Wednesday, June 2, 2010
The Language of Hymns
Lutheran Worship was more into the revisions than Lutheran Service Book and Evangelical Lutheran Worship more than Lutheran Book of Worship (in this case, especially for the hymns chosen to be included and those not chosen). All in all, I think we can live with an Ebenezer or ken or a few hundred other words that are no longer in common usage. And I am not so sure why it is that women of previous generations could sing hymns that spoke of man as the inclusive term for male and female but some women of today treat this as an offense to their gender. It is not as if no one still uses the term man in this way. You can find it all the time (albeit in places not so attuned to political correctness).
No, I think that hymnody provides us with a far more serious problem than inclusive language or archaic vocabulary. What concerns me about many hymns today is that they are empty of solid theological truth and devoid of the rich Biblical imagery that marked the hymns of old. It is as if some hymnwriters today are writing to please the singer instead of to be faithful to Scripture and to the faith itself. We end up with stilted poetry, one dimensional imagery, and even more dated texts than ever before. In the end, this has cheapened the whole role and purpose of hymns as servants of the Word and instruments by which the faith is taught as well as expressed. And this makes me sad.
In the recent issue of The American Organist a letter to the editor complained about the trouble a Unitarian organist had in playing Trinitarian hymns in the congregation in which he was employed. Egads! Do we now have to be concerned about offending someone who finds hymns consistent with our faith and confession offensive to him or her??? Is it not offensive when the Church sings what is inconsistent with her faith and confession or when when she sings words nearly any religion might embrace instead of the songs consistent with her faith? We surely do not need more less specific hymn texts. We need texts less generic and more specific to our Christian faith and confessional identity. It is precisely this that has caused a flourishing of grand and enduring hymns from the pens of Lutheran hymn writers -- over the ages and even to the present day (I think of Jerry Vajda, Herman Stuempfle, Martin Franzmann, and Stephen Starke, to name a few).
Hymns are compact, efficient, and effective when the words speak more than what they say and give us the opportunity to sing the faith in but a few stanzas. Hymns are a profound way we identify and connect to those who have gone before us and lay claim to the faith yesterday, today, and forever the same. Hymns are the sung prayers and praises of a people who believe that music is a gift to be exercised in worship most of all. I am happy to look down and find that this marvelous text I am now singing in 2010 was written in 350 and translated in 1800 -- as one hymnwriter put it, "Through the Church the song goes on..." Amen and Amen!