Religion News Service recently published two articles on controversies around the popular contemporary hymn “In Christ Alone.”
- Read: Presbyterians stir debate by rejecting popular new hymn
- Read: Is God an angry ogre? Presbyterians and Baptists debate
A Presbyterian committee felt that one phrase did not adequately convey their theology. But the hymn’s author would not agree to a wording change, so the committee decided not to include it in a new hymnal.
Then, a Baptist pastor wrote an editorial agreeing with the Presbyterians, and his views started a rather heated debate on the nature and means of human salvation.
These articles reminded me how important music has always been in communicating faith. It is often said that the book most valued and used by Christians, after the Bible, is a hymnal.
The apostle Paul appears to quote a well-known hymn in Philippians 2:6-11. The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther was a strong advocate for group singing and wrote several hymns, including “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
When the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay set up the first printing press in the British colonies in 1640, they started with the Bay Psalm Book, Psalms from the Bible arranged for group singing in worship.
I grew up in churches, and some of the first songs I learned were hymns. Later, my mother taught me to sing harmony parts by pointing to the notes while she sang them in my ear during worship.
And when I lived in Ohio, a group of us clergy would gather in a pizza parlor after the state-wide meeting each year, eating and singing hymns from memory for several hours.
So while some might wonder what all the fuss is about, the discussion is not surprising to me – music has always been important in the transmission of Christian faith.
But music is also a very personal matter of taste. For at least a couple decades, American Christians have been debating the use of “contemporary” music in worship.
Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) often uses short, repeated choruses that detractors call “7-11 music” – seven words repeated eleven times.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s, as Christian churches tried to attract young people with new songs and different musical instruments, and the musicals “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” were produced on Broadway, there were similar debates.
One evening after it first became popular, my father led a discussion on the music of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” He played the entire soundtrack for a diverse group of folks in our home, then asked for comments.
One older gentleman was not at all impressed, and he huffed about the loudness of the music, the undignified rock-and-roll accompaniment, and especially the repetitive nature of some of the song lyrics.
The teenagers in the room, myself included, waited for a response to the older man’s complaints, but Dad didn’t say anything.
Instead, he put another record on the stereo and let it play – the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah, with its continual repetition of the title word.
I’m not sure the complainer was convinced, but the point was made. Sometimes the differences between “old” and “new” are far smaller than we portray them to be.
My own denomination, the United Church of Christ, published a new hymnal in 1995. One of its guiding principles was that a church wanting to include diverse people should use language that invites and includes all people.
So a number of familiar hymns, including beloved Christmas carols, were re-written to get rid of thee’s and thou’s and to avoid using “man/men” when referring to all people.
The hymnal was highly anticipated in some churches, but it was also heavily criticized in others. Favorite hymns had different words; people could not sing from memory any longer.
The real issue, in my opinion, was that hymnal editors failed to reckon with the deep emotional attachment many people have to their favorite hymns. And I think that attachment is evident in the debates reported by Religion News Service.
Favorite hymns are like comfort food – the meatloaf or mac-and-cheese Mom used to make when we were young, which still satisfy emotionally as well as physically.
And those hymns may not communicate the most completely developed theology, but they do offer comfort and a sense of God’s presence and care in times of distress.
And as hymnal editors repeatedly discover, you mess with that at your peril.
Columbia Faith & Values took a look at what goes into creating a hymnal – an MU professor was on the team that made one that was just published last year. Read the story here.