Friday, October 02, 2009

Hymns for Today -- A Review

HYMNS FOR TODAY. By Brian Wren. Louisville: WJK Press, 2009. x + 142

Brian Wren begins this brief book with these lines:
Give me a moment of your time if “hymns” suggests boring words and old-fashioned music and if Hymns for Today sounds like Dinosaurs for Today.

Give me a moment of your time if hymns are a mainly musical experience, or if you encounter hymns as words dissected between staffs of music. (p. 1).

He goes on to suggest that if one has come to faith in contexts that used music other than hymns and now find themselves faced with a book of hymns, then he would love for them to consider what he has to say about hymns and their value to Christian life and worship. This invitation is helpful, because for many Christians the word “hymn” connotes something old or outmoded. Indeed, many may come to faith without any experience of hymnody – having sung only brief praise songs.

Brian Wren is Professor Emeritus of Worship at Columbia Theological Seminary and a writer of contemporary hymns. You may have sung one or more of his hymns – maybe “This is a Day of New Beginnings” or “I Come with Joy.” But Wren is not alone in penning new hymns for the church. Over the past three to four decades there has been a renaissance of hymn writing that speaks to the world in which we live. There is a place, Wren believes for the chorus/praise song and chant, but these are of a different breed and purpose. By engaging these recently composed hymns, Wren pushes us to consider the importance of including within our worship experience a breadth of music – not just one genre. By focusing on the new hymns he helps us understand that we don’t have to rely completely on older, more traditional expressions of hymnody as we worship together.

A hymn is, first of all, a poem, and unlike the chorus or the chant, a hymn generally expresses more than one idea in a song. As a poem, they are written in poetic meter, take the form of stanzas, and generally reflect rhythms that the listener or singer understands. They can have value, as poems and prayers, even if they are never sung – but also if they are sung.

While this is a book of hymns, it doesn’t provide the reader with the music. This isn’t a replacement for the hymnal. It is an invitation to consider the words. That said, Wren does speak to the way they are sung, dealing in part with the purpose of the stanzas and their connection to the tunes used – as one sings hymns they may discover that each stanza can often be song to the same tune.
To a listener, a hymn sung by an average congregation may sound boring because of the sameness of its repeated tune. To an average singer in that congregation, the repeated tune makes the hymn easier to learn and sing (p. 2).
That is key – they are not performance based, but designed to elicit from the worshiper a song from the heart. They are designed to be remembered and sung. Although, he doesn’t mention this, many of the new hymns are set to older tunes, so that the singer can experience the new message without having to learn a new tune (though this isn’t true of all the new hymns).

Chapters two through seven explore this new hymnody, as it reflects theological/ecclesial themes – Jesus, Spirit, Church, Worship, Witness, and Praise. Wren’s decision to organize the book the way he does helps us understand the purpose of hymns, for has he says:
Hymns don’t discuss faith. They express it (p. 7).
Hymns don’t neglect the intellect, but they engage us from a different starting point. With this in mind, he has the reader look into the words as they are written and suggests ways of engaging these words for a richer spiritual experience.

The final chapter, entitled treasure is a collection of contemporary hymns, written by Wren, Dan Damon, Ruth Duck, Fred Pratt Green, Thomas Troeger, John Bell, and Miriam Therese Winter, to name a few. Many of these are discussed in the earlier chapters, but here the reader can find the poetry laid out in full. You can read them, meditate upon them, and sing them (though the notes are not present, you may know the tunes).

What one discovers in the course of reading this book is that there are hymns that reflect our experiences and understandings. They wrestle with theology and the world in ways that are appropriate for today. They push us in new directions, especially when it comes to the hymns that give voice to feminine images for God. Wren writes:

Like all hymnody, the hymn renaissance responds to its contexts, which include global poverty, the cruelties of total war, political oppression, and the contested meanings and mechanisms of market forces, financial systems, and corporate powers. So it is not surprising to find Jesus hailed as the embodiment of God’s peaceful justice (p. 11).

This is a book designed to be used for study and reflection. At the end of each chapter one will find questions and suggestions of what might be done with the hymns. It can be used by a study group that wants to use the chapters to explore the depths of faith with new words. Or, it could be used by a congregation seeking to understand the value of the new hymnody. Maybe a choir or worship team could make use of it as they discern their own calling to lead the congregation in worship. Whatever the reason one might pick this book up, they will find something of great spiritual value within its pages.

1 comment:

Katherine said...

I love hymns, and have just started writing some myself. This sounds like a fantastic book - thanks for the great review!