Academic journal article The Hymn

From the Executive Director

Academic journal article The Hymn

From the Executive Director

Article excerpt

From time to time students in hymnology courses (many of which are taught by Hymn Society members) phone or e-mail me because they have been given the assignment of interviewing a living hymnwriter. Most of their questions are fairly predictable: How long does it take to write a hymn? Where do you get your ideas? What is your favorite hymn? The one that has begun to crop up often recently is some version of "Do you think hymns have any future?"

I always answer this question as affirmatively as possible, even when I detect skepticism on the part of the interviewer, and I try to make clear that my response is neither an effort to justify my employment nor a defense of hymn texts I have written. Because these young questioners often lack a sense of the broader picture and the longer history, I try to help them put this question in perspective.

To begin with, I think the history of congregational song has always involved a tension between ecstatic song and formal song. Miriam's Song in Exodus 15 is very different from a long psalm (such as Psalm 105) recounting God's activity in bringing the Chosen People out of Egypt. Similarly, developing Christianity gave rise both to theologically rich narrative and creedal hymns (such as Philippians 2) and to the strangely beautiful but often unintelligible phenomenon of glossolalia. The diversity of the ways people experience God inevitably leads to a diversity of ways people express that experience in song.

The problem, of course, is that human beings project onto God their own limitations, including their cultural ones. So at various times it has been tempting for arbiters of religious song to deem some forms unacceptable. I try to imagine, for example, the likely resistance that Ambrose of Milan encountered when trying to adapt the antiphonal singing style of his Arian opponents to the songs of the Trinitarian remnant. Yet that once-innovative style of singing eventually became so engrained that breaking away from it centuries later was no less controversial.

One of the places where the vagaries of singing styles become very real to me is in the non-circulating special collections stacks of the School of Theology Library, where the hymnological collections are housed. …

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