Posts Tagged 'Hymns'

Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns (Review)

Why Johnny Can't Sing HymnsT. David Gordon’s recent book Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal (190 pp., P&R, 2010) has created a bit of a stir within the Presbyterian and Reformed family of churches. While Gordon does not directly address the topic of psalm-singing, I think it is worthwhile to devote at least a little space here to a book by a respected author on an important subject.

Gordon’s areas of expertise include theology and media ecology. Music is not one of them, as he quickly admits (he can read music, but does not play an instrument). This both limits the extent to which he can discuss the music theory behind hymnody and allows him to approach the topic from a unique perspective.

To sum up the field of media ecology in one borrowed sentence, “we make tools, and tools make us” (10). From this angle Gordon digs behind the contemporary worship movement to expose the cultural assumptions of contemporaneity. Drawing from cultural analysts like Neil Postman and Ken Myers, Gordon characterizes the dominant ideology of the 21st century as one that disregards the past and trivializes the present. If this is so, he concludes, “the meta-message that contemporary music sends is this: Nothing is important; everything is just amusing or entertaining. This is hardly a Christian message” (72).

Throughout Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns Gordon employs a clear, readable style, comparable at points to Postman’s own renowned prose. After reading this book I felt as though the author were one of my own college professors. Unfortunately, Gordon also possesses the classic professor’s tendency to wander off into minimally relevant tangents (the low point, I think, is a footnote about the cost of his preferred razor blades). Between the occasional digressions and some significant overlap of material between chapters, I tend to think this volume could have been just as useful at two-thirds or even half as long.

While I found this book to be informative and enjoyable, I must also confess to some objections to Gordon’s line of reasoning. Where his cultural analysis is keen, his musical analysis is a little shaky—his final definition for “contemporary music” seems to be “music accompanied by a guitar”—and he often left me wondering how to make the final connection between the two subjects. Gordon also seems to directly correlate “triviality” and “contemporaneity” (a term he is reluctant to define), as though intelligent, articulate advocates of “contemporary Christian music” (CCM) either do not exist or are not to be taken seriously.

As you may have already guessed from the title of this blog, my biggest beef with Gordon’s case lies in his appeals to “traditional hymnody” (which, like the term “contemporary music,” he does not pause to explain). Gordon laments the fact that his students categorize the 1885 song “How Great Thou Art” as a “traditional” hymn—but his favorite example of hymnody, “Abide With Me,” is only a few decades older. He faults CCM proponents for knowing “nothing of Christian hymnody prior to the nineteenth or twentieth century” (41), but what other centuries are responsbile for the overwhelming proportion of the contents of any “traditional” hymnal?

It is clear that Gordon views the contemporary Christian music movement as a strange new blip on the church’s 2000-year-old radar. I would suggest that his “traditional” hymns are actually not that traditional either. Rather, I believe CCM is merely a small part of a much larger blip on the radar screen: the emergence of Western hymnody—a phenomenon that has crowded out the church’s (much more traditional) practice of psalm-singing, in some Reformed and Presbyterian denominations less than 100 years ago. I would love to read Gordon’s cultural analysis of how this worship shift occurred. Sadly, he barely mentions it.

In conclusion, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns will certainly appeal to readers who already favor hymns over CCM. Gordon hits all the high points of the contemporary Christian music debate (guitars, repetition, amplification, triviality), and he does so far more articulately than the average church member. The book nobly champions the cause of hymns, though it is probably unlikely to win converts from the contemporary camp. All in all, I appreciate Gordon’s fresh perspective on a divisive topic. But if pastors and musicians merely follow his advice without probing deeper, I am not sure the church will be that much better off.

–MRK

“Trinity Psalter Hymnal” Editors Appointed

Hymnological MathAs Danny Olinger reports in the latest issue of New Horizons, Rev. Derrick Vander Meulen (URCNA) and Rev. Dr. Alan Strange (OPC) have transitioned from being chairmen of their respective denominations’ Psalter Hymnal committees to the official co-editors of the new proposed “Trinity Psalter Hymnal.” This news serves as a welcome–but still jarring–reminder that the final vote to approve our denominations’ new songbook will occur within the next year (June 2016), and if approved it may be in production in a year and a half!

I’m beyond excited that we have this opportunity to work together as sister churches on such a worthwhile project, and that it is so close to completion. I do have two questions that keep popping up in my mind, though–whether due to my perspective as a URCNA member rather than an OPC member, or just because I’m a (20-year-old) fuddy-duddy. Neither one is earth-shattering. Neither one makes me want to pull the plug on this excellent project. But I still feel the need to raise them here, if only to start a conversation about them.

Okay, the first one is really pretty insignificant. It’s about the proposed title of the new book: Trinity Psalter Hymnal. I have to say, I’m just not won over.

I get it, I get it. Both of our denominations have longstanding relationships with our previous songbooks–the OPC since 1961 (Trinity Hymnal) and the URCNA/CRC since 1934 (Psalter Hymnal). The new compilation contains a significant amount of material from both–so why not combine the names? Also, the word “Trinity” reminds us that when we sing psalms and hymns, we sing them as Trinitarians. The psalms are sung to the Father, about (and by) the Son, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This is good.

At the same time, we have never felt the need to refer to the Book of Psalms in our Bibles as the “Trinity Book of Psalms,” any more than we would refer to Acts as the “Trinity Book of Acts.” It simply goes without saying that the Psalms are Trinitarian. Plus, between the awkward acronym “TPH” and the near-certainty that pastors in both churches will be messing up the title from the pulpit for at least the next five years, I just can’t see a need for this cumbersome appellation. Maybe it’s just my Dutch tendency to want to call it what it is–a Psalter Hymnal. I’m happy to hear explanations and thoughts from my brothers and sisters on the OPC side of the aisle.

My second concern has to do with the comparative sizes of the psalter and hymnal sections. As of the last count, the psalter contains 279 selections and the hymnal contains 428. With almost two hymns per psalm setting, the new songbook has the potential to give the priority to hymn-singing, detracting from the official position (at least in the URCNA) that psalms are to have the principal place in worship.

I’m not as concerned about this trend as I could be. First, I understand that the OPC comes from a rather hymn-biased worship tradition in producing this book, and that the decision to include all 150 psalms is already a significant change for them. I respect the fact that this transition will take time. Second, even many URCNA churches use supplemental hymnals which push our own hymn-to-psalm ratio far past half-and-half. For that matter, many URC’s use the current Trinity Hymnal themselves!

Nevertheless, if this project is ultimately to serve the church of Christ, we need to see a conscious effort made (from the pew-backs or the pulpit) to re-emphasize our biblical and denominational commitment to the preponderance of psalm-singing. Knowing the two godly men who have assumed the responsibility of editing this book, I hope and pray this will become a reality.

–MRK

Behind the Psalter Hymnal (Part 6)

The Big Three (Psalter Hymnals)It’s long past time to wrap up URC Psalmody’s summer series. I head back to Geneva College in a week, and what I imagined as two or three blog posts has grown into a lengthy and multi-faceted series. That’s typical fare for this blog—so today, let me try to provide some concise closing thoughts.

We began by asking this question: Why do we sing out of a Psalter Hymnal? More particularly, why do we sing both psalms and hymns in worship, yet still insist on distinguishing between the two?

To help answer this question historically, I dug up several applicable documents from the early history of the Christian Reformed Church: overtures from different classes in 1928 (here and here) regarding the question of hymn-singing, the “Report on the Hymn Question” from 1930, the Foreword to the first Psalter Hymnal in 1934, and a few other sources. I found plenty of arguments for and against hymn-singing in worship (along with a fair share of weird Dutch expressions). What I didn’t find was a substantial argument on Biblical and historical grounds to justify the introduction of hymns—especially in a denomination that had gotten along fine without them since the Reformation 300 years earlier. I read plenty of reasons why hymns might be permissible in worship, but not much (other than repeated appeals to “New Testament light”) as to why they were needed.

In fact, even the optimistic Psalter Hymnal Committee of 1930 acknowledged some significant dangers with the introduction of hymn-singing. One of them was that the psalms would cease to be sung in worship. Wary of this possibility, the Committee proposed the following principle:

Whereas the Psalms in the Old Testament were purposely given for Public Worship (cf. for instance Ps. 51:1; 52:1; 53:1; etc.) and were used accordingly, and whereas they do not belong to the things set aside by the New Testament, but, to the contrary, their Divine authority and lasting worth is pronouncedly acknowledged in the New Testament (Luke 20:42; 24:44; Acts 1:20; 13:33,35), it must be considered, acknowledged, and maintained by us as a principle founded on the Word of God, that Psalm-singing must always remain an element in our Public Worship.…[A] service without the singing of Psalms would be conflicting with the will of God as revealed in His Word. (pp. 21,22)

Yet after this well-placed word of caution, the committee rushes to add, “Nor does it follow that because of said danger the use of New Testament Church songs must be considered out of the question.” Just because they can be abused doesn’t mean they can’t be used properly, they suggest. Besides, they claim, the “urgent demand” for hymns in Reformed churches cannot be brushed aside as “disloyalty, spiritual weakening, and retrogression.” Once again they call attention to supposed insufficiencies in the psalms: that they speak only “in the Old Testament language of hopefully expectant prophecy, not in the New Testament language of jubilant fulfilment.” And here’s the real whopper: they turn the discussion about hymn-singing on its head by suggesting that an exclusively psalm-singing church is “guilty of neglect in properly caring for Public Worship and for the perfection of the saints, and of slighting a precious gift of the Holy Spirit.” In other words, a psalm-singing church harms its members by not allowing the singing of hymns. That’s a bold claim!

In summary, the committee asked the Synod of 1930 to (1) continue the preparation of a collection of English hymns; and (2) to (attempt to) prevent psalm-singing from fading away by revising the Church Order and setting limits in place on how many hymns could be sung in a worship service. Synod more or less agreed, and the Psalter Hymnal project moved forward. That’s most of the story; for the rest of it, you can refer back to the first Psalter Hymnal’s Foreword.

Got it? Does this synopsis give you an historical glimpse into the reason for the unusual wording in the URCNA’s Church Order—that the psalms “have the principal place,” but hymns “may be sung”? The relationship between psalms and hymns in North American Reformed worship is a long and complicated one. Partly it was a Dutch vs. English and European vs. American issue. Partly it was a Reformed vs. broader evangelical issue. Mostly it was an issue of biblical interpretation. And just because the CRC’s synod officially “settled” the question doesn’t mean it really went away.

Eighty years ago, hymns entered the worship of a denomination that was still deeply divided over the question. That’s the heritage that’s been handed down to us in the URCNA.

I can’t end without noting one additional twist, however. While the 1932 Church Order clearly stated that “the singing of the Psalms in divine worship is a requirement,” the CRC later revised their Church Order to merely state, “The consistory shall see to it that the synodically-approved Bible versions, liturgical forms, and songs are used” (Revised Church Order, 1959, Article 52b). All reference to the primacy of the Psalter was gone! With that revision in mind, it’s important—and encouraging—to note that the URCNA’s Church Order is actually a step back in the direction of principial psalm-singing.

How will the URCNA’s worship change as the years go on? Will our new Psalter Hymnal prove to strengthen our commitment to psalm-singing or dampen it? For the answer to these questions we’ll have to wait on God, pray fervently, and work for the good of the Church. May our worship be pleasing and acceptable in his sight.

–MRK

Behind the Psalter Hymnal (Part 5)

Eenige Gezangen

As I mentioned last week, much of the case for hymn-singing in the Christian Reformed Church was built on the claim that Reformed churches had never been opposed to hymn-singing on principle. The Psalter Hymnal Committee of 1930 commented:

[T]he introduction of Hymns for use in Public Worship was sanctioned already by our Reformed Fathers of the 16th century. For they have provided the Churches with the still existing small collection which is found in our Dutch Psalters, bearing the title ‘Eenige Gezangen,’ and from this it follows that the Hymn question cannot be a question of introducing Hymns, but only of an increase of the number that has been in use already for centuries.

–from “Report on the Hymn Question”, p. 8

I didn’t want to challenge the creators of the Psalter Hymnal on this point, but I couldn’t help feeling that this statement conflicted with my memory of Reformed church history. Was the committee’s argumentation historically fair? For an answer I turned to Biesterveld and Kuyper’s Kerkelijk Handboekje, translated by Richard De Ridder, which lists the following decisions of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands on what may be sung in worship:

  • “As for singing in the church, the use of the psalms as rendered by Petrus Datheen shall be maintained in all the Dutch churches so that nothing less fitting and less edifying is introduced because of the variety of versions” (Articles of Wesel, 1568, Chapter II, Par. 31).
  • “With respect to the question whether it is beneficial in addition to the Psalms of David set to poetry by Dathenus to make use of certain other spiritual songs and psalms of other scholarly persons in the [worship] of the church, the brothers decided that only the Psalms set into poetry by Dathenus shall be used, in addition to the other songs accompanying these, until this shall be differently decided by a General Synod” (Church Order of the Provincial Synod of Dordrecht, 1574, Art. XLIII).
  • “The Psalms of David translated by Pieter Datheen shall be sung in the Christian gatherings of the Netherlands churches as has been done until now, excluding the hymns which are not found in the Bible” (Acts of the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1578, Chapter IV, Art. XXIV).
  • “Only the Psalms of David shall be sung in the churches, omitting the hymns which are not found in the Scriptures” (Church Order of General Synod of Middelburg, 1581, Art. LI).
  • “In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the ten commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the twelve articles of faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias and Simeon shall be sung. Whether or not to use the hymn, ‘O God who art our Father,’ etc. is left to the freedom of the churches. All other hymns shall be kept out of the churches, and where some have already been introduced, they shall be discontinued by the most appropriate means” (Post-Acta of the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1619, Session 162).

Much as I’d like to agree with the Psalter Hymnal Committee, reading these synodical stipulations leads me to a very different conclusion. Our Reformed forefathers were anything but enthusiastic about hymn-singing in public worship. In fact, they took a definite stand against “hymns which are not found in the Scriptures.” The Synod of Dort went so far as to declare that all hymns besides the “Eenige Gezangen” “shall be kept out of the churches,” and hymns currently being sung “shall be discontinued by the most appropriate means.” Their position was anything but wishy-washy!

But, I wondered, what about that “Eenige Gezangen” collection mentioned by the Psalter Hymnal Committee? What sort of hymns are included in there? To answer this question I got my hands on an old Dutch Psalter and looked in the back. These are the contents of the “Eenige Gezangen” (literally, “Some Songs”) included in the 1773 translation of the Psalter:

  • The Ten Commandments
  • The Song of Mary
  • The Song of Zechariah
  • The Song of Simeon
  • The Lord’s Prayer
  • The Twelve Articles of Faith (Apostles’ Creed), in two different versions
  • Prayer before the Sermon (This is the hymn “O God, who art our Father,” referenced above.)
  • Morning Song
  • Prayer before Eating
  • Thanksgiving after Eating
  • Evening Song

Now let me break down this list a little bit. The first five songs are taken directly from Scripture, leaving only six that could be classified as “uninspired.” I have to do more research, but I strongly suspect that the morning and evening songs, and the songs before and after eating, were intended for private devotions rather than public worship. Of the six uninspired songs in this list, the Church Order of Dort only sanctions the Apostles’ Creed and the prayer before the sermon. The “Morgenzang” even mentions going out to the day’s labors, which would make it a strange selection for the Lord’s Day.*

This leaves us with only two songs that are not taken from the text of Scripture and are definitely sanctioned for use in public worship. But neither the Apostles’ Creed nor the prayer before the sermon are “hymns” in the modern American sense of the word. Rather, they are standard parts of the weekly liturgy, just set to music rather than recited. Instead of speaking the Apostles’ Creed, the church would sing it. Rather than hearing a prayer before the sermon, the church would sing it. This presents a fascinating picture of congregational participation in a Reformed worship service. It’s also substantially different than singing “Blessed Assurance” in the middle of Sunday worship—and substantially different than the kind of hymn-singing the Psalter Hymnal Committee was trying to justify in 1930.

What’s the point here? As I’ve emphasized before, I’m trying to restrict this series to a historical look at the creation of the first Psalter Hymnal, to see what light it can shed on the URCNA’s current Psalter Hymnal project. I haven’t even included Biblical prooftexts or theological arguments for or against psalm-singing in this post. Yet from a purely historical viewpoint, I still come away from this study disturbed—disturbed at the haste and apparent unconcern with which we supplanted the Psalter with a collection of uninspired, manmade hymns. If we decide to alter a tradition rooted in Scripture, sustained through millennia of church practice, and reinforced unequivocally by our Reformed forefathers, we had better be dead sure we are right.

–MRK

* It’s worth noting that the CRC’s Church Order allowed for the singing of the Morning and Evening Songs in worship by 1928. When did this change come about? I need to do more research to answer that question, too.

Behind the Psalter Hymnal (Part 4)

Hymnal Line-Up

Last week’s discussion of the creation of the CRC’s first Psalter Hymnal brought us to the Synod of 1928, the meeting at which the question of singing hymns in worship came to a head.

In Dutch Reformed church government, items before the synod must first go through an “advisory” or “pre-advisory” committee which examines each communication and formulates a concise recommendation based on it. All of the overtures related to hymn-singing, including the one in favor from Classis Grand Rapids East and the one against from Classis Zeeland, were assigned to the Committee for Preadvice on Liturgical Matters. This committee brought to the synod a recommendation to adopt the overture of Classis Grand Rapids East in its entirety, change the Church Order, and appoint a committee to prepare a suitable set of hymns.

This was a significant step. In effect, the pre-advisory committee was urging synod to unequivocally and immediately declare that hymns could be sung in worship. Their recommendation had an air of haste about it, too: “Our people are using hymns. Our churches in some localities sing hymns in song services held immediately before the public worship. The demand for hymns has gained great momentum. Your Committee feels that Synod should exercise a guiding hand before this demand can no longer be controlled.”

Also, the committee commented, “The Synod no longer needs to appoint a committee for study, but can enter upon the matter at once” by simply adopting the Grand Rapids East overture—yes, that’s right, the same overture whose reasoning made me so uneasy back here. Anticipating opposition, they responded point-by-point (though not very thoroughly) to Classis Zeeland’s objections.

What came next was “a lengthy discussion of this matter” on the floor of synod, which hasn’t been preserved for us in the minutes. In the end, the committee’s motion was replaced with a substitute motion that took things a little more slowly, but still declared unequivocally that hymns were acceptable for worship:

Although the Synod does, from the point of view of principle, not object to the introduction of hymns into our public worship, nevertheless the Synod, because of objections which are of a practical or of a historical nature, and which have been expressed on the floor of Synod, decides:

(1) To appoint a Committee which shall: (a) Study this matter thoroughly from every point of view; and (b) Investigate whether or not a sufficient number of hymns suitable for our public worship is obtainable.

(2) To further instruct this Committee that should a sufficient number of suitable hymns be found, the Committee shall not only submit the same to the Synod of 1930, but shall also publish its report six months in advance of that Synod, together with the text of the hymns which the Committee deems suitable.

–Acts of Synod 1928, Article 57, pp. 46-48 (available here)

Again, we don’t know exactly where individual Christian Reformed congregations stood on the question of hymn-singing or what debates took place on the floor of Synod. But to me it still seems like a strange decision to immediately affirm the suitability of hymns for worship, yet appoint a committee to “study this matter thoroughly from every point of view” anyway, and in such a short timeframe. It’s taken the URC more than fifteen years to finish compiling a Psalter Hymnal (under different circumstances, to be sure), but the CRC expected their committee to gather a hymn section from scratch in a year and a half. Such a rush doesn’t seem to do justice to the weightiness of the question under consideration.

Nevertheless, the “Committee on the Question of Hymn Singing” accomplished its task honorably, and reported to the Synod of 1930 with a hefty 133-page booklet containing (a) a response to the arguments made at Synod 1928 and an argument for the practice of hymn-singing; (b) the texts of 197 hymns; and (c) a list of revisions made to the hymns for doctrinal or poetical reasons. That booklet is available from Calvin’s Hekman Library here.

Before we delve too far into the “Report on the Hymn Question,” however, there’s one argument that pops up repeatedly in the overture from Grand Rapids East, the decision of the Synod of 1928, and the opening remarks of the Hymn Committee. It’s an historical argument, and it runs like this: The Reformed churches could have never opposed hymns in worship on principle, since the Dutch Psalter always contained a small section of hymns (“Eenige Gezangen”) since the 1500’s. The “Eenige Gezangen” are mentioned at least nine times in the “Report on the Hymn Question.” What were these songs? Were they the same as our definition of “hymns”? How were they used in worship? Stay tuned for next week’s installment.

–MRK


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