Sunday, October 20, 2019
Better sung than said. . .
I wonder if it might be possible that the Christian faith is better sung than said. It is not that I have anything against the spoken Word but that music is one of the most profound mediums to use in the proclamation of that Word. We sing it better into our memory and singing allows the many voices of a congregation to be one voice together. But I cannot take credit for this. Anglican cleric Giles Fraser was the one who asserted that “Christianity is always better sung than said.” His point was made not only for the love of music but because of his fear of academia and the descent of faith into words that attempt to say what is hard, if not impossible to say. So, according to Fraser, “to the extent that all religion exists to make raids into the what is unsayable, the musicians penetrate further than most.” Music has the power to address in more than words the depth of the great mystery of God in flesh. Of course, it does not hurt that the angels sang in the birth of the Savior and that Scripture is replete with calls to sing praise to the Lord. This singing is not only worship but also witness and confession.
Luther himself was not simply in favor of music as a musician but saw the whole thing theologically, regarding music as God’s second greatest gift to creation (after theology). So many have said it that it must be true -- the Reformation might well have failed without the power of the hymn to sing it into the hearts and minds of the people of God. Still to this day the Lutheran chorales are noteworthy for the way they sing the Gospel into the minds and hearts of the singers and through the witness of song into the ears of the hearers. Yes, it does matter what we sing.
As the Anglican bishop Nick Baines said it: “I go along with Wesley that if you sing you learn your theology from what you sing. And if you sing rubbish you believe in rubbish. Language matters.” I am not sure he was the first or the last to suggest that the content of the song and how that sounds has as much to do with it benefits the Word or detracts from it.
Every pastor knows that you can tell a great deal about the theology your people hold dear by asking their favorite hymns. Yet even that may be more information than you want to know. Our people struggle to understand why the silly little ditties or guilty pleasures are not beneficial to the faith and they struggle to identify what it is that makes hymns good. Yet that should not detract from our recognition that for Christians, faith is sung as much as it is said and perhaps better sung. What we owe those in the pew is the training to understand what make s hymn noble and profound and what makes it, well, empty and ordinary.