A Glad Obedience (Walter Brueggemann) -- A Review

A GLAD OBEDIENCE: Why and What We Sing. By Walter Brueggemann. Foreword by John D. Witvliet. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019. Xvii + 203 pages.

I love to sing hymns. They can be old or new. It doesn’t matter—as long as they’re singable. “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” is a favorite, as are the more modern Brian Wren hymns. I enjoy singing what are often called praise songs (I started singing them in high school). While they often lack the theological depth of many traditional hymns, they can still stir the soul. Because I'm a hymn singer, I mourn the move away from hymnals. Using screens/projectors has certain advantages in terms of keeping “up-to-date,” but it also limits our options. While my denominational hymnal was published in 1995 and isn't being replaced, the Presbyterian Church (USA) recently published what is in my estimation a very good hymnal (it even has a nice collection of communion hymns, which is important to those of us who celebrate weekly communion). So, maybe the hymnal isn’t dead yet.

But why should we sing and what should we sing? These are the questions that Walter Brueggemann raises in A Glad Obedience, a book that is based on presentations given as part of the release of the Glory to God hymnal in 2013. Brueggemann is a renowned biblical scholar who needs no introduction. As part of the release he was invited at two celebrations and has expanded his presentations into book form. I was provided—some time ago—an advance reader’s copy by the publisher and it’s on the basis of this version that I write this review. 

It is fitting that Brueggemann, who has a strong command of the prophetic books and has written on prophetic preaching, speaks here of hymn-singing as a subversive, counter-cultural activity. If entered into intentionally, congregational singing, when "judged by the norms of our market culture, is an absurd enterprise of a group of intrepid people eagerly lining out poetry filled with archaic images, and metaphors reflective of a prescientific worldview and singing ancient memories, hopes, and mysteries that contradict the 'reason of the age'" (p. xiv). While it may not realize it, the church may have all the good music (despite what Larry Norman believed). 

Brueggemann seeks to answer two questions, and with that in mind, he divides the book into two parts. In part one, he responds to the question of "Why We Sing." His answer is that "We sing because life is God-given, God-sustained. and God-claimed. Our singing is our glad assent to that God-givenness and refusal to have our lives be less than, more than, or other than that" (p. 2). In order to enter into this conversation about why we sing, he invites us to look with him at four Psalms—104, 107, 105, and 106. These are rather long psalms and, as he notes, are not generally counted among our favorites. However, they do provide a foundation for answering the question, why we sing.

The lead question then as he addresses each psalm is why we would sing each of these psalms? What is their message? As he explores these Psalms, which he is more than equipped to do—after all, he has written commentaries on the Psalms—he invites us to consider hymns and songs that reflect the message of these Psalms. The first of the four psalms is a creation hymn (Psalm 104). He writes that we "sing it in order to situate our lives amid God's creation" (p. 3). Then he moves to Psalm 107, which is a thanksgiving psalm. In his discussion here, he distinguishes between thanksgiving and praise. While hymns of praise celebrate God's sovereignty, and tend to be sung in the city-state, thanksgiving songs tend to be sung outside the city, in peasant communities. We give thanks because YHWH is good and God's "covenantal fidelity lasts forever." Psalm 105, the next hymn, serves as a credo, a recitation of the normative narrative of Israel. As he discusses this psalm he points to a hymn like "I love to tell the story" as having a similar purpose. Finally, he comes to Psalm 106, which serves as a companion to Psalm 105, only this psalm serves as a prayer of confession, that invites the one who recites it to acknowledge one’s recalcitrance in response to God.

We sing, he suggests, because the hymnal, like the Psalter is a script for our lives. Noting the manifold riches present in the hymnals, "every time we use them, we sing along with older generations who sang before us. Every time we use them, we join the large song sounded by many tribes, nations, and tongues. Every time we use them, we enter into his courts with praise and candor" (he continues in this vein, but we have the point) (p. 59). We sing because we must!

So, we as Christians, sing because the hymns provide a script our lives (and one that is subversive), but what is it we sing? What are the songs that stir the soul and inspire action? Brueggemann makes an important point as he introduces us to Part Two: What We Sing. He notes that most singing congregations probably don't pay great attention to the words. That is probably true. I know I can get lost simply in singing the song, which is why I sometimes find myself singing the wrong stanza. While this may be common place, he wants us to consider the words of the songs we sing. With that in mind, he explores a number of hymns, some well-known, some perhaps not. Some are old and some are more recent. What he does here is offer an exposition of the hymns he's chosen to highlight, with the expectation that we would do the same with other hymns we pick up. He will also critique alterations to hymns, which change meaning. He is especially tough on the New Century Hymnal. He also suggests that the Episcopal Hymnal has the most unsingable hymns. Being a prophetic preacher himself, he will pick up on those themes in hymns. He even laments the loss of a hymn to “the church’s working repertoire. The hymn he has in mind is “Once to Every Man and Nation,” which was written by James Russel Lowell in 1845 as a protest against the Mexican War and the birth of “Manifest Destiny” as an ideology. It speaks of a moral urgency, Brueggemann suggests that needs to be heard, and yet as he concludes “in a therapeutic culture cannot tolerate such moral urgency and outrage, or it cannot host such a summons. As we recover from ancient good that has become uncouth, we might well recover this hymn, which is as contemporary now as it was amide the war with Mexico” (p. 141). As the book nears its conclusion, Brueggemann offers up chapters exploring three hymns in which a sparrow figures prominently. He chose them as the sparrow is a model of faith and trust. They invite us, he believes to live accordingly. The final hymn comes from South Africa: “we are marching in the Light of God. He notes that this song was originally a folksong from the Zulu/Xhosa tribes and then reformulated by a Methodist young men’s group to protest apartheid. He comments: “The lyric is simple and repetitious because the march to justice is slow and requires constancy and solidarity, with feet moving together” (p. 171). Often, we get caught up in the tune, but it is wise to attend to the words as well as we join in song.

Brueggemann began the book with reflections on the Psalms, which in many ways are sacred songs and hymns. He concludes with a reflection on the covenantal fidelity of the psalms. He uses the phrase "covenantal fidelity" in relationship to the Hebrew word hesed. By beginning and ending with reflections on the Psalter, Brueggemann suggests that the hymnal functions in a similar way for us. It is an invitation to respond to the covenantal invitation of God. So, slow down and consider the words. 

As a hymn-singer, who can easily get caught up in the song and not think much about the words, I appreciate this reminder to slow down and ponder what we sing. Maybe that's the best reason for having hymnals. We can hold them and examine the words. Oh, and we need to remember the orientation of the writer of this book. With that prophetic mantle that always seems present, in his concluding remarks, he writes that “hymn singing is a bold act of resistance against this triple threat we face in our contemporary culture of monetization, technological fixes, instrumental reasoning” (p. 195). It is also an act of proclaiming an alternative vision to those very claims. Why do we sing? We sing, he declares “in order to acknowledge and attest that the center of our daily life is in the deep reality of faithful relationships, sacramental mystery, and thick meanings” (p. 196). If I hear him correctly, it’s time to take our hymn singing seriously. Besides, where else do people gather to sing in groups as a counter-cultural act besides church? So, let us take up our hymnals and sing boldly songs of praise, thanksgiving, confession, and proclamation, even as we recite the narrative of the people of God. In conclusion, I can only say, many thanks to Walter Brueggemann for this gift! 


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