WMB 1.2 — A bit of a rewind with more developed thoughts. This is part of a series here.
MYTH: Worship with hymns is more theologically rich than with modern music: Better said: “Hymns are rich in heritage and theological expression.”
There indeed are many hymns that are weak on theology, but we still sing some of them at Christmas. There are many choruses that are fantastically rich with theology. White, European songs from 300 years ago may not be relevant to all, but to some they are rich and represent a terrific expression. How do I put hymns in their proper context without either discarding them or on the other hand actually worshipping the medium of using hymns?
I grew up in the church and am grateful to know many. Some I have even recently discovered and others seem to speak to the deepest part of my soul.
I remember sitting at my desk one day when a hymn entitled, “The Church is One Foundation” played on my CD player. What I recall is that the words and music from that song intertwined with a deeply powerful and personal encounter with God. It as if God was actually speaking to me. That day at my desk was a day I will never forget and has been a source of inspiration to keep going and serving the local church for the decade afterwards. So, I love hymns and some have been an important part of my walk and faith. Hymns carry ethnic and cultural baggage.
Imagine a scene from the movie “African Queen” with Katherine Hepburn where the natives were sweating from being dressed in their western Sunday best clothes horribly mimicking the words of an old hymn. The struggle to get through the song represents what many experience when they walk into a church where these beloved hymns are echoed off of the hardwood pews. It is like being invited to someone else’s family reunion. You have no idea who is who and all the stories sound strange and awkward.
In stark difference to the scene in “African Queen” we find the real life of Hudson Taylor in China. Taylor died his hair black, wore local clothing styles and learned to speak the native language. Because of this, he gained access into inland China. He was criticized for this but many were reached with the story of Jesus.
I see the way modern music works today as in the tradition of Hudson Taylor. We are missionaries in a post-Christian America who must do what we can to speak the language, rather than condescending to those outside of our shrinking subculture of church life. The insiders are even having trouble fitting into our faith communities, so it is no wonder why non-religious people who might have interest in our faith feel left out and most likely will be left out.
Our worship is dead if we only value the academic or intellectual side of our faith.
In spite of the problematic nature of ethnic and cultural baggage hymns carry, theology does indeed matter. If our hymns, for the sake of argument, are better vehicles for theology, what are we to do with the implications of the songs themselves being so unapproachable? Perhaps there is better academic theological expression from what John Wesley since he took from his doctrinal writings and included it in his hymns than say a modern worship leader might say. Most modern songwriters do not write Bible commentaries like Wesley did.
What this implies is that the purpose of church music should be primarily theological education–that somehow we reinforce intellectual academic concepts as a the goal in our overall liturgy. Academics is a form, and why should this be the primary backdrop for our practice and expression of worship? Why should you need music appreciation to even be able to sing a song?
Many reading have already read or heard much of our societies shift from modernism to post-modernism. Modernism values the Enlightenment ways of thinking where beauty, story, art play a very small role in the field of ideas and practice in comparison to science, logic and reason. Postmodernism tries to deconstruct this way of thinking by swinging the other direction. The interesting thing is how both ways of thinking effect how we live out our faith and how we worship.
The modernism way of worship values what is thought and what is literal in our faith. The postmodernism way of worship values the story and beauty of our faith. Kurt Bruner, writer of The Divine Drama, writes that in our gospel presentation we should be willing to be “both and” and that it is important to share both the “propositional” and “story” of the gospel.
I would not disregard theology and think that music for this purpose is a great idea, however, the context of it has to fit our culture’s way of thinking in order to even be understood. This means emotion, beauty, authenticity should be included and valued. It is not shallow to worship with emotion. It is not against being theological in our worship to want to sing things that are from the heart. Lets do both in our worship instead of polarizing to the extreme on either side.
Ephesians 5:16 talks about singing in “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” which might be interpreted to mean that we should worship with music that is scriptural (right out of the psalms), hymns (creedal and theological) and spiritual (from the heart and in the moment). Why limit to just one of these. It is both biblical and culturally relevant to worship with your mind and your heart.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14 to “sing with the spirt and sing with the mind” when talking about our expression of liturgy. Again, a “both and” way of thinking may be a stretch for some. However, not everything is black and white. For that reason, I would not throw out hymns. I am just against the idea of holding these legalistically above the freedom we should have to worship indigenously.
We can and should value hymns, but not at the cost of devaluing contemporary expressions of worship.
The hymns we find today have stood the test of time for a couple reasons I see. One, they are beautiful or popular, or they represent a denominations creed and therefore will continue to be published in the hymnal of that group. The last one is true since many groups banned hymns that did not reinforce their brand. It is only in our current day where you might hear a Lutheran hymn in a Wesleyan church or a Catholic hymn in a Baptist church. Somehow, we forget how contentious things were in regards to what music was allowed and what was banned. Non-denominational churches brought people in from varying groups so it was bound to happen.
If the purpose of some of these hymns is to teach something theological, then many hymns fail since they use music that is rarely approachable, especially with lyrics that require study to understand while carrying the baggage of denominationalism. The next generation does not relate to all three of these problems. Why impose an esoteric template over our worship? Why should we fight for these as if they were theology? To choose other music is to not choose another theology. It is to choose to be in the new and changing culture and express our theology and worship there. Indigenous worship is what we should be about.