I live right outside Washington, DC, a transient area where a two-year resident is practically a seasoned veteran. This area recalls the constant movement of our culture and the idea that things simply do not last or even last long. In this day of discarding the barely used for the brand new, how do we ensure that our artistic endeavors in the Church last? Specifically, how can our hymn texts survive a rapidly changing culture?
Classic Literature and Hymns
I am an avid reader and, at the risk of sounding elitist, primarily enjoy classic literature. You know, those lists of “The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time” or “50 Classic Books Everyone Should Read in Their Lifetime.” My shelves, like the shelves of many, are filled with Homer and Dante, Austen and Shakespeare, Hardy and Eliot and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Why do we read classic literature? Why do these sometimes centuries-old stories still appeal to us today as much as they did in Ancient Greece or Victorian England or twentieth-century America? Why do the tales of fictional men and gods, heroes and heroines never grow old?
These stories survive because they tell us something true about human nature, the human nature that has not changed since the creation of Adam. Furthermore, they point to the nature of God and man’s relationship with God. In all those works considered “classic literature,” we find certain universal truths that remain unchanged through the centuries.
Our hymns do much the same. Each hymn is not only a retelling of God’s Word, a prayer to God, or an explication of a biblical text but also a comment on man’s true nature, on God’s true nature, and on the relationship between the two. When we sing hymns every Sunday, we are reflecting on who we are, who God is, and what our relationship to God is. These hymn texts declare the truth to us week after week, and we, by singing those texts, declare the truth in our turn.
Hymns with Complexity and Depth
These three things—our nature, God’s nature, and the relationship between the two—are complicated and multifaceted subjects. We may say “God is good,” but what does that truly mean? Is “good” the same as “kind”? We may say “man is sinful,” but what does “sinful” include? If we are sinful, can we do any good? We may say “man is God’s creation,” but what are the implications of that? How ought we to act considering? It is not enough to make a statement. We must continually define and explain and provide earthly and human examples.
So, while hymns are not treatises or doctoral dissertations, nor would I want them to be, they must have a degree of complexity that does not leave a person with a simple, catchall answer. If our hymn texts present the truth in a poetic and beautiful, yet complex and intricate, way, they are well on their way to becoming timeless and lasting. With all this talk of complexity, though, let us not forget that simplicity should not be shoved aside. There is a difference between a simple and powerful hymn text (think of the text of the Kyrie or the Litany) and a bland and repetitive cliché. For example, a prayer to God might be simple and concise and necessary to repeat again and again, but a brief comment on the goodness of God using the same phrase multiple times in a row does not add much to a text.
Biblically Based Hymn Texts
Perhaps contrary to popular belief, not all hymns are old. Authors are writing new texts all the time. A text is not automatically “good” because it is old, nor is a text automatically “bad” because it was written in the last ten years. A robust hymn text will not shy away from the truth, no matter how ugly or how difficult that truth is. When we try to sugarcoat that which is true by downplaying it or twisting it to mean something slightly different, we destroy a text’s staying power. In fact, when we sing or write hymns, let us look to those hymns that reflect honestly one of the oldest surviving texts that is still the most relevant book today: the Bible.
When we speak of books that tell the truth of man’s nature, God’s nature, and the relationship between the two, we can think of no book more appropriate than the Bible, God’s Word. Our hymn texts, then, can do no better than to look to the Bible for inspiration and truth. The hard work, the presentation of what is true, has been done. We can merely take that and shape it into a poetic text in versified form that fits a brilliant melody. We have been handed the truth on a silver platter. Let us take it and craft daringly honest hymn texts. Who knows—perhaps our hymnals will then take the place of Homer and Shakespeare on future bookshelves.
Keep some of the best hymn texts in your pocket so you can meditate on them anytime, anywhere.