Prepared for the Evangelical Theological Society
November 19, 2003
James A. Glasscock
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
5 Sherwood Drive
Fallsington, PA 19054-2607
E-mail Address: Longdrycreek@aol.com
Web Address: www. Longdrycreek.com
hymn is the ordinary man's theology," George Sampson once remarked."The
hymn echoes in the heart when the sermon is forgotten. Preachers may be feeble,
and even foolish; but hymn does more than pulpit can to justify God's ways
A study of Divine Names (God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit) and hymns
and Christian hymnody of necessity involves a study of contemporary culture
The Church in the United States of America exists in an increasingly secular
culture and society, and the new cultural situation strategically places twenty-first
century Protestant and Christian leaders in the middle of a cultural whirlwind.
Recovery of good hymns and appropriation of the heritage of Christian hymnody
may serve the contemporary Church in two ways. First, to recover her balance
in a time of cultural upheaval; and second, to recover her verve and style
by acknowledging the past and maintaining continuity with the past. The past
provides a point of stability and perspective, reminding Christians that their
spiritual ancestors met in a specific time and place for worship.
Paul Westermeyer, a Lutheran musician and music historian, introduces the
idea of time and space when he thinks of hymns. A church sings hymns "in
a specific time and place. [And a church] . . . sings in the idiom of a specific
time and place," that is, a church or congregation gathers in a specific
cultural and societal milieu and context, and sings hymns, gospel songs and
worships through other musical offerings.
When a congregation sings in the idiom
of a specific time and place, are there common characteristics one may use
to identify good hymns that fit in any idiom? I believe there are.
Twelve Characteristics of Good Hymns.
First, good hymns typically include reference or offer an allusion to Divine
Names (God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit), directly or indirectly, and
interpret and inform the worshiper as to the meaning of Titles associated with
[If Titles associated with Deity are not familiar to most worshipers in a
contemporary congregation, the preaching pastor and a congregation's teachers
should address the lacuna with thoroughness and imagination in order to unleash
the power of the Divine Name(s) in the lives of the worshipers.]
Second, good hymns were and are written for Christian worship. If
one understands implications of communication theory and applies theory to
hymns in the context of worship, worship leaders will grasp the reason why
the choice of good hymns and great music for worship are so important for the
edification of the faithful. Quite simply, good hymns and great music are a
means of communication.
In the case of hymns, communication involves a system of language symbols
and vivid images that are associated with religious ideas, beliefs and convictions.
The ideas, beliefs, convictions and emotions, a quartet, sustain or support
a triad of religious ideas, beliefs and convictions, but also engage the emotions
at a deep and persistent and penetrating level.
Good hymns act as signs and symbols that communicate more than words set to
lively music (though lively tunes may indeed be employed). Good hymns ought
not to be chosen to fill a line in an order of worship. Rather good hymns and
great music should be carefully chosen in order to bring additional coherence
to the service of worship and on behalf of the worshiper.
Good hymns and great music integrate the language and music and scripture
and thereby lift the hearts and minds of worshipers.
Good hymns and great music contribute to whatever Manifestation or Epiphany
the Divine One desires to reveal of the holiness of the Eternal Majesty, the
Creator of heaven and earth.
Thinking more deeply to learn why the choice of good hymns isimportant, one
turns to the hypotheses of Marshall McLuhan. Though McLuhan's hypotheses about
communication originally dealt with advertising and television, his seminal
ideas remain relevant to Church as she prepares for any given Sunday morning's
In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things
as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that,
in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.
Good hymns are media that contains the message.
Third, good hymns transmit a specific message by uniting music built on a
biblical text or texts.
Fourth, good hymns advocate sound theology.
Fifth, good hymns are poetry and theology matched to a tune.
Sixth, good hymns speak to the eight stages of life. Worshipers
are multigenerational. Children, youth and adults, all of varying ages, interests
and perceptions about life gather for worship. Yet one size in worship does
not necessarily fit all, for there exists an age deferential between and among
worshipers and families and persons who are arriving at different stages in
life, as Erik H. Erikson rightly suggests.
Indeed, good hymns may bridge the generation gap to a surprising degree and
conserve the biblical and theological integrity and character of congregations
by so doing, a concept that Luther would enthusiastically endorse.
Indeed, Christians of all age groups need a common vocabulary in order to
speak meaningfully or carry on a conversation. Good hymns provide just that
link between the generations.
In this context, one is not thinking of merely a set of code words, that is,
biblical language without contemporary application, but a vocabulary that makes
sense of life, consistent with the stage of life the child, the youth and the
adults who are on different stages of the pilgrimage.
If this point is accurate, then, scripture, sermon or homily, good hymns,
great music and prepared prayers (extemporary or read) promise and indeed to
speak to and resonate with the deepest needs and aspirations of the human heart.
In the course of this paper and through countless angles of vision, time and
time again, I reiterate good hymns and great music link heaven and earth and
the Divine Gift with the greatest and most pronounced human needs, including
our greatest sorrows and griefs.
Furthermore, good hymns take serious the human condition, with all of its
myriad ramifications, and good hymns preserve the worship of the Church from
falling prey to musical fads in which congregations may indiscriminately become
addicted and thereby manipulate the emotions of congregants.
Indeed, a trendy congregation may tend and most probably will neglect children
or youth or older congregants who are not "with it," and forfeit
a golden opportunity to educate the young and minister to the older congregant.
If our sole focus is on latest new generation of the continuum of life, that
is, the Baby-Boomers or by whatever name sticks, our vision is too limited.
In the case of the older congregant, often these members have a different
memory of hymns and spiritual songs that originated in their childhood memories,
and do not deserve to be neglected when it comes to good hymns and great music.
Yet good hymns (familiar to older members) just may provide balance across
the generations and certainly offer substance to all generations if the minister
and musicians make an effort, if necessary, to interpret the language of a
particular hymn to the congregation. Not only does one want to build a common
vocabulary among the faithful, regardless of the ages involved, but to offer
a rich treasury of prayer and devotion that will serve a lifetime if given
a place in memory. Good hymns, through language and tune, perform that function
in an admirable fashion.
Seventh, good hymns are a marriage of language and tune. Composers, worth
their salt, create hymns that transform the mind and move the heart.
Eighth, good hymns challenge the mind and move the heart and resonate with
some aspect of the Divine Imagination.
Nine, good hymns acknowledge the human condition and address some aspect of
our human quest or journey.
In our time, the human condition challenges traditions and even the Christian
Message. Indeed, good hymns and Christian hymnody fill a vacuum in modern life
precisely because good hymns and great music contain in words and tune resources
for living in a time of cultural and societal change. Pitirim Sorokin aptly
describes our time as "the crisis of the age."
In some sense, good hymns and classic Christian hymnody and great music may
even check secular trends of thought of modern times and challenge the mentality
of the age by simply being unique and dramatically different than the prevailing
In a time when pluralism tends to deny uniqueness to any form or message,
hymns defy the modern convention and proclaim a unique or a one-of-a-kind message
Indeed, good hymns and great music offers a glimpse of an attractive Christian
alternative to secular culture and its music. Quality music may be enough to
challenge moderns to think and act more deeply, because this style of music,
steeped in history and tradition, commands the soul to aspire to greater heights
and better deeds than are ordinarily expected in a culture that can become
monotonous and predictable.
Furthermore, Christian leaders should guard against the natural tendency to
mimic the trends of the age in music and art, and especially in hymns and music,
simply in order to fill sanctuaries and auditoriums.
Unfortunately, keeping up with the latest trends in pop music may fill sanctuaries
with a throbbing beat and monotonous words, but one asks, What enduring structures
of faith do the words and the beat imprint on the minds and hearts of those
who hear or sing the songs?"
Tenth, good hymns may be understood as a creative response that begins in
a witnessed or understood sense of adoration or praise or abject human need
and evolves in the mind and heart of the composer.
Eleventh, a good hymn has merit if the hymn as poetry demonstrates sufficient
evidence that the composer's original design includes singable tune, a biblically
reliable text, and a theologically alert choice of language and possesses memorable
metaphor and simile for ease of memorization.
Twelfth, often one characteristic of good hymns is they reach an international
audience. This is not always true but appears to be the case in a large number
of beloved hymns.
Preparation of the Composer.
It is worth remembering that throughout Christian history, significant composers
and hymn writers were trained in either one or both classical languages, i.e.,
Greek and Latin, and had studied rhetoric and poetry in the classical tradition.
Academic preparation equipped these composers to aspire to the craft of hymn
Furthermore, the Protestant musical tradition inspired the fugue [1590-1600], an innovation
in form. Also the compositions of Bach's "Mass in B Minor" or
Bach's "Magnificat" have not lost
their appeal to modern congregations and are appreciated as music fit for worship,
not simply as performance-based presentations or as a concert.
We should never forget that since the earliest days of The Way, hymns were
included in Christian worship.
There many models for worship but the one I think is highly appropriate includes
music (hymns, opening and the closing voluntary and offertory and anthem),
Old and New Testaments lessons, thoughtful prayers from the pulpit or lectern
or altar or Lord's Table and a sermon or
homily.Worship done "decently and in order" also
teaches catechism, or offers instruction
in faith (Calvin).
It appears likely that Christians do not appreciate the relationship between
hymns and catechism that Luther rightly understood and expected of the congregations
he served and of the families under his pastoral supervision.
People sing what they believe, and people learn what they believe by what
they sing. Human beings, as we know, are by nature music loving creatures,
so good hymns and suitable music for the worship to the Glory of God have the
power to carry over into the week what is said, sung, preached and prayed on
Unfortunately, practical considerations arise and deterrents surface when
one speaks of hymns or church music.
Paul Westermeyer, a Lutheran musician and teacher and music historian mentioned
at the outset of this paper, notes how seriously we take church music. He anticipates
the reasons we care deeply about what we sing or hear in congregations, so
worship leaders must think clearly about the role of church music in general
and of the good hymns in particular when ministering through worship and in
Church music is conflict -- [an indication] that music means much to Christian
people, because it is a primary place where the where the faith of a community
takes flesh and comes to life. The stakes are high. A church that may be
apathetic about many things is seldom apathetic about music -- about a new
hymnal, for example. In this view, though the conflict point to how important
music is to the Christian church, we in our moment are seen as one more conflict
in a series and more connected to the previous one that we dare to admit.
We would like to believe that we inhabit a new 'paradigm' or a world we describe
with the prefix 'post' (post-Christian, post-modern, post-Puritan, postdenominational,
post patriarchal, etc.). We are right when those designation suggest that
our age, like very other age, faces new challenges that are not to be evaded.
We are wrong when they deny our biblical roots and our common bond with and
debt to the early church, the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and what followed
right up to the present. We delude ourselves when we act as if the recent
artificial bubble of church attendance after World War II does not loom over
us or when we shut out a broader historical vision that would free us from
The myopia of which Westermeyer speaks is the assumption that contemporary
church music is an option that can be divorced from the long history of Christian
tradition and hymnody, and a divorce, at that, that can obtained without consequences.
Four Practical Consequences of the Loss of Memory of the Tradition.
Four practical consequences of the loss of memory of the tradition of Christian
1. One consequence of the divorce of modern church music from its historic
tradition is the disappearance of hymnbooks from in pew racks of thousands
In a significant numbers of congregations, song sheets are now projected on
a large screen in the auditorium or sanctuary, thus effectively eliminating
hymnals or hymnbooks as a source for Christian edification and communication
of the timeless truths of the Eternal God.
there may be assumed temporary advantages of taking the hymnal from the hands
of worshipers, the casualty is not the loss of the hymnbook. Rather the casualty
is loss of two thousand years of Christian hymnody, effectively denying worshippers
access to one of the Church's greatest musical treasures and a treasury of
prayer and devotion.
2. Furthermore, unthinking removal of the hymnal or hymnbook from the hands
of the laity denies them the birth right of Protestantism, which reintroduced
congregational singing on a scale not experienced before.
laying aside the hymnal teaches this lesson: We assume church music today is
as church music has always been. That is a fraud perpetuated on the faithful.
3. Some pastors, though highly critical of cultural and societal influences
on members of the flock, appear to have forgotten that singing Church music
that mimics the beat and content typically associated with pop culture may
not be congenial to promoting the Christian message.
While admittedly the tunes of pop culture music may be catchy and even enjoyable,
unless the language of hymns is saturated in the scripture and theology and
marinated in fine poetic form, congregations are not served well.
4. Uncritical acceptance of music, largely devoid of biblical and theological
categories, is puzzling given the fact that many congregations think of themselves
at least as Bible-believing congregations.
seems, however, that when it comes to music for Sunday worship, the influence
of the secular world and the entertainment culture easily seduces those who
claim the Bible is "The Word of God."
The seduction occurs through the unwitting tripartite division of the spoken
word (prayers and sermon), from the sung and played word (hymns and Church
music) and from the written Word(the Bible) is an undetected irony that exists
in some evangelical congregations.
Where a tripartite division exists at the heart of the worship service, the
influence of contemporary culture and society is more likely and silently infiltrate
the life of the congregation.
I. Influence of Cultural Trends on Church Music and Worship.
The influence of culture and society on the church's music in today's Protestant
churches is evident if one participates in worship in a variety of worship
setting and orders of service. I observe few
parishes or churches escape the influence of culture and society on the language
and style of worship or in the selection of music. Some are more successful
than other congregations but all of us can profit from Martin Marty's specific
observations about the pervasive influence of culture and society on churches.
Martin Marty, a professor emeritus of the University of Chicago,challenges
churches to maintain cultural relevance and distinction by being faithful to
the Christian tradition. One avenue of faithfulness to the Christian tradition
is in worship and through music.
Marty suggests that in our "postmodern utterly relativist market-oriented
world," if Christians agree there is a God and that we are to bring
our best gifts of response, then it follows that there are intrinsic "betters" and "worses" within "the
standards and traditions of culture." The church at the twentieth century's
end has not sorted out well and has tended to define everything, including
its music, like the market-driven world around it rather than respond to
its best instincts and treat people well. In the place of Te Deum and
the long strand of the church's song which it represents, the temptation
has been to substitute superficial praise choruses or poorly crafted attempts
to tell God how we feel. That the church might have a message and a schooling
responsibility [of laity in worship] has often escaped its recent gaze. As
Marty notes, people get hooked on all sorts of things and work hard at them
- - "community college, bridge-playing, bowling, hairstyling, fishfly-tying,
YMCA, fitness training, Tae kwon do, T'ai Chi, woodworking, barbershop-quarteting,
bass-guitar playing, scouting, etc.," but the church at many points
appears to have lost its nerve and the sense that its message is worth a
comparable effort or that people deserve what is worth the effort, assuming
that only what sells immediately has any value.
Marty's warning about the dangers of cultural syncretism inside the Christian
Churches is a timely one. An illustration of cultural syncretism inside the
Church includes an easy and an uncritical acceptance of hymns or music devoid
of substantive biblical and theological reflection.
Or, removal or substitution of older language in familiar hymns or gospel
songs and omission of an offending stanza one may think unacceptable to modern
sensibilities or the aging of the congregation is an example of"sensitivity" is
bowing to cultural norms, also a form of cultural syncretism.
Years ago, my spouse and I attended in worship in a large United Methodist
Church in Dallas. The congregation had a lot of gray hair showing that day.
The young music director informed the congregation that the last stanza of "My
Faith Looks Up to Thee" was not to be
sung that Sunday.
The omitted stanza, highly appropriate given the age of the congregation of
those sitting in the pews that Sunday morning, would not have likely taken
offense to the promised Christian hope one could read in the omitted stanza.
When ends life's transient dream
When death's cold sullen stream shall o'er me roll;
Blest Savior, then in love, fear and distrust remove;
O bear me safe above, a ransomed soul.
As Martin Marty has rightly said we "sell" our churches short on
music and theology and preaching and deny the Christians in our care and who "deserve
[a more thoughtful] effort" than uncritical
acceptance of cultural standards for church music.
My assumption in whoever made the decision to omit the stanza was attempting
to be sensitive to the elderly members of the congregation. Those of us who
shave or brush teeth or comb our hair each morning are not likely to take offense
when a hymn speaks of "life's transient dream" and almost pray "O
bear me safe above, a ransomed soul."
The illustrations in this section draw our attention to the fact there is
a lot of work to be done in order to reclaim the rich tradition of good hymns
and Christian hymnody. To assist us in the task, however, requires that our
contemporary position be placed in the broad sweep of historical perspective.
In order to orient the reader to that perspective, a brief survey the history
of Christian hymnody is in order.
II. The Hymn in Christian Worship.
Augustine (354-430) in his commentary on "Psalm 148:14 describes the
hymn as the praise of God in song." Another early
church father Ambrose (340- 397) adds, "praise to God that is not sung
is not a hymn." Ambrose, generally
acknowledged as the Father of Latin hymnody, gave his flock hymns that were
easily understood, easily sung and thus easily remembered.
One of Ambrose's hymns is reproduced for illustrative purposes: easily understood,
easily sung and easily remembered.
"O Splendor of God's Bright Glory"
1. O Splendor of God's glory bright,
From light eternal bringing light;
Thou Light of life, light's living Spring,
True Day, all days illuminating.
2. Confirm our will to do the right,
And keep our hearts from envy's blight;
Let faith her eager fires renew,
And hate the false, and love the true.
3. O joyful be the passing day
With thought as clear as morning's ray,
With faith like noontide shining bright,
Our souls unshadowed by the night.
4. Dawn's glory gilds the earth and skies;
Do Thou, our perfect Morn, arise;
The Father's help His children claim,
And sing the Father's glorious name.
Though singing good hymns of the Early and Ancient Church became a staple
in the monastic tradition, especially those monasteries following the Rule
of St. Benedict (c. 480-c.550), the Roman Catholic Church did not
include them in the secular office
until the twelfth century on account of
prejudice against importing other than
biblical words into the liturgy, and even
more because the form was used by heretics
for propaganda purposes.
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also; The body they may kill:
God's truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.