Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"The singing turned them into love"

The Christian Century has an ongoing series of essays in which theologians are asked to explain how they have changed their minds over the course of time. Mark Noll, who is best known as a historian of Christianity, particularly North American Christianity, responded with an essay, "Deep and wide: How my mind has changed," that especially focused on how Christian fellowship, hymns, and celebration of the Lord's Supper have deepened his faith. From the section about the influence on him of hymn-singing:
Hymns did not exactly take on new meaning; rather, I began to sense more clearly why the best had been so consistently moving since at least the early adult years of self-conscious faith. Regarded simply as texts, they could offer unusually evocative communications of strong theology. But the gripping force of the hymns lay in their affect and not simply in their words alone, in the more-than-rational conviction they communicated through the combination of careful writing and effective music. It could not have been a coincidence that in these years J. S. Bach became, as he has been for so many others, a kind of fifth evangelist. Sometime in this period I was also delighted to discover that Charles Hodge, the 19th-century lion of Princeton Seminary who has been so often criticized for writing theology as an exercise in scientific biblical rationalism, suggested on several occasions that hymns and devotional writings from the far reaches of the church could construct an entirely sufficient account of the Christian faith.

A significant bonus in thinking about why the best hymns worked so powerfully at cognitive, emotional and spiritual levels lay in recognizing where these particularly gripping hymns came from. As basically a Calvinist myself, I nonetheless saw immediately that the best hymns came from many points on the Christian compass. Some were ancient (for example, Ambrose of Milan: "O splendor of God's glory bright, from light eternal bringing light"), some were contemporary (Margaret Clarkson: "He, who in creation's dawning brooded on the lifeless deep, still across our nature's darkness moves to wake our souls from sleep"). Some were heavy (Johann Herrmann: "Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended . . . I it was denied thee: I crucified thee"), some were light (Fanny Crosby: "Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save"). They came from fellow Calvinists ("I greet thee who my sure Redeemer art"), but also from the winsome and zany Count von Zinzendorf ("Jesus, thy blood and righteousness"), from Mennonites, Disciples of Christ, Catholics, Pentecostals, independents, and especially from the implacably Arminian Charles Wesley ("Arise, my soul, arise, shake off thy guilty fears, the bleeding sacrifice in my behalf appears. . . . My name is written on his hands").

Such effective hymns went deep because they communicated the core dogmas of the Nicene Creed with unusual force. Concentration on those core dogmas made them singable by believers almost everywhere; the singing turned them into love.

A further broadening effect of the great hymns took me longer to comprehend. With the help especially of Andrew Walls's account of how the once-incarnate Christ has been, as it were, incarnated afresh wherever Christianity enters a new culture, I came to see something else. While the dogmas of these hymns were universal, the music that played such a powerful part in quickening the dogma was particular. Isaac Watts's "When I survey the wondrous cross" remained fairly inert words on the page without the tune "Rockingham," by Edward Miller, or "Hamburg," by Lowell Mason. I might find singing this hymn with a rock-and-roll melody or accompanied by a five-toned Thai xylophone an intellectual curiosity, but it would not be heartfelt worship.

Over time the obvious became clear: the hymns did their great work for me as they were sung with music originating from only about 200 years of Western musical history (1650-1850). With music not from the West and with later or earlier Western music, the affect simply was not the same. Extension was the next step: if I was experiencing the universal gospel through a particular cultural expression, it followed that the same gospel could be as powerfully communicated through other cultural expressions, even if those expressions were alien or foreign to me. The experience of those who could be moved by a rock-and-roll rendition of "When I survey the wondrous cross," or by a five-toned Thai version of a similar hymn, was, in principle, just as authentic as when I sang these words set to "Rockingham." Understood in this way, the hymns were making me at the same time both a cultural relativist and a stronger Christian dogmatist. .... [more]
The Christian Century: Mark A. Noll: Deep and wide: How my mind has changed