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Saturday, 8 August 2009

Making Theology Portable

Let's face it, even in a liturgical denomination, even in the Catholic Church with Her (much neglected) propers, hymns are not going anywhere, any time soon.
No, make that ever.

Hymns are a part of our liturgy.
Oh, really?
Yes, she says slyly.
And the two most important hymns in the liturgy are, Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus; Dominus Deus Sabaoth. Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua. Hosanna in excelsis. Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini,
and
Gloria in excelsis deo,
et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.
Laudamus te. Benedicimus te. Adoramus te.
Glorificamus te. Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam. Domine Deus, Rex caelestis, Deus Pater omnipotens.
Domine fili unigenite, Jesu Christe.
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius patris. Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Qui tollis peccata mundi suscipe deprecationem nostram. Qui sedes ad dexteram patris miserere nobis. Quoniam tu solus sanctus. Tu solus Dominus. Tu solus Altissimus, Jesu Christe.
Cum Sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris. Amen.

But there will always be other hymns, sandwiched in or tagged on; and that's not even counting the Liturgy of the Hours where they are an integral part of the liturgical form.

And that's why the words matter.

Because they are, as this article so succinctly puts it, "portable theology."

“If you know what hymns a congregation is most addicted to, you will be able to infer what, in Christianity, means most to that church.”

When the late hymnist Erik Routley wrote that in 1982, worship wars in the United States had reached fever pitch.

More than a quarter-century later, the clash—especially between advocates of hymns on the one hand and praise and worship choruses on the other—essentially has stalemated. While worshippers still maintain strong stylistic preferences, and often voice them aggressively, church musicians today seem to be focusing less on stylistic disagreements and more on content. ...
Centuries after the first Christians crafted simple hymns to express their faith, music sung and heard in congregations continues to shape Christians’ theological outlook.

Solid content—undergirded by compatible music—is crucial, many church musicians insist.
In evaluating Christian choral music, music directors should ask, “Is the text of a particular (worship song) really worth remembering?” said Deborah Carlton Loftis, executive director of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. “Considering that repeating the words of many songs will plant the text deep in a congregation’s memory, is it worth it?”...“If the words don’t communicate an accurate and true picture of the gospel, then that song is inappropriate.”...
Tim Sharp, [says,] “Hymns were meant to pack theology into a tight, memorable suitcase that Christians could take with them.”...
[Mark Hayes, a composer] warns against music that undercuts the words.

“You really want to avoid an ‘entertainment’ quality, because if it goes too far with jazzy rhythms...then it gets in the way of connecting people with God,” he said. “The music overwhelms the text.

“That’s not to say that there aren’t times when you want to feel (in music) the full force of God’s majesty. But the style, groove, vibe—whatever you want to call it—can’t supersede what the words say. That kind of music doesn’t instruct.”
[Some current day American Christians exhibit] “irrepressible optimism—the sense that to acknowledge the deep darkness of the shadows or the possible starkness of death itself is to be fundamentally unfaithful; the sense that praise is the alpha and omega of worship, and that the only proper praise is happy praise.”

Sharp detects that “quick resolution and gentle emotional approaches are more popular than other kinds of religious experience,” and that theological inclination is reflected in the texts and tunes of many worship songs.
...Worship songs written in a pop music genre lend themselves to texts with easy resolution, he said.... my relationship with God is one that I can’t always find easy answers for. And I would embrace that struggle.”

(Just to be clear, no way I'm ever going sing a paraphrase of one of the songs of King David to the tune of Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer.)

1 comment:

Aristotle A. Esguerra said...

The thing with hymns, though, is that they're not exactly portable, especially in this sound-bite culture. Aside from the Gloria, Sanctus, and seasonal Marian antiphons, I can hardly carry more than two verses of a hymn…and in some cases, barely the first line.

(Not necessarily trumpeting the value of antiphons in their Gregorian form, which are challenging to acquire let alone memorize, but if the propers were sung responsorially, then the texts will have more stickiness due to (1) repetition and (2) brevity in most cases.)

Here's a 2005 post of mine that your post reminded me of.

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