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Hymnody as Catechism

Hymnody as Catechism

Alright, we're sticking with the music theme for another week. Not that I'm debating instruments again; I want to consider music from a neglected dimension. Namely, I believe that the music we sing (or listen to) in church shapes our faith, both in practice and theology.

Given the songs sung in many churches, that should scare us.

Lyrics and Atmosphere as Teacher

Protestants tend to (over)emphasize the sermon as the center of the service and the most important opportunity for Christian teaching. Yet, as I think most preachers would admit in good humor, congregants are expected to recall relatively little beyond an outline of the main points, if that. Even if someone likes the sermon, they're almost certainly not going to listen to it again during the week.

Songs, on the other hand, stick with people. They often memorize the songs, and many people listen to or sing Christian music during the week. They don't need to struggle to recall the central themes of the lyrics because they've internalized them.

Evangelicals tend to be critical of "mindless repetitions" of religious words, whether creeds, the Lord's Prayer, or anything else that smacks of popery to them. But these repetitions, far from eradicating the meaning of the forms and words, ingrain them into us. It's why I end up with anti-theological songs I detest stuck in my head; the mere repetition gives them a foothold.

So whatever we sing about God influences how we think about God because we internalize it. If we sing mushy nonsense about how Jesus thought of me, or you, or—yes—you there in the back, "Above All" while being crucified, we'll end up with a sappy, self-centered religion. If we sing a little too cheerfully about what happens to nonbelievers when "Jesus is Coming Soon"...well, you get the idea.

In addition to the primary didactic function of the lyrics, the atmosphere of the worship service shapes our emotional responses in two more ways. First, if the songs are designed to be performed by skilled singers rather than sung by a congregation, it may result in fewer people participating in the singing; outsourcing praise is a net negative for even the most tone-deaf Christian in the pew. Second, if the atmosphere simulates a pop-rock concert, in which people gain emotional highs quite apart from the influence of Christ, worship will become mentally correlated with that emotional high.

Choose Your Musical Teachers Carefully

Now that I've established, at least briefly, that music does shape how we approach God in general, I want to argue that we should screen our songs at least as carefully as we screen someone preaching from the pulpit. After all, a bad sermon can be counteracted (or forgotten) within a week or two, but choosing heretical songs for a few services can alter one's theological framework indefinitely—while bypassing rational reflection!

Here are a few songs by way of example:

In Christ Alone: Ah, the hymn-lover's favorite modern worship song. I used to love it uncritically because I didn't actually pay that much attention to the words. The first three verses are fine, but given that I'm not a Calvinist, I don't plan to sing verse four in the future: "From life's first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny / No pow'r of Hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from His hand."

I have three problems with those two lines. First, if I were a Calvinist, I would believe that Jesus commanded my destiny from before "life's first cry" (Psalm 139:13–16). Second, because I'm not a Calvinist, I believe in free will, and thus my destiny, while foreknown, is not commanded. Third, because I believe in the biblical doctrine that Christians can apostatize, I believe that powers of Hell and schemes of man can indeed lead me astray and cause me to lose my reward.

I hate to pick on this song, because I really like it and it's the go-to example of serious theology in modern music; but that makes the example all the more salient. There's a simple solution, in this case: sing the first three verses, but not the last one (unless you're a Calvinist who is willing to overlook the "life's first cry" timing as poetic license, which is legitimate).

Make Room: "Shake up the ground of all my tradition, break down the walls of all my religion, Your way is better." I'll be honest, I've hated this song since the first time I heard it, and I refuse to sing that bridge. It's like someone took that vapid "I love Jesus, but hate religion" spoken word from my college days and turned it into an equally meaningless song.

Guess what? Christianity is a religion. As a Protestant (if not a very good one), I deny the sort of controlling, unwritten tradition affirmed by the hierarchical denominations. That said, every writing by a Christian of the past that we consider beneficial for Christians today forms a written, extra-biblical (though biblically based, one hopes) tradition. The main creeds of the patristic period (Apostles', Nicene, Chalcedonian) are certainly tradition; I'd rather not throw them away and open the door to Arianism. Even the Bible itself could be considered tradition in a sense, given that the letters and Gospels were circulated among churches before they were collected as our New Testament.

So, if we throw away tradition and religion, do we get more God? I doubt it. We probably just get more worship bands with fog machines singing kumbaya with no historical context or consciousness.

Amazing Grace: "No," you say, "he can't say anything bad about Amazing Grace!" Don't worry, I don't plan to; but there's a verse that makes an interesting case study in theological flexibility.

"'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved / How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed."

People of all different theological convictions can sing that verse wholeheartedly and mean totally different things when they do. A Calvinist would likely think of grace in the context of the regeneration which he believes precedes faith, allowing the Christian to believe and appreciate his sin and God's goodness. An Arminian may contemplate prevenient grace, in which God provides a way for the Christian to understand God's goodness and choose to worship Him. I, being neither, tend to think about the idea of the fear of the Lord as "the beginning of knowledge" (Prov. 1:7), as well as the idea that only from within the saving grace of God can you appreciate just how much He saved you from (even though I believe you can apprehend God's grace before you, and in order to, accept it).

The flexibility is great! How wonderful that people can worship together, each affirming what they believe to be true, without it descending into brawls over long-dead theologians!

Music as Opportunity

I could have given many more examples of good and bad features of modern music as well as older hymns; here's an interesting site if you want more examples. I don't necessarily agree with all of the positions, but it's the sort of approach I want to take to evaluating lyrics.

But I'd rather focus on the great opportunity that churches have to choose their music attentively. By choosing songs which teach true theology and form our religious affections in healthy, God-honoring ways, churches can take hold of an under-utilized means of discipleship and catechesis. When we cut the me-first musical junk food out of our diets, we can embrace God as the center of our worship. We can be solemn, joyful, anguished, penitent, awed, expectant—in other words, we can express the whole range of Christian emotion as figured and regulated by Scripture.

Through the simple means of choosing music more carefully, ministers can shape the faith of the souls entrusted to their care. By monitoring what we're singing, congregants can, both in church and during the week, ensure that we are worshipping God in truth as well as spirit.

We are not only worshipping when we sing together, but confessing things to be true of God—so let us make a good confession in song!