The trouble with short hymns and services

These shortened forms of hymnic versions of the Lord’s Prayer are symptomatic of our modern age, which is impatient with hymns longer than three or four stanzas and with services of worship that last longer than fifty-nine minutes. But worship and prayer require time if we are to become attuned to what we are doing and why. Luther and his generation have much to teach us about hymns that have more to do with faith, rather than simply evoking feeling, hymns that are sometimes expressions of prayer, instead of always being thought of as expressions of praise, hymns that make us take time in worship and prayer to consider who God is, what God has done for us, what God continues to do for us, and what our real needs — as opposed to our wants — are. The catechesis of prayer not only defines what prayer is but also expresses itself in prayer, which is what Luther’s catechism hymn on the Lord’s Prayer takes time.

Robin A. Leaver. Luther’s Liturgical Music: Principles and Implications. Lutheran Quarterly Books. Grand Rapids & Cambridge: Eerdmans, p. 133–4

Hymn singing and multiculturalism

Multiculturalism, rightly understood, has chronological as well as geographical dimensions, and our worship is enriched when we sing such hymns of faith that originate in earlier times and under different conditions than our won. The faith does not change but expression of it does. In our frenetic world we need to sing such expressions of theological praise that are more concerned with the timelessness of the substance of what we believe, instead of singing only in a currently fashionable style that quickly goes out-of-date. Further, our contemporary popular culture is not as monolithic and all-pervasive as some of our church leaders would have us believe. Witness the widespread popularity of Gregorian chant recordings in recent years — as well as recordings of chant-related music such as the compositions of the twelfth-century Hildegard von Bingen, on the one hand, and such twentieth-century compositions as those by Arvo Pärt and John Taverner, on the other. There is a certain irony in the fact that at a time when many within our churches are seeking to eliminate our specific traditions of church music, many more in the secular society outside the churches have embraced such music as the aural expressions of a spirituality that contrasts strongly with the brash sounds of the propaganda music of our time.

We need the continuity of Luther’s creedal hymn, with its different perspective on time and eternity, the hymn that teaches rather than simply exhorts, that confesses the faith rather than simply defines it dogmatically, that is evangelical without confusing evangelism with worship, or vice versa.

Robin A. Leaver. Luther’s Liturgical Music: Principles and Implications. Lutheran Quarterly Books. Grand Rapids & Cambridge: Eerdmans, p. 127


Why good hymns matter

An excerpt from a conversation held today with my daughter, H, who is 7:

TS: What did you learn about in school today?

H7: The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

TS: Did they tell you about what happened, or also why it happened?

H7: Both.

TS: So what did the teacher say about why Jesus died?

H7: That He died so that we could go to heaven.

TS: And why did Jesus have to die so that we could go to heaven?

H7: There was none other good enough / to pay the price of sin. / He only could unlock the gate of heaven / and let us in.

Three cheers to good children’s hymns.

P.S. This is a state primary school. Three cheers for some schools not being too PC to tell it how it is!

Singing the faith

Presentation of the Augsburg ConfessionI seem to remember that part of the civil war that was the Arian controversy in the early Church involved rival hymnody. The Arians, with Arius leading from the front, wrote hymns that dressed the heresy in a musical form in order better to drive the doctrine into people’s hearts. Their orthodox opponents then wrote their own hymns for the same reason.

This practice was an essential part of the Lutheran Reformation as well. Witness Luther’s catechetical hymns, or indeed the many fine Psalm paraphrases by Lutheran hymn writers (and even Isaac Watts in England at a later time), setting the Psalms in their Christological context, etc.

The miraculously prodigious hymn translator Matthew Carver has added to his many services to the English speaking church by translating a hymn paraphrase of the entire Augsburg Confession. It goes nicely with “Now Thank We All Our God”. It may not be the finest German poetry ever written, but who cares.

Jaroslav Pelikan once wrote, “No doctrine is a doctrine of the Church unless it can be prayed.” And if it can be prayed, it can be sung. So go ahead, check it out, and start singing! You can find it here.