James Grant, at In the Light of the Gospel, has a post today on how to introduce congregations to older hymns (HT: Justin Taylor). In it he gives some excellent strategies for teaching old songs to new congregations. In an age when “Shine, Jesus Shine!” is now a “classic P&W” song or even a “traditional hymn,” one can imagine that re-introducing congregations and older hymns to one another might be seen as radical but still one wonders: is radical enough?
Imagine if we changed the noun from hymns to psalms. After all, if we really want to re-connect the church to the historic songbook of the church, if we really want to embrace catholicity, if we really want to overcome cultural barriers, if we really want to overcome the theological problems inherent in many hymns, if we really want to transcend parochialism, if we really want to move beyond the argument over taste and style then there is one, simple, elegant solution: sing God’s Word.
The first problem that arises with the introduction of older hymns to contemporary worship (sometimes called a “blended” service) is that we are simply adding older religious subjectivity to contemporary religious subjectivity. Just as someone, somewhere has written the contemporary songs sung by so many congregations and those songs reflect contemporary religious experience, so someone somewhere wrote the old hymns. The old hymns reflected the religious experience of the 19th or 18th or 17th or even 16th century.
Can we escape subjectivity? Yes and no. Yes, we do not have to be trapped by modern or contemporary or even ancient Christian religious subjectivity but no we cannot escape living in some time or place and writing out of experience. David and other psalmists wrote the psalms and Matthew, Paul, Luke, and other NT writers recorded the NT canticles. They wrote in a time and place. They reflected their experience. Yet there’s a great difference between the subjectivity of a 19th-century hymn writer and a canonical actor in redemptive history or a canonical writer of redemptive history: it’s the adjective “canonical.”
It’s odd for folk who so often yell about sola Scriptura that we (Reformed and evangelical) folk often abandon that principle when it comes to worship. There are historical reasons for that move but we can, if we will, recognize the mistakes made in the past and correct them now.
Further, there is a difference between subjectivism and subjectivity. The latter is unavoidable, the former is quite avoidable. There is a distinction to be made between the divinely inspired record of redemptive history, however, of which we have been graciously made participants and the record of private religious experience which is hymnody.
The actors in redemptive history, and the record of those acts of that revelation are unique. They acted for us. Those are not just their stories. Those are OUR stories, and OUR songs. When David writes of his own struggle with sin and his deliverance from his enemies, he is singing for us and we are singing with him. More than that, as often as not the real singer in the psalms is not David or some other psalmist but God the Son himself. Perhaps one reason why we no longer sing the songs of Zion is because we stopped reading them properly under the influence of dispensationalism? If “that was then and this is now” then why bother singing songs that belonged to another time and place? The problem is that NT Church did not read the psalter that way! No other passage is quoted or alluded to more frequently in the NT than Ps 110. The book of Hebrews is arguably a sermon on Ps 110. How often we do we sing Ps 110 in sacred worship? Have you ever sung Ps 110 in your life? Indeed, the only songs that we know with certainty that the assembled NT church sang were psalms. There is not a shred of evidence that the NT Church sang anything other than God’s inspired Word.
That’s objectivity. The Songs of Zion take us out of ourselves and out of our experience and out of our time and they allow us to identify with the salvation accomplished once for all by God in Christ. That objectivity is a central reason why psalmody declined in the modern period. Ours has been an incredibly self-absorbed time. Christian hymnody has, for the most part, reflected that turn to the self. The Christ of the Psalms is a Prophet, Priest, and King. The Christ of modern hymnody walks with us in the garden while dew is still on the rose. They are two different figures. Perhaps the chief survival strategy among evangelicals, since the 18th century, has been to re-cast the faith in terms of personal religious experience precisely because it avoids the problem of history. If the question in the 16th century was, “What has Christ done for me, the question of the 18th century became, “What is Christ doing in me?”
There is a great and laudable desire in our time to reconnect with the church in all times and places. We cannot do that without singing from the same songbook and the songbook from which the canonical and post-canonical church sang was the psalter (and the NT canticles). The psalms dominated Christian worship from the first century through the 17th century. It was only in the 18th century that the psalms began to give way to hymns. Today, the psalter seems to be completely lost to most “evangelical” congregations. I know this from my travels, I know this from my students. Few of them have ever sung Psalm 23. The Psalter is a strange country for them.
Every post-canonical song that one re-introduces to a contemporary congregation carries with it cultural baggage, whether from 19th-century frontier America or 18th-century colonial America or from German pietism, Romanticism, nationalism etc. In other words, when we re-introduce a hymn to a congregation we’re also re-introducing an older culture. When we sing the older hymns, we’re not just preserving a theology but a culture.
Once again, the psalms and NT canticles come to us from cultures, but they are the cultures in which God accomplished redemption, in time, in history. If we are to re-introduce our congregations, in divine service, to songs that have embedded in them a culture, why not re-introduce them to the songs of Zion, that God gave us, that transmit with them the culture into which he spoke and in which he acted? Why do we prefer to transmit post-canonical cultures as a part of worship over the canonical?
Yes, psalms and NT canticles have be set to some meter and to some tune. We do not have inspired tunes and we do not have a record of inspired meter. Fine. As far as I know we have always regarded things such as tunes and meters as circumstances of worship determined by the light of nature. Some time back I argued that we need better tunes for the psalms than we have currently. If we want to marry the present with the past, we might begin with the great riches of historic psalm settings, many of which remain quite singable. To those we should add well-crafted, thoughtful, contemporary tunes that are intended for and appropriate to congregational worship.
The idea of re-introducing congregations to the Christian past is a good one. We need to select which past which we intend to re-present. If we’re simply re-presenting our grandparents’ past then young people (and boomers) might have some reason to chafe. If, however, we are re-introducing the songs of Zion, God’s very own word, the divinely inspired, inerrant, infallible Word, the history of redemption, the honest struggle with doubt and temptation, the honest rejoicing in deliverance, the earnest expectation of salvation and the hope of consummation that is recorded in them then we are not imposing anything upon anyone. Rather, we are re-connecting Christians to their own history, the history of salvation hoped for and accomplished, the history in which, by God’s grace, we have been given the privilege of sharing.