Tuesday, 4 October 2011
Songs of Praise and the language of hymns
When I was five, my dad began his theological training at St Michael's in Wales. My mum worked full time to support him at this point and my dad was responsible for getting me to school in the morning. The college held mass before breakfast and my dad used to take me to the service every morning, after which I would have breakfast - usually boiled eggs with fingers - and would be the centre of attention before being dropped off at school before lectures and tutorials began.
I guess that this arrangement was purely for convenience given my parents' busy working lives, it is true to say though that it did have an effect upon my awareness of both religious faith and language. I loved the cadences of liturgical language long before I fully grasped their import. I remember pondering some of the words and phrases and feeling their emotional weight and wondering what they meant. I can't remember if we sang hymns at the morning prayer service, I do remember hearing hymns in church. One of my favourites was Alleluia, Sing to Jesus, a song which fascinated me with its references to us not being "orphans" and the wonderful images of God with earth as his "footstool" and heaven as his "throne" - language which brought a vivid picture to mind - as well as the songs which "swept across the crystal sea." Other concepts in this hymn completed baffled me, I had no idea what Zion was or why or how Jesus could be "both priest and victim", or what an "intercessor" was. Hymns like that do sow seeds though and I wonder if generations of churchgoers have grasped their theology from hymns as much as from sermons?
Modern hymns are sometimes criticised as being watery versions with less theology and more of a focus on emotion - the "Jesus is my boyfriend" line of thought. I am not sure this is fair, many traditional hymns are also love songs - take "How Sweet the Name of Jesus sounds" which is a declaration of passion,
"Jesus, my brother, Shepherd, Friend, My Prophet, Priest, and King;
My Lord, my Life, myWay, my End."
Each generation has to find new ways and new language with which to worship, and I love all sorts of hymns, some of them modern and others ancient, as well as sometimes hearing reflections on faith in the lyrics of secular songs (see above.)
Someone who comments on this blog told me recently about his love for the hymn "Let all Mortal Flesh keep silence" - another hymn that I love both for the wonderful music and rich language. They really don't make them like that anymore.