Hymnody: Wrestling Through Memory vs. Idolatry

My friend Mike (who, incidentally, blogs over at a fascinating blog http://thefrailestthing.com) has been thinking a lot about text, technology, and the effect that technology is having on us as a collected body of people. Often times when I read his work, I call him or e-mail him and dialogue about the ecclesial/theological/soteriological implications of what he is writing about. Perhaps I leave a comment. But rarely do I take a nugget of something that he has written and run in a separate direction with it.

Well, that is, until today.

Observe this quote about social memory and social order from Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember.

“Concerning social memory in particular, we may note that images of the past commonly legitimate a present social order.  It is an implicit rule that participants in any social order must presuppose a shared memory.  To the extent that their memories of a society’s past diverge, to that extent its members can share neither experiences nor assumptions.  The effect is seen perhaps most obviously when communication across generations is impeded by different sets of memories.  Across generations, different sets of memories, frequently in the shape of implicit background narratives, will encounter each other; so that, although physically present to one another in a particular setting, the different generations may remain mentally and emotionally insulated, the memories of one generation locked irretrievably, as it were, in the brains and bodies of that generation …

via Social Memory, Social Order « The Frailest Thing.

The first page of the Book of Genesis from the...

Image via Wikipedia

There are many things which cultures and societies use to convey memory and communicate their shared and common story. There are many things the church has done to remember its shared story. It is not accidental that we are coming up on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Why was this translation so influential? I think in part it had to do with the fact that the KJV gave the english speaking world a common language, a common vernacular, when talking about the things of God. Now, the scope of this post is not to get in to the very technical arguments surrounding the textual accuracy, usability, etc. of the KJV. It is simply to make a point: communities that have a common, shared, set of memories (generally moored off of a single, central, collected body of “memories”), the ability to communicate tradition, meaning, value, and memory between generations is greatly increased.

Hymnody works in much the same way. When the church sings from a shared body of work, it is able to pass a common song to future generations. The fragmentation among bible translations (which, I again reiterate, I am using the KJV to make a point, not as an endorsement. I am much more disposed to the ESV, in case anyone wonders) mirrors similarly the fragmentation among christian music and the collective worship language of the church. Take this blog excerpt by Alan Jacobs as an example:

“…there’s something fascinating to me about a vast cultural discourse, stretching across social divides and encompassing people of widely varying educational levels, based on knowledge of one book. A big and diverse book, yes, but one book, capable of providing — through names of persons, place-names, phrases, and what have you — reference that could quickly illustrate, and illuminate, almost anyone’s response to almost anything. Just consider Huxley’s remark when, in his famous debate with Samuel Wilberforce, he realized that the Bishop had inadvertently given him the best possible rhetorical advantage: “The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands.” There’s a world of meaning in that.

Today, it seems to me, there is no such truly common cultural currency. Instead, there is currency shared among small groups of initiates into certain mysteries, often meant to exclude others as much as to include the like-minded.”

via Text Patterns: a people of one book.

The notion of music that is now coming out as fast as artists can write it, and churches being able to instantaneously incorporate it into its body and song is both a feat of great achievement, and great peril. For while we are able to share with the body of Christ a vast array of musical offerings that would have been next to unknown years ago, we now are faced with a new dilemma. How are we preserving the song of our faith so that multiple generations gathered together will join in one voice? This has particular impact on families and family worship. How families can join together and sing (often unaccompanied) highly syncopated, often unmemorable lines of songs together as they worship is a reality that must be addressed as we prepare the next generation to faithfully follow Christ.

Hymnody is good. I hope you have seen value in this discussion. But there is another side to it. When hymnody becomes ultimate, that is to say, to the exclusion of anything else, hymnody becomes idolatry. We find that, along with the generational contribution of hymns and music over the 18th and 19th centuries that another rather peculiar thing has occurred. It seems that the musical styles and trappings of the aforementioned centuries have become normative for the church instead of contextual. In future posts, we will have to deal with this issue of contextualization and what we should and shouldn’t make normative.

How do we grapple with these things? I don’t know that there are easy answers. For now, it was interesting enough to see the collision of research (How Societies Remember), common cultural experiences (a shared, single, translation of the scriptures), and the present day issues of preserving the intergenerational character of the church.

Feel free to dissect my argument. It probably needs it.

I am a pastor, a husband, a father, and a lover of Jesus. I am also an unpredictable blogger, who can go for several years without blogging a thing, and then inexplicably write a book. Perhaps this is one of those times.

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Posted in Worship Matters
7 comments on “Hymnody: Wrestling Through Memory vs. Idolatry
  1. David,

    I think your connection to the KJV is spot on. I wondered too, as I read your post if this was not also a specific case of the larger tendency within evangelicalism to privilege individual experience over communal life. Communal remembering of the sort that Connerton theorizes is geared toward the formation of individuals for the community, for the preservation of the community. We tend to shape the community for the sake of the individual, which is another way of saying we no longer value the community, not in the traditional sense anyway. (Ideally, of course, there is a balance since communities running roughshod over individuals is also a problem.)


    PS Thanks for the plug.

  2. Steve and Cathy Lawton says:

    Hymnody always mirrors its own cultural times, both in its lyrics and in its texts. It is ironic and sweet that so much new music is being written to “old” lyrics–ironic, because these are the same folks who berated us for using hymns with King James English–sweet, because these new tunes often serve as a unifying rallying point for an otherwise splintering Church. It is like discovering brilliant classic literature within a new (if gawdy)dust jacket. In the final anlysis, and this is coming from a professional, life-long, rock-ribbed reformed conservative musician, the fact that we sing God’s praise from the heart as a family of faith is much more important than the tune we use.

    Now, that said, if the great composers of the best of modern/serious/biblical/non-commercial hymnody will just keep it up for another decade, the dross will finally fall away, perhaps with the same meteoric speed with which it gained popularity, (dear God, let it be so!) and if God wills, a new, unified corpus of singable, multigenerational, biblical hymnody will emerge out of that soup. How lovely! Think of it! A new tradition borne of excellence and faithful worship tried and proven over several decades, a new and lively worship song, one that our children’s children will someday decry as irrelevant, but which their children will “discover” as rich, warm and blessed by God.

  3. […] be very healthy. Of course, you can delve in to a bit more of my previous thoughts on that topic here and […]

  4. […] began a thought process a week or so ago (see this blog) where I began wrestling with the questions of memory, hymnody, and the struggle that faces much of […]

  5. […] issues, and biblical grounding in application, it might be helpful to track back over to part 1 and part […]

  6. […] following is part 4 of our series on Worship (and Music) as Language. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 for the back story. Image via […]

  7. […] (and music) as language is coming to an end; for a recap of all the posts, they are linked here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. Image by jrossol via […]

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