of Scripture... to be unpacked like a Bible study might do...

Anonymous said...

Can you help me understand what you mean by the phrase "contemporary worship" I don't want to jump to the wrong conclusion. I'm familiar with many songs written within the last 10 years that are extremely meaningful and theologically rich, which are played by bands with electric guitars, keyboards, etc.

Again, any insight you can give into this would be appreciated.

Robbie F. said...

You have summed up the issues very well. I think it would be worth looking into why some people get so angry about "Thee" and "Thy," non-inclusive language, and other politically-incorrect material in the classic hymns, while the tendency among us who love hymnody is to watch it go away with a sort of impotent sadness. "The anger of man does not accomplish the righteousness of God," eh?

Amberg said...

Which of you teaches your children hymns outside of Church? Just curious.